Alternative Design


In the west, most people tend to regard Feng Shui design principles as either very complicated and esoteric, a bunch of superstitious malarkey, or they disregard it entirely without even attempting to understand anything about it.  Many people wish life was so simple that it could be easily influenced by how they position their sofa, or the color of paint they select for their bedroom as the philosophy might suggest.   As a designer, I first came across Feng Shui as a student in architecture school and read several articles on it, but I didn’t pursue it in depth until much later in my career.  I have to admit that my initial impression of some of the principles did strike me as rather strange and I did think it bordered on the edge of superstition in the same way that a rabbit’s foot is supposed to bring good luck.  As a matter of fact, a lot of the Feng Shui principles dealt with the subject of luck and energy,  and I wasn’t initially prepared to absorb any superstitious nonsense into my architectural studies at that time.  So for a long time all I managed to know about Feng Shui was just a cursory, referential knowledge and I left it at that.

However, as I progressed through the different design classes in my degree program, I became aware of the impact that spaces have on the human condition and how people relate to their spatial surroundings, and the world in general, through their five senses.  I learned that color, for example, has a definite influence on human psychology, and there were reasons why prison cells were not painted barn red or hospital rooms painted black or grey. As I learned more about the influences of color and fragrance and sound and texture on people in their living environments, I decided to revisit the Feng Shui philosophy and finally determine if any of it made sense with regard to residential design.  I soon learned that people throughout China regard Feng Shui with high regard and hardly any building is done without first consulting a Feng Shui practicianer to determine the yin and yang influences.  As I was to find out, not only did it make a lot of sense in terms of energy flow and balance, but it opened up a whole new perspective to me on oriental design principles and offered an explanation and reason why and how certain design elements impact the human condition.  I still haven’t accepted a lot of the philosophy, but I maintain an open “western” mind and try to understand the meaning and implications of most of the ancient science as best as I am able.  I have learned that Feng Shui is several thousand years old and involves the concept of “Chi”, or vital energy, which is a foreign concept to most westerners.  By contrast, it is very intrinsic to the eastern mentality and influences not only home design, but entire lifestyle and career choices throughout the Asia population.   Because it has such a profound influence on a large segment of the human population, I  therefore concluded it was something that I needed to incorporate into my own design philosophy at a deeper level than just cursory.


This is a traditional Hindu architectural system from India which literally means “science of architecture”.  It comes from ancient texts that describes architectural principles of design, spatial geometry, space arrangement and connectivity, measurements, proportion, layout, and ground preparation. Vastu is the scientific study of directions, primarily using the natural energies that are available for the benefit of humans by creating equilibrium between materials and mankind.  Equilibrium in nature is more a function of moving, kinetic energy rather than static bodies.  Magnetic waves, for example, flow between the North Pole and South Pole, and it is believed that achieving a balanced position to this energy helps people achieve a better quality of life by avoiding calamities, accidents, diseases, etc.  This science evolved from ancient times by learned men of the past and deals with electromagnetic fields, sun angles, wind, and similar natural energy forces that impact mankind.  Basically this field of study is based upon the five elements of nature in relation to the human condition and involves: the sun, air, earth, water, and sky (solar system).  The natural energies which are available in the atmosphere include: cosmic, light, wind, thermal, magnetic, electric, sky, earth, lunar, and solar energies, all of which influence the quality of human life on this planet.


 Japanese homes are usually small and close to the home next door, in both rural and urban settings, and a minority of the population is able to own their own home.  Those fortunate to design and own their home prefer to incorporate several key features of traditional Japanese residential design to ensure privacy, protection from the weather, natural light, and contact with nature despite the size and location of the house.  These features include a step-up entryway (genkan)  where shoes are exchanged for slippers, a room with a straw matting (tatami) floor, an alcove (tokonoma), a soaking tub (furo), gated entries, walled property boundaries,  tiled curved hip roofs with broad eaves, optimal north-south siting, exterior hallways and porch area (engawa), traditional flower arrangements (ikebana), sliding doors (Shoji screens) with louvers and plaster slotted windows (mushiko mado), stained wood on ceilings and exposed beams, a multipurpose room with moveable furniture, and access to the outdoors which may include a small Koy pond with a water fountain, a zen garden with stepping stones and raked pea gravel, or possibly a low arched foot bridge crossing over a dry stream.  There are many adaptations to these traditional features that can be mixed and matched to make small spaces feel large while using natural earth tones and accents.


Frank Lloyd Wright, the master American architect with the uniquely individual style and vision,  gave us a rich legacy of so many classic design features and techniques that have been copied and used so often in modern home design, that they have now almost become mainstream.  He first gained prominence with his Prairie Style architecture which used low pitched roofs with large overhanging eaves, a central masonry chimney, an open interior floor plan with few hallways, corner window arrangements, cantilevered roofs and balconies, and horizontal lines.   From there he developed the Textile architecture style with even more linear horizontal lines using custom masonry work with Mayan influences.  Wright is best known for his Organic Architecture which was based upon natural resources combined with the influence of Japanese architecture that was in harmony with humanity and the environment.  Wright’s architectural philosophy stood for clean lines, simplicity, and buildings that complemented the environment and blended into their natural surroundings.  Their form followed their function and his buildings were never built on a hill, but rather as a part of the hill.  His most famous house, Falling Water, best exemplified his organic style by merging the house with  a natural waterfall in a lush green forest landscape.

Wright also paid close attention to traffic patterns and how people moved through his buildings with maximum efficiency.  He incorporated natural lighting through custom windows and slotted openings.  He used high exterior masonry walls at property boundaries to secure privacy.  Wright said the value of a building is not the building itself, but the space within the building and the surroundings.