Why Context Matters When Designing a Home

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The best homes, beneath their furnishings and paint colors and finishes (or, in the best cases, intertwined with them), have an undeniable sense of place. This is something Gil Schafer, the Yale-educated architect behind GP Schafer Architect, understands deeply: Every project he takes on begins with a deep exploration of its history, context, and purpose.



a chair sitting in front of a window: Architect Gil Schafer looks to context,including location, history, and memory, to give the homes he designs a sense of place.


© Eric Piasecki
Architect Gil Schafer looks to context,including location, history, and memory, to give the homes he designs a sense of place.

“Every building you design is going to have a context, and how you respond to that context is going to determine what that building looks and feels like,” says Schafer. But this doesn’t just mean a plot of land on a street surrounded by Tudor homes must house another Tudor home—to Schafer, the study of context goes much deeper than that.

“When we start a project, the very first thing we need to do is to see the site,” Schafer tells House Beautiful. “That’s probably the most important thing—whether that’s an old house that’s going to be renovated or a piece of land that your client has acquired. And then the next most important thing is to get to know the clients themselves, to understand how they like to live—if there are kids in the house or they’re empty nesters, whether they’re formal or they’re informal; all these things affect how you’re going to think about the design of the house.”

Understanding this fully allows Schafer to create homes that suit their inhabitants and their surroundings. To do so, he considers three main types of context. And whether you’re designing a new home from scratch—or just considering how to set the tone in your existing one, these lessons can apply as much to a new paint selection as to a full construction project.

Site context

“The site of course has a huge influence on the way you’re going to develop a project,” Schafer says. “If it’s a new house on a piece of land, for example, is the land sloping, is it flat? Does it have a beautiful view? Is there some natural feature that’s going to impact the way you design? If it’s in a neighborhood, what are the houses on either side or behind or in front?”

“All these things are really key to understand in order to respond with a design that makes sense on that piece of land and also takes advantage of the natural qualities that are there and the reason that a client fell in love with the property in the first place.”

In some cases, the site might dictate certain hurdles—but, with the right approach, Schafer says, these can become positive design elements. By way of example, Schafer recalls a recent project in which the house had to be set into a hillside, requiring a visible stone foundation, which he decided to make out of local stone—an element that ended up reappearing in outbuilding on the property. “So that all unfolded in a really interesting way because of the site.”



a room with a wooden floor: The hallway of a Maine home designed by Schafer.


© Eric Piasecki
The hallway of a Maine home designed by Schafer.

Historical context

Schafer’s firm is well known both for their restoration work on historic homes as well as their deft ability to create what looks to be a historic home in a new build. This is thanks to a sensitive approach to historic features and a willingness to reimagine them in ways suited to modern-day living.

“Our approach is always to try to learn the language of what that house is or was, and then to do whatever we do to that house in a way that feels seamless with the original,” says the architect.

And what if your home doesn’t have an existing historical context? Well, in Schafer’s case, you invent it: “Sometimes when we’re working on a new house, there isn’t a strong context to respond to in a way that is meaningful for the design,” he explains. “And in those cases, I sometimes try to develop a kind of narrative for the house.”

As the architect explained during a speech to the ICAA this year, “When you’re starting from scratch on a raw piece of land, the historic or traditional context may not be so obvious, and thus research into the history of a place is always part of our process. And sometimes I have even found it necessary to create a little back story—a historical mythology—for a new house, in terms of how its architectural character came to be, and perhaps to explain how it might have grown and evolved over time.”

Of course, the way a house used to be won’t always align with the lifestyles it must hold in the present, but Schafer always recommends designing for modern life in a way that pays homage to the past—it will give the home a deeper sense of place.

Memory

Alongside the creative invention Schafer references, there’s another way to channel the story of a home that doesn’t require historic plans or a perfect lot—the most elusive (but, indeed, perhaps the most viscerally impactful) of the kinds of context the architect explores: memory.

“This is the more mysterious one” Schafer says. “It really ties to a client’s memories of either old houses, of a way of living, of that piece of land, anything that connects to a kind of emotional realm. So it brings an emotional element into a design, which is a little funny for an architect to talk about, but I think it’s actually very important.”

This might mean drawing in elements from a place the homeowner visited and loved, framing a view of a favorite part of the yard, or incorporating a specific design feature—”say, a garden, or a bay window”—that they had growing up.

“All these things are really important and really worth exploring because they create that really powerful, emotional connection that makes a house feel like a home, not just a piece of architecture.”

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