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10 Principles of Good Home Design (and the Ugliest Car in the World)

Richard Taylor
September 5, 2013


There’s a lot of good home design out there, and unfortunately, a lot of bad.

But when poorly designed homes are selling well, as they were in 2007 (heck, you could sell anything in 2007), it’s challenging to argue for better design.

The year 2007, however, was followed by 2008 and the famous collapse of the American housing market.

Really bad news, but it also created an opportunity for architects, home builders and homeowners to rethink how we design and build family homes in this country.

An opportunity to reconnect to the meaning of “home,” “family,” “neighborhood” and “community” in our lives.

We need to do that.

For too long we’ve built homes that have little relationship to the lifestyles they’re meant to support; that deliberately turn their backs on the world outside, and do far more to separate the occupants from their community than they do to connect them.

As the housing market continues on a long, slow recovery we have a chance to “reboot” homebuilding in America.

We have a responsibility to start designing and building the best homes we’ve ever made. Homes of character and quality, and free of the ridiculous waste of space, materials and energy in many homes today.

We need to do that, too.

American homes used to be all about character and quality design. But then we started building houses — and forgot to build homes.

Maybe that’s because we’ve been taught to think of our homes as investments first, showcases for our personal status second, and only then as homes for our families.

That’s probably why some 3,000-square-foot homes dedicate almost 10 percent of their floor area to a two-story entry foyer. Really? Is the rest of the house so well-planned that 10 percent can be wasted on one of the least-used areas?

The answer of course is no, but we’ve become so accustomed to poorly-planned homes that we often don’t recognize one when we see it.

Pontiac Aztek (Source: Wikipedia)
Pontiac Aztek (Source: Wikipedia)

Pontiac Aztek (Source: Wikipedia)

It’s the same reason that now-defunct Pontiac managed to sell 115,000 Aztecs, voted “the ugliest car in the world” by a British newspaper in 2008, and ranked as the 47th worst car of all time by Time magazine. For fans of AMC’s hit TV series “Breaking Bad,” you will immediately recognize this car as the one Walter White drove. (See homes featured in “Breaking Bad“).


Any design process (cars, homes, T-shirts, coffee makers) is usually guided by recognized values of some sort. How those values are interpreted by the designer is what makes the difference between good and bad design.

Good home design is …

1. Shaped by the individuals who live in it

This is No. 1 on my list for a reason — the primary purpose of a home is to serve the specific, individual needs of the home’s occupants, rather than the needs of a generalized house market.

2. Shaped by its environment

At first glance this would seem to be the opposite of the previous definition, but it’s not. In addition to serving its occupants, a home should recognize the influence that climate, topography, solar access, vegetation, culture, etc., can and should have on its design.

3. Recognizes and works with its context

Context and environment are similar, but in this definition, “context” means the other homes in the area. When a home fits in well with its neighbors it helps build the fabric of the community. But that doesn’t mean it has to look like the other houses in the area.

4. Uses building materials efficiently

A carefully planned home doesn’t use any more material than necessary for function and aesthetics, and uses construction systems that are appropriate for the home’s site.

5. Has visual harmony

We’ve all seen houses that just didn’t look quite right — most often that’s a result of not using principles of massing, rhythm, texture and scale to create harmony. Great-looking homes result when these principles are used with skill and imagination.

6. Is honest

Here’s what “dishonest” design means: vinyl siding that’s embossed to look like wood; asphalt shingles that have printed shadow lines to fool you into thinking they’re thick wood shakes; window shutters that don’t actually work (and wouldn’t cover the window if they did); fake columns; stucco shaped to look like stone, etc.

7. Is innovative

We started building family homes on the New England coast in the 17th century. Four hundred years later, and those original Colonial homes remain the basis for much of what’s built today. We’ve had plenty of innovation in home design since then, but too many people define innovation in terms of features and gadgets. Real home design innovation means finding new ways of meeting a homeowner’s needs through design, not just technology.

8. Is intuitive

Architects sometimes go overboard in making houses that are more “art” than “home.” Appreciated by critics, but confusing to Joe Homeowner. A good home design shouldn’t require a Ph..D to understand.

9. Is adaptable

Nothing dooms a house to obsolescence quicker than designing it for just one stage of life. A home should be able to easily adapt to a family’s changing needs, keeping families in their homes and neighborhoods longer.

10. Values quality at every level

In home design, quality always wins over quantity. Quality in materials, details, finishes, workmanship and design. Quality enriches the lives of the occupants, makes the house last longer without needing repair and contributes to the quality image of the whole community.


Not everyone cares whether a car is ugly or not. An ugly car is a small sin, since cars are only briefly a part of our day, passing by and out of our vision.

Homes however, are permanent. A house occupies a fixed place in our world, becoming an actual physical part of our communities.

How good our communities look, and how good we feel about our surroundings, is strengthened or weakened by every new home we build.

Choose to strengthen your community with good home design, and help make your neighborhood an “Aztek-free” zone.


Richard Taylor is a residential architect based in Dublin, Ohio and is a contributor to Zillow Blog.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.