A manuscrpt of the Vitruvian principles of architecture that help inspire custom-home design

The 2,000-year-old secret to great custom-home design

Through my long career in construction and custom-home design, I’ve learned timeless lessons about the importance of functionality, the value of quality materials and craftsmanship, and how a well-planned home can create a sense of satisfaction for homeowners.

Each of these factors are critical and each must be perfectly balanced. These are qualities great architectural designers naturally respect and gravitate toward.

I’d been practicing this holistic, balanced approach to custom-home design and home-remodeling design for a long time before I learned that these basic principles were formulated over two thousand years ago.

Ancient principles of residential design

The Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, born around 80 B.C., wrote the first books on architectural standards and quality. Vitruvius determined all well-built buildings have three conditions: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas.

These Latin words have been translated in different ways, but the versions that stuck with me are:

  1. Commodity (sometimes translated as utility or usefulness): The spaces provided are adequate and appropriate for their intended use. The structure is well thought out and functional.
  2. Firmness (sometimes translated as strength or durable): The ability of a building to stand the test of time. This may seem obvious, but it can’t be taken for granted. The strength of the building and its furnishings must be intentionally planned. Everything must be built well and installed correctly. Other builders may choose to build cheaper and faster while meeting the bare minimum engineering requirements. But a house built for the bare minimum is not going to last as long. It may be considered legally sound and safe, according to building codes, but that doesn’t mean the walls aren’t going to crack and the roof won’t leak and fixtures won’t break after little use. Great home designs have long-lasting results.
  3. Delight (or beauty): The elevated sense of pleasure when you’re in the space. Good design does that. It sets the mood. It has a sense of enjoyment to it. Delight isn’t just about the finished surfaces, like paint color and upholstery selections. It’s the overall “aha” feeling when you walk into the room. The structure as well as placement of pieces, colors, and textures all work together to create an experience.

How math relates to architecture – and life itself

Photo credit Doug.Williams – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Vitruvius went even deeper into this idea. He viewed these things in relation to how the world was created – and every living creature on Earth. He saw geometry everywhere. Everything in creation seems to work mathematically, and math does not change.

This philosophy helped inspire the famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci called “The Vitruvian Man” that demonstrates the relationship between man and design through geometry.

Discovering why great home design works

The concepts of firmitas, utilitas, and venustas are not something I was formally taught as a young builder and designer. But they are the three conditions I’ve intuitively understood as the keys to proper residential design. These factors explain why the most successful home designs work. Over time, through studying building design and overseeing many builds, these qualities became second nature to me.

But these are not simply a guidebook of principles anyone can follow. These are not boxes to check off during the home-design and remodeling process. They must be ingrained in your mind throughout every stage. When making all the decisions that go into a design, you must always weigh this philosophy on every question and answer you come across.

At the surface, these three qualities seem rather obvious, “It has to be the right size, be built well, and look good.”

That’s easy to say. But pulling all the pieces together, with all the decisions that need to be made, takes lots of skill and experience.

And you may face challenges along the way:

  • Sometimes existing conditions get in the way. The plot of land may prove difficult to work with, or there could be shortages of ideal materials and fixtures.
  • There could be a difference in opinion between the client and the designer.
  • Neighborhood association rules can limit choices.

The better designers work through those details to find the right solutions.

Beauty is not enough

Homeowners generally focus on the details they can see and feel – things that delight.

But everything must be balanced: Commodity, firmness, and delight. No single factor can dominate the others, or the entire design will suffer. Every detail, every material selection, every color affects the details around it. We also want proper transitions and flow from one detail to the next.

For example, a poor design may include a feature that is built well but there’s no room for this feature so the space feels cramped and difficult to navigate. Or something may be useful but ugly. Or a piece could be beautiful and well built, but it’s not placed in the optimal location, so it becomes underutilized.

You have to undertake very complex, in-depth analysis to make these three factors work together. It takes many years of experience to pull off high-level design with this type of balance. I strive to provide that quality of design to my clients.

Are you ready to begin the custom-home design or remodeling design process? It all begins with a free consultation. We can meet at our office in Springfield, Missouri, at your home, or through video conference.

Keystone Creative is an award-winning residential design firm, specializing in whole-house transformations and new-home designs. The team reimagines kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, living rooms, and even laundry rooms to fulfill homeowners’ dreams and increase the value of homes. Keystone Creative can handle the entire process, from the initial concept and detailed blueprints, to interior design and material selection, to construction and quality control management.

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