Interior “scale” is the height or volume of a space as it relates to the size of the occupants (us humans). An example of a building with huge scale is the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It creates a dramatic impression on those who visit its interior, but it can make a person feel dwarfed by its magnificence and its size. On the opposite end of the spectrum would be a small cabin in the woods. Low ceilings, small rooms, trees outside all the windows, it feels cozy (especially with a nice fire going). But for many, living in such a space would start to feel claustrophobic after a while. Follow along as we explore interior scale and how to take it into account during the design of a home.
I don’t claim to be an expert on what the correct scale is for a home. Heck, I’m an engineer, not an architect. But I can observe what I see before my eyes, and interpret how it makes me feel, just as anybody can. And different people will have varying reactions to interior scale, so that there is no single right answer. The intro picture at the top is a Napa Modern Farmhouse with what I might call “medium scale”. The dining table shown directly above is a gorgeous barn-style building with a rather large scale. Imagine yourself living in these two spaces. How would they make you feel? For a short time, for a longer time, day-in and day-out?
Let’s examine two more cases. Above is another small scale space, a dining room in a very old house. Picture yourself at this table with a group of close friends. A great meal has been polished off and everyone is just hanging out, drinking wine, chatting and laughing into the night. Contrast this to the room below, a large scale space. Imagine the same group of people under the same circumstances. Does it feel different? In a good way? Not as good?
Another round? Well sure. Examine the two spaces below, the first is small scale, the second is large scale. Let’s regroup on the other side…
Consider the large scale dining room just above, when you walk your friends into that space their jaws will hit the floor right? Very impressive. The small scale space in the first picture, maybe not so much. It depends on your friends, some would love it to be sure. But ask yourself, are you designing your house to make first impressions? Or are you more interested how it feels to be living in it, and sharing quality time with your friends. To be sure, both philosophies can be accomplished within the two spaces above, but in different ways, one has to admit. Is one better than the other? It just depends.
One more pair of spaces:
The first space is small scale, the second is large scale. But wait, really? We’re now in sort of a grey area. Neither of these rooms reads as particularly large, or particularly small. They are in between, or maybe they incorporate elements of both philosophies? The first picture shows a living/dining area with relatively tall ceilings. This allows for large windows to take in the Napa vineyard views. But the unfinished wood ceiling and beams give a sense of warmth, so that the space is still cozy. The second picture shows a dining room in Austin, which is actually quite small in floor area. But a sense of grandeur is created by the tall ceiling height (relative to the size of the room).
I would now like to focus on a particular style of large scale space. This is exemplified in the picture below:
Now that is a lot of volume. The living room furniture seems quite small compared to the space above it. The walls are two stories tall, and then the steep roof pitch creates another large space above that. Some will love a room like this, because it is “light and airy”, others might feel a bit dwarfed. As an engineer there is one thing I can predict with confidence; this space will suffer from very poor acoustics. This is due to physics, such large dimensions will create long times between emitted sound and reflected sound, which creates distortion and makes it hard to understand speech, from others, or from a TV.
Here is the same room from a different angle. It does not seem quite as voluminous from this perspective. Note, however, that the living area is open to the bedroom area upstairs via the “catwalk” along the second floor. For a family with children this might be desirable, as they will always be closely coupled even if the parents are downstairs and the children are upstairs. It’s just good to keep in mind that from an acoustic point of view it will be more difficult to get a private feeling, either upstairs or downstairs.
Here are a few more photos of spaces with either large interior scale or small interior scale. Flip through them and see what impressions they make. Which ones appeal to you?
My personal feelings about interior scale are still evolving. Over time I find myself gravitating more and more towards smaller spaces. Dominique and I recently moved into a very small house in Paso Robles, CA. The move is temporary, a place to live as we plan and build our Venice Rd Farmhouse. So we thought we could grin and bear it, living in a 750 sq ft (!) house. But now that we’ve been here for a while we find that we actually love it! Notwithstanding space for storage (you can never have enough storage) it is really not bad at all, and in fact quite cozy. If you need to get something from another part of the house, it’s never far away. The kitchen could have more counter space, but the adjacent dining “nook” is fabulous, as long as you limit your guests to 3 people.
The experience of living in a small house had an impact on our design for the Venice House. We purposefully held back a bit on ceiling heights, from what we might have done otherwise. And we stopped worrying as much about the size of certain rooms. It will be a single story house, so giant volumes are not really possible. We will semi-vault the ceilings in the kitchen/family room the master bedroom and one additional bedroom. The so-called “plate-height” (where the walls end and the ceiling begins) will be at 10 feet. High enough to allow for good sized windows and doors, but still a reasonable scale.
Conclusion – if you have the chance to design your own house, or even if you are shopping for a new existing home, take time to consider how the interior spaces will feel when living in the home over time. We would argue that there is such a thing as enough light, and enough volume. More is not always better.