Book Recommendation

marylizJune 25, 2008

Lately, I have been reading "House Thinking -- a room-by-room look at how we live" by Winifred Gallagher. I checked it out from the library. Try your own library. The book was published in 2006, so you might find it used online for a decent price.

This book's philosophy runs along the lines of the series of "Not So Big..." books by Susan Susanka. Susanka condemns the McMansions and advocates well thought out homes rather than large ones.

In "House Thinking," Gallagher outlines the history of each room in the home. This helps explain why there are certain expectations about how we should use each room. Over time, the uses of each of these rooms have shifted. I think that if a room doesn't feel quite "right," it might be that something about the room is stuck in the "old" arrangement, while we are trying to use the room in the "new" way. Just my own observation. I think that if I were to re-read the book with this question in mind, I might be able to find support for my theory.

Gallagher also writes about how we experience the home with our five senses. If something is amiss, we might not be conscious of it, but it still heavily influences our experience of the room and whether we are comfortable in it doing our chosen activity. We "feel" that something is wrong, even if we can't give a specific, logical reason. So by making the home more emotially comforting, we won't worry so much about redecorating as about having the existing furniture arranged to facilitate our activites.

By the way, I have no connection whatsoever to any of these books. I just found them very helpful.

So, as long as we're on the subject, does anyone else have a book they'd like to recommend? Why do you think we'd enjoy the book? What did you learn from the book?

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I am so intrigued by the idea of the five senses approach to solving problems with a room. Before we move on to another book, I would be interested to know what others of you think...what sense is being offended or not satisfied in a room in your house that you want to improve?
I realized immediately that I need to improve the lighting in our bedroom. My mother wants a softer carpet underfoot in hers. So there's sight and touch...
I also need the construction behind us and the renovation across the street to be finished...there's hearing!

    Bookmark   June 25, 2008 at 9:26AM
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OK, let's talk more about the first book before we move on. What is it about certain rooms that make them comfortable or uncomfortable? Or comfortable for a particular task, but not for another?

I'll start with my home office.

Sight: much better after getting rid of all the dead computers. There is suddenly less volume of stuff in this room. I'd even say it is looking a bit sparse in here. But then, if I want to add something else I do need, there'll be room. I might like a comfortable chair so that I can slow down and read something carefully.

My desktop tends to accumulate papers that either need filing or shredding. I have to keep working on that habit.

From my desk, I look north toward the chokecherry trees in the front yard. I can watch the birds and the clouds.

The room's ceiling light is above and behind my desk. On sunny days I don't need it, and on cloudy days or at night, it is too dim, and causes glare on the screen. Maybe I can change that.

Sound: I have some decent speakers hooked up to my computer. I can listen to music I burned from CDs. There is also a stereo down the hall if I want the radio.

Touch/Feeling through my skin: It is always hot and stuffy up here in the summer. Maybe I can install a fan. (Big smile!) I already figured out something that'll make this place nicer.

The main thing that would help this room is ergonomics. I get an awful pain when I've been using the mouse too much. I wonder what I can do about that. I can't keep moving the keyboard back to bring the mouse in front of me, especially when I'm working with Photoshop, which is a two-handed affair, with one hand on the mouse and the other on the keyboard.

When I rest my elbows on the desk, my back starts to slouch. The desk is too short, or my chair is too tall. But a shorter chair would mean that my legs would be squished. So maybe I do need a different desk -- one that allows height adjustment. Except that this one is very nice, made from hardwood, and given to us by hubby's dad. Where else would we put it? How else could we use it? Another thing to think about...

I notice the same "too short" problem with the kitchen counters, which are the standard 36" tall. I'm only 5'7", and only two inches taller with shoes, so why do I always feel like I'm towering over the kitchen? Maybe when we re-do the kitchen (someday...) I can have an island that is taller, so I won't bend. The rest can be low, but when I'm chopping veggies, which I do frequently, it might be nice to have everything taller.

Next person?

    Bookmark   June 27, 2008 at 9:04AM
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O.K. I'll be next and also start with my office...
Sight...My window looks onto my backyard where I see a shade tree and roses and occasionally birds. I like that about it.

The whole room though is stuffed with too much stuff. I have a nice comfortable chair that has been piled with clothes, papers, tissue box, etc. for I don't sit in it. Even if I could sit in it, the light is not good enough for reading.

My desk is also covered with papers to be filed or tossed. Even when I clear it fills up again. My filing system is not good, as I often lose things once I file them.

Touch...My chair is new and seems good for me although to reach the keyboard correctly I find myself with my feet on the base rather than on the floor. This keeps me sitting unsupported and with a straight back, so that is not necesssarily a bad thing. My chair is leather and although good for most of the year, when it is warm and I am wearing shorts my legs stick to it. I have a cloth covering the seat to avoid that.

My mouse is a roller ball Logitech, connected to the computer by a UPS port and cord. I can move it anywhere it is comfortable for me.

Sound...I tend to like the quiet but from my office I can hear my DH business shows on the TV if I do not close my door, which I don't usually do...I should start I guess.

All the clutter makes me not feel very relaxed and peaceful here.

For taste...I must admit I sometimes hide a few chocolates in my office...I don't eat them too often, but when I do...this is a yummy room!

This exercise sure shows me what I need to do about this room! I will have enough to do for a long time!

Also books on shelves and knick knacks infront of them, so I cannot even dust (if I wanted to) Same goes for desk! Dust, dust, dust...

I am sooooo glad you guys didn't decide you wanted a photo too!!!

Next person?

    Bookmark   June 27, 2008 at 11:35AM
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Maryliz, I actually went to the library and checked out this book on your recommendation, and am enjoying reading it. It reminds me (in a positive way) of how much energy I've put into my environment trying to make it work for me. Thanks for recommending it.

Sure. Since we're focusing on our home office...

Sight: We chose the biggest bedroom in our home for the office, which has two large windows on two sides. I've worked hard on improving the view outside those windows by landscaping extensively, so it feels serene and very pleasant. There's shade, blooms, and a protected place to hang my bird feeders. (I moved all the feeders one day into this one location, which made them easier to fill, and the assortment of fantastic birds that come to this spot make them seem like daily companions. The last time my sister and her dh were here, she told me how much he was enjoying the birds outside the window!) If the desk around my computer gets too cluttered with papers, I can't see the birdbath we added outside, so it's incentive to keep the desk cleaned off. (I see today that it's time to tackle that little project!) There's a large desk behind me which I decided last year to keep clear of surface clutter, so it would always be available for projects. (I took everything off the top and stashed it all into the desk drawers, only keeping those things I use there.) That clear tabletop creates serenity, and although it isn't always cleaned off, I can pick things up in five minutes or less, and dust the room in about ten minutes. I added 6 lamps around the room, in places I needed to be able to see, in addition to the ceiling fan light. Last year we painted the room a color I like, and there are pictures around my desk of my family along with the awards I've received in the past, which I see every day. By putting my office in the front of the house, I can see people when they arrive, and before they get to the front door which I like. Since it has the best views and light, it made perfect sense to focus our day-time activities in this room, and move our sleeping quarters to the back of the house where the rooms are smaller and darker.

Touch: My husband is tall and I am not, so we have a computer chair with a pneumatic gas lift; a barrel type of chair with arms and a cushion, so we can sit there for hours. It easily adjusts and makes the computer desk ''friendly'' for both of us. There are chairs around the big desk, so we have have meals here if someone is involved in a project, or we can join each other and work together in the room. There's also a reading chair, so there are plenty of places to work and relax. My mouse has a gel pad behind it so there's a place to rest my wrist. There's finally enough light (even at night) with the lamps I added to room, on which I put ''touch'' dimmers so they would be easily turned on.

Sound: The fan light has my grandmother's string of bells attached to it, so I hear them when I turn it on/off, which has pleasant memories attached. There's a cd/radio near the desk, and my old turntable is set up ready to use in the closet. (I moved the record cabinet into the room so we could still play our old vinyl on occasion.) There's a tv in the corner on my (corner) desk, which I often like to have on when I'm at the computer. The phone is there, which I mention only because I often have to use the sound of the ''locator'' when it gets carried elsewhere. (This morning I found it in the garage!)

Taste: Well, it depends! I'm having lunch in my office today on the big desk, so it happens frequently in this room. Often it's some kind of caffeine, or even a cocktail or glass of wine. I guess that would also lead to...

Smell: There's a scented candle in the room, and also a can of room spray, which I enjoy using sometimes. During the season when I can cut scented flowers from my garden, I'll put them on the big desk in the office. We have an afternoon cup of coffee that often takes place there, which is an aromatic kick.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2008 at 2:17PM
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I just returned after spending several days up at the family cottage. Having finished "House Thinking" recently, I had a look around the room with those ideas in mind.

I had always considered this room cozy. It originally had two twin size beds and two toy chests. The bed covers and window coverings were printed with a pattern that resembles a quilt, with small squares of brown, green and gold. The walls are white and the boards on the ceiling are painted with a white stain that still shows the wood grain. The carpet is the speckled brown sort that hides sand.

That is where I stay with my husband, sleeping in the beds of his childhood. One still has the sticker he put on it when he was knee-high.

When the mattresses started to give us backaches, due to the "hammock effect" of worn bed springs, I asked his parents at the breakfast table if we could put some boards beneath the mattresses.

That was my huge mistake. I should have just run out to the hardware story myself for some boards.

Instead, we got something we never asked for. My MIL, who is getting more and more manic in her increasing age, decided to get a new, queen-size bed. And for some reason I cannot comprehend, other than the compulsion to have bigger and bigger parties by fitting more and more people into her cottage, she kept the two twin-size beds. So now it is wall-to-wall beds in that room. Hardly comfortable and welcoming.

Oh, and there never has been a time when all the beds in that room have been occupied. So it is also useless to have so many beds in there.

I now refer to that room as the "bunk house." I used to open my suitcase on the floor, and use the top of a toy chest for the clothes I'd be using that day. With the current arrangement, there is nowhere to put your suitcase, except on top of one of the unused beds. If my MIL ever does get her wish and fill the room with four adult guests, suitcases will have to be stored in the hallway, and opened in the hallway. Don't even think about the snoring situation.

The dresser in there has always been stuffed full of MIL and FIL's clothes. I used to use the closet, but since this room seems to be a dumping ground, the shelves became full of old, abandoned toys that the grandkids have worn out. The hangers in the closet hold the extra life jackets that never get used, and old, dusty army jackets and rain jackets that you would never want rubbing against clean clothes.

Hardly a restful place to occupy.

If you get up in the middle of the night, best bring a flashlight, because you're bound to run your toe into something.

Oh, and the worst was that MIL got new curtains to match the new bedspread, and they allow even more light, which makes it impossible to sleep past 5:30 am, when you're supposed to be sleeping in on vacation.

After I tried to explain to her that I need darkness for sleep, she brought back one of the old curtains. I put it back up. But the two smaller ones appear to be lost. All we have are the new ones -- white and flimsy. The remaining original curtain is brown and green. A mismatch. And now that I see the white ones and the brown ones side by side, I prefer the brown ones. Why did she have to change it?

We were there for nearly a week this time. I was sick of the clutter. So I did what I could. I crammed the broken toys into one of the toy chests, and played musical chairs with the blankets that had been piled on the chest. They went onto the shelves in the closet. The life jackets went into another junk closet. It will be a while before the older generation discovers them there, and insists on putting them back into the "bunk room." which also seems to serve as a "junk room."

The next guests who will stay in that room will at least be a bit more comfortable. They'll have a place to hang their clothes, instead of draping them on the bed frames.

So, by doing a bit of moving around, I have increased the spaciousness and utility of the room as well as I could manage. I think this is a very important aesthetic consideration. Add that to the list. "Room to maneuver." Is that one considered to be in the realm of the sense of touch? Or sight?

Next time I go there, I will not have a vacation because I am going to do something about the light coming in through the curtains. I have a roll of sun block drapery liner. Instead of swimming or reading, I will be sewing, which is an OK thing, since I love to sew, and can look forward to some sleep. Oh, I have a sleep mask, but those things always slip off in the night.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2008 at 10:05AM
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I have already finished reading "House Thinking." I liked the last chapter, which is about the neighborhood that surrounds the house. I usually take notes of all the outside sources I want to investigate, but this time, I didn't. There is a section of "References and Suggested Reading." I was glad to see that when I got to the end of the book.

During the Fourth of July weekend, I read another book on a similar topic. I'd like to tell you about it.

Anyone else want to analyze a room for us? Last call!

    Bookmark   July 8, 2008 at 12:10PM
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I just wrote a review of "House Thinking" on Amazon. I thought y'all might want to read it:

"Don't get me wrong. Despite my low rating, this is a worthwhile book, because it gets one thinking. But the author never reaches a conclusion of her own, and there is no single theme to the entire book, which gives the book a rough draft sort of feeling. The author did an impressive amount of research, and brings to our attention many famous houses, and the architects and owners responsible for such interesting abodes, revealing just a tiny glimmer of the "house thinking" that went into each living environment. Even just a few carefully selected photos would have gone a long way toward illustrating the "house thinking" expressed by each example. Instead, we are left with an extensive list of books and websites -- the start of our own research, if we wish to take up the task.

This book did not hand me fully-formed ideas on a silver platter, but instead gave me insight into a way of thinking about the history of the modern home. I never realized how much the past continues to influence the present layout of rooms, and shapes our expectations about how we are supposed to use each of those rooms. There is a weak thread running through the book. The author is pointing out that we are still being influenced by the past. If we can develop a sort of psychological awareness, we might break free of the historical conventions and expectations that clash with our modern needs on an unconscious level. Sprinkled throughout the book is another thin thread: that we are being influenced in very subtle ways by the sights, sounds, smells, and other sensory input from our rooms. We might not be consciously aware of these tiny influences until we stop looking at our rooms with the eye of an interior decorator. We need to look past the surface and feel the room from an emotional perspective. Isn't it attention to detail that what makes a house into a comfortable, welcoming home anyway? This book might get you thinking in the right direction."

    Bookmark   July 9, 2008 at 9:43AM
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Maryliz, nice book review, and IMO quite accurate. I'm half way through House Thinking and I'm finding it very interesting, though a bit rambling. What struck me most was the idea of "refuge and prospect" or "nesters and perchers" -- The contrast between nooks and cubbyholes and window seats vs. large expanses and soaring ceilings is exactly what draws me to or pushes me away from certain homes or room layouts, but I could never explain it before. Now I understand why I like my office so much, it's a refuge (tiny and tucked behind a half-wall in my kitchen) in relation to the soaring ceiling in the rest of the kitchen.

All in all a very good book to start you thinking. I'm already trying to figure out a way to add a window seat to my bedroom to make it even more of a retreat. Thanks for suggesting this book!

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 5:35AM
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Warning: rant ahead!
I am so glad to hear about this sort of thinking (although the writer in me cringes at the lost opportunity of this book, as you describe it..).
One of my biggest peeves in modern life is the trend toward house design by builders who patch together a bunch of popular features with insufficient understanding of the principles of architecture that have been developed over centuries. Those principles teach us to ask all the right questions before we put pencil to paper in designing or redesigning a house. And collectively, we have ourselves to blame, when we demand a bunch of features that are familiar, or that we think are the best things to want, and when we decide that it is cheaper not to spend money on a good architect who knows how to respond to the way we want to live now.
We can also blame some of the schools of architecture, who teach young architects that they don't have to listen to their clients. Which sours the rest of us on using one.

There...I feel much better now!

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 9:42AM
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We can also blame some of the schools of architecture, who teach young architects that they don't have to listen to their clients. Which sours the rest of us on using one.

Exactly! Most architects don't have a clue, and sadly I have firsthand knowledge of this after dealing with several. We fired the first one we hired when it was clear they didn't get it, and had to guide the second one through the process to the point it became very clear we would have to design our own space. The second architect we hired (who was Much Better than the first!) wanted us to move our stairway from the basement (made from cement and stone) and cut into half our backyard. He completely ignored the pond we spent five years building with sweat equity, for the sake of his drawing. Even after I had pointed out my frustration with the old Kitchen As Pathway, he drew a doorway on the plan next to the range, thereby creating the same problem. He suggested I tear down the ''outside'' stone wall of my home, which I determined should become my ''inside'' range backsplash. (Never mind tearing out the wall would have put the bathroom door in my kitchen.) D*MN the budget! Let's be impractical! OMG...Save me From The Architect. (OK, my rant's over.) They need to be people who actually DO the living in their homes; cooking, cleaning, laundry, reading, feeding the dog/cat and putting away holiday decorations. Most are only technicians in the process who don't really know how most people move through their homes in their daily activities. (I don't quite understand how they manage to be so removed that that process.) I finally realized to get the home I wanted, I would have to become my own ''expert'', and guide the architect the entire way. I believe this is why Sarah Susanka's books have been so successful; she addresses the issues of our homes in a practical way, yet we understand the emotional components of why they work as well.

During the house-hunting process, we bumped into many homes designed by architects, which we knew instantly as soon as we walked in the door. (Enough Said.)

Maryliz, good book review. It was an interesting read and I appreciated the recommendation.

Bronwynsmom, I agree with you completely about Maryliz's suggestion of the theme being a ''lost opportunity''. I was left wanting more.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 12:46PM
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