Dec. 31, 2020

Entry Magic II


Hospitality all the way to the street

Many homes built in suburbs and tracts for the last century were designed not by architects but by developers and builders. Many of these homes were “spec” homes – that is, homes built on speculation by the developer for later sale. (Contrasted of course with site-specific custom designs.) These homes had to meet two criteria: first, they had to appeal to the broadest demographic possible without too many idiosyncratic characteristics that might turn off a potential buyer and second, they were built as inexpensively as possible. In the drive to reduce costs, many aspects of owner hospitality were reduced or eliminated. Elements such as broad sheltering porches and wide welcoming walkways from the driveway or street to the front door were left out of their designs. This resulted in houses with little awning-like overhangs at the front door and narrow walkways to the house. What was sacrificed in this drive for cost reduction was any sense of creating a gracious and welcoming arrival transition space. (See Entry Magic 1).

Lets talk about the narrow entry walk first. Many of these walks were less than three feet wide – some as narrow as 18 inches and composed of simply finished concrete. This saved the builder a lot of money but doomed generations of future owners and guests to walking single file to the home’s entry. (I used to tell my students that this was a home defense strategy: attackers had to approach in single file making it easier for the homeowner to defend the front door!) But how wide should an entry walk be? And what’s wrong with an efficient straight line to the front door?
For starters, the average human is about 24 inches wide. When we add in any dimensional leeway for that human’s side-to-side sway while walking or imagine them carrying a diaper bag, a child on their hip, a brief case, or grocery bags, suddenly that typical 18” walkway is too narrow by far. And what if it’s a couple approaching the house – or better yet, a couple with children in tow, diaper bags, groceries, etc.? Then, an 18” or even 36” is too narrow. Two people side by side with sway space and distance for accouterments are closer to six feet wide. If we add some dimensional space for gracious comfort, it’s conceivable that an entry walk could be closer to eight feet wide. Can a walkway be too wide? Yes, absolutely! Once the walkway exceeds eight feet in width it begins to look more like a vehicular driveway rather than a pedestrian walkway. No one wants their guests driving right up to the front door! Doesn't an eight foot wide walkway cost a lot more? Yes. But can you put a price on gracious hospitality? How do you want your guests to feel about coming to your home?

There’s also the issue of design “fit”. Does a small single story bungalow warrant the kind of entry walk you might see on huge mansion? No. But even the owners of a single story bungalow should want to be gracious hosts. So my suggestion for a gracious entry walkway minimum width is five feet and the maximum width is eight feet.

Next, as for walks that go to the front door in a straight line. I’d suggest that it depends on a couple of things. First is the architectural style. A crisp modern minimalist design can fit in a straight walkway approach while an 18th century English cottage can use a curvilinear walkway. Second, how much space is there between the driveway or street and the front door? A straight walk that exceeds more than 20 feet is oppressively long. That length of journey should be broken up into manageable chunks to make it seem like less of a trek. Lastly, does the house entry itself provide sufficient transition space? Is there a porch or landing on the outside and a welcoming foyer on the inside? If not, there may be a need to increase the strength of the transition space on the outside by introducing a few more entry prepositions. (See Entry Magic 1). This is where making a change of direction in that straight shot to the door the proper design strategy. Make the walk turn a corner or curve to the side.

Lastly, a word about materials for entry walkways. In North America, asphalt always reads as vehicular in character whereas concrete reads most often as pedestrian. Brick always reads as pedestrian because the scale of each brick is a hand width. Stone likewise reads as pedestrian in character. Gravel or other softer materials such as sand or bark are problematic for a couple of reasons: it is sometimes unstable underneath pointed heels and will often cling to shoes and be tracked into the house where it can scratch and mar interior floor finishes. Do you live in a region where snow is common in the winter or where ice can form on a walkway? In that case, opt for a surface that is easy for snow removal. Will any of your guests ever be elderly? Then opt for a surface that doesn’t have any trip hazards but is still rough enough to also provide some traction. Do you live in an area with lots of rain i.e. will your walkway often be wet? In that instance, don’t choose materials that will be too slippery when wet such as tile, polished stone or terrazzo, or a natural material like wood which can grow moss or algae and become slippery.