What makes a house comfortable? It's not just the furniture
Originally published by Sonoma West Publishers in Homes & Lifestyles, Fall 2010
When you think of comfort in your home you might think about a comfortable chair in your TV room or in front of the fireplace or a sunny spot at your favorite table where you like to sit and look out of the window. These types of physical comforts are easy to describe but there is also that feeling of emotional comfort that is harder to describe but you know it when you see it. There are some houses that you feel comfortable being in and some that you just don’t feel relaxed in. You can’t always put your finger on what makes the difference, but here are some ideas.
It often starts with a well designed heating system. All rooms in the house are the same temperature, and you are not aware of the heater or the air conditioner running. There is no sensation of hot or cold air blowing over your skin. You do not experience a noisy blast of hot air when the heater kicks on and then goes off after only a short while only to come back on as the air in the house quickly cools down and the thermostat calls for heat.
It is a fact that our bodies experience heat that is radiating from a surface as warmer that the same temperature of hot air blowing over our skin. We are more comfortable in a home on a cold day when the surfaces in the home are allowed to heat up and radiate the heat back into the rooms and on to our bodies. A well designed heating system will be smaller but will run for longer periods of time before shutting off, giving the room surfaces enough time to warm up. And finally, in a well designed heating system the supply and return air flows are balanced so that there are no areas of pressure differential. If you have been in a home where doors swing open or shut when the heater comes on or where the sound of the air moving through the filter in the cold air return grill is very loud, you have experienced pressure differentials that often contribute to a sense of discomfort.
A well sealed building envelope is another important but often overlooked contributor to comfort in our homes. Pressure imbalances caused by hot air rising or by strong winds can cause dirty air from the attic or the crawl space to be sucked into the house
Insulation, by itself, cannot stop the heated air from escaping the house or cold dirty air entering. Not only does this result in poor air quality in the house but a poorly sealed building envelope wastes energy as well because air that has been heated by the furnace leaks out of the house, only to be replaced by cold outside air leaking in.
Dirty or moisture laden air from the crawlspace or the attic leaking into a poorly sealed home may be responsible for bad odors, chronic allergies or other health problems.
We all know that a well insulated home will be more comfortable. But what exactly makes a home well insulated. Insulation stops heat from being transmitted through the floor, walls or roof of a home. In the winter the heated air in the home stays inside and in the summer, hot outside air stays outside. But insulation only functions correctly when it is installed correctly and when it is combined with proper air sealing. Insulation, by itself, cannot stop heated air from leaving the house or cold air from entering.
Natural light makes an interior space feel better. All rooms should have a source of natural light whenever possible and preferably from two sides. In A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander, a well known architect from Berkeley says that “When they have a choice, people will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are lit only from one side unused and empty.” In most houses, though, with only one window wall in each room, you don’t have much of a choice.
If a room does not have an exterior wall, a window on an interior wall will introduce natural light into the room. Rooms with windows on the south side let in the most sun light and provide the greatest opportunity for free solar heating. But we have to be careful with window locations. Too much glass on the south or west sides of a house without appropriate shading can cause a house to overheat and too much glass on the north side can be responsible for too much heat loss on cold days. The best way to temper the heat gain from large windows is with thermal mass on interior surfaces. Mass functions as a thermal flywheel, by absorbing excess heat and holding it until the room temperature drops and then the heat is released back into the room. Thermal mass combined with south facing glass is the basis of a passive solar design and can be as simple as a hard material like concrete or tile on the floor or walls or simply an extra layer of sheetrock on the walls and ceilings.
And then there are those other more esoteric contributors to comfort in our homes.
Transparency through a house creates a comfortable feeling. You may notice that if you walk into a home where a wall in front of you is blocking your view through the house or to the outside, it creates a slightly uncomfortable feeling. The preference for a room with windows on two sides may have something to do with this; but that long view through the house to the outside, especially a view from just inside the front door all the way through the windows on the back wall, gives you that comfortable sense of being sheltered without being confined.
Room proportions play an important role in making a space feel comfortable.
A room with a low, flat ceiling feels cramped and a small room with a very high ceiling also feels uncomfortably unbalanced.
But, a room with low walls at the edges with a ceiling that vaults up toward the middle tends to make you feel good again because you feel secure and contained.
A room in which the perimeter walls are low enough so that you can touch the point at which the sloping ceiling intersects with the walls above your head creates a sense of being sheltered. Alexander describes the feeling of being sheltered. He says, “The whole feeling of shelter comes from the fact that the roof surrounds people at the same time that it covers them.”
Long, dark hallways are never very comfortable spaces in a house. Allow for circulation toward more private rooms like bedrooms or bathrooms to happen tangentially through the more public rooms like living, family or dining rooms rather than by long narrow hallways. If hallways cannot be avoided make them as short and as wide as possible with windows. A wider hallway along an exterior wall also makes a great place for long, floor to ceiling bookshelves.
The days are gone where kitchens were strictly utilitarian spaces for cooking, isolated from the rest of the house. The kitchen now is almost always the center of the public spaces in a house and so it needs to be a very comfortable room to be in if you are cooking or near if you are keeping the cook company.
A big farmhouse kitchen or a kitchen as part of a great room arrangement allows family members or visitors a place to sit comfortably with whoever is cooking and also creates a place for informal meals on a kitchen island or a table in or near the kitchen. Most people report that when they have visitors in their home, everyone will gather around the kitchen regardless of how well designed the adjacent spaces are. So why not create a comfortable area in and near the kitchen that blends the cooking work area with the sitting dining area.
These are just a few of the many technical and architectural factors that can contribute to making a home more livable. It is interesting that we so frequently learn to live with an uncomfortable home. Often what it takes to make a home more comfortable is not that difficult or expensive and it only makes sense to make the place where we spend most of our time as comfortable as possible.