Mechthild Stuhlmacher on the design of homes

Designing domesticity

‘Architecture of the exterior seems to have interested architects of the avant-garde at the expense of architecture of the interior. As if a house were to be conceived for the pleasure of the eye rather than for the well-being of the inhabitants.’ (Eileen Gray, quoted by J. Pallasmaa in The Eyes of the Skin)

Designing homes is about making good spaces. It is about homeliness, about a sense of space. About the things we see, and especially the things we do not see. Most architects are likely to agree that the design of good spaces is one of an architect’s core tasks. Strangely enough, there is little discussion about it. Even at the Delft University of Technology, still the place where most architects in the Netherlands are educated, spatial quality or even warmth, feeling at home and domesticity in general are hardly ever a subject of research and conversation. Maybe the spatial quality of a good home is something that Aldo van Eyck would call ‘contraband’. Something that is absolutely essential and part of the very responsibility of the architect, but something he cannot or should not speak about. 

Goeree Fireplace

There are few texts addressing spatiality and the way we design and perceive spaces that can serve as design instructions. It seems difficult to find a specific language that captures the essence of the theme of spatiality and yet does not affect the poetry present in any good space. The texts and sketches of Christopher Alexander form an exception. I have the impression that Alexander, forty years ago, seemed to know exactly what we apparently reinvented many years later. In his respectable but also despised and at times a bit pathetic A Pattern Language we find design lessons that are still surprisingly useful. We consciously and subconsciously follow those rules with each design, such as the description of the importance of different ceiling heights and ‘light from two sides’. It is only when we look at Alexander’s own design work that his propositions feel awkwardly traditionalist. However, his precise recommendations offer plenty of room for (contemporary) interpretation and lend them validity beyond the style.

Spatiality and proportions

Spatial quality plays a central role in our work both as architects and as educators. With each project, we try to develop rules to guide us in our work, even though this often means that we return to previous findings after various reversals. In our view, spatial quality is a matter of careful observation and the critical and precise application of personal experiences. It is about tangible things, like material, colour and light, and about things that are less evident but still a matter of design, like atmosphere and intimacy. Probably the most important of these less graspable aspects is the search for the appropriate proportions. 

While proportions in the past centuries were central to architecture, current publications and education seem to pay very little attention to the subject. However, this does not mean that proportions in contemporary projects are no longer essential to the quality of spaces. Some particularly good modern homes prove this. Well-considered proportions are almost physically palpable. The Wittgenstein House in Vienna, for instance, with its blank walls and austere materiality, is a house whose design seems to be only about proportions. It is a house in which tall people like me enjoy wandering around the rooms, backs straight, proudly feeling even taller than they really are. My visit there made a lasting impression on me that I recall even many years later. Another house for tall people (and others) is Marie José van Hee’s house in Ghent, a stately hall with medieval dignity and a wonderful garden next to it. In pictures, the rooms in the house appear serene, distant and silent; but in real life the atmosphere is inviting, homely and warm, due to the use of material, the light from different sides, the height differences of the ceilings and the deliberately low-positioned horizon that gives a pleasant and calm scale to the space. Even photographs make it tempting to sit down at the long table, to look at the dark timber beams on the ceiling above or the slightly lower veranda next to you, at the rhythm of the light, the woody concrete and the flower pots outside in the garden. Or I think of Charles Moore’s most personal fragment of his famous architectural work at Sea Ranch, a projecting bay window floating above the pounding surf of the Pacific Ocean. The bay window literally hangs on the high, complex and colourful living space Moore designed for himself in 1965 as part of the now-famous Condominium II building. The narrow space has a very low ceiling and is fully occupied by a wide corner bench. As a result, the bench becomes a space in itself, a place to fall asleep, leaning against the dusty rough wood, to wake up in the shelter of the view in the morning. On one unforgettable occasion in 2013 I was lucky enough to spend two nights there.

Sea Ranch Voor Forum

Sea Ranch, Charles Moore's own house in Condominium I, California 1968

De Kamers

One special occasion for us as architects to investigate the issues of domesticity and spatial relationships was an unusual but beautiful design commission. It was not a house to live in but a public ‘house for culture’, a social meeting place in the new neighbourhood of Vathorst near Amersfoort. The most significant space of the project was a public ‘living room’; the clients wanted to create a homey place in a neighbourhood (still) without soul, history or centre. The Vathorst residential area, newly built within the space of a few years, offered very few clues for the design. In a residential area with many artificially varied facades but without homeliness (yet), the name of our culture house, ‘De Kamers’ (‘the rooms’), became our main source of inspiration. We started to design from the inside out. After all, a room, more than a house, is an interior, a living environment. The interior was therefore central to our considerations; the facade was silent, of minor significance. The term ‘room’ evokes numerous associations and images related to security and intimacy. Over the centuries, artists like Antonello da Messina, Vilhelm Hammershøi and many others managed to translate these notions into images picturing the room as a place from which we can experience the world around us. The Australian architect Glenn Murcutt summarises this essential quality every house should have with the two notions ‘prospect and refuge’ – the house as a protective stage. 

Kamers 04 Web Mensenwerk

De Kamers (The Rooms); public living room, Amersfoort 2007

For us, a room is a quiet space. It is the background and framework for the life that happens inside. A good room arranges, condenses, encloses. A good room is a place of residence that is perceived primarily when sitting and lying. From a low perspective, the ceiling plays an important role, and therefore its height, and the transition between wall and ceiling, more than the floor. Floors are often experienced barefoot, making their textures and temperature as important as their colour and patterns. A good room has more than one window that looks outward.

After an exploratory design process, the ‘De Kamers’ culture house eventually got its final form as an informal composition of multiple cube-shaped volumes. In each volume there are one or two spaces of different sizes that can be used in a variety of ways. The most important discovery we made was the diagonal relationships that make the perception of a room a three-dimensional experience.

The same materials and colours are used throughout the building. The walls and ceilings made of softwood are structural and shape the rooms without additional layers; only the floors are covered with grey linoleum. Due to the consistency of colour and material, the different spatial relationships determine the character of the spaces in a clearly tangible way.  The ‘living room’ in ‘De Kamers’ became the room with the most homely character in the building, a rather large space with a square plan, a relatively low ceiling and a sitting pit. 

Goeree Living Room

Country House Goeree, 2013, just before moving in


The most important design ideas we developed at that time return in various elaborations in many of our later homes: wooden walls and a wooden ceiling, a deliberate balance between the expressiveness of a natural material such as wood and ‘immaterial’ colour planes for floors and furniture, solidly framed, large windows and sliding doors, mostly horizontal window shapes, solid corners, daylight from various sides, built-in corner benches and a wood burning stove.

In accordance with Christopher Alexander’s instructions, we pay particular attention to the determination of pleasant and characteristic proportions in the houses we design. We like to work with different ceiling heights and floor level differences. 

Goeree Window

Country House Goeree, framed view, living room, 2013


For one of our most spatially rewarding commissions so far, a big weekend and holiday home near the Dutch coast, we had to create a rather big space for a large family with many guests with an intimate and homely character. Like ‘De Kamers’ and some of our previous houses, we used solid wood (CLT) panels without additional interior finishes. Walls, ceilings and roofs were smoothly sanded and treated with a transparent varnish, leaving the texture and the colour of the wood visible. Due to the conversation pit-like floor, the timber ceilings, the wide and heavy sliding windows and the wood stove, the living space is related to the ‘living room’ in Vathorst. Whereas in ‘De Kamers’ all rooms have different proportions, the house has been designed as one continuous space divided by varying floor levels and ceiling heights in different areas.


The interior of the house is designed as part of the architecture. Abstract wardrobes and smooth floors provide the intended balance between material expression and refinement. The built-in benches provide space for the utilities and contribute to the sense of security, one of the most important qualities of the house. The house is built as a place to celebrate and unwind with family and friends. It works. The people who stay there confirm this, from the very young to the very old. They subconsciously talk a bit softer than in other places, and usually leave after a short stay with a feeling of having spent a long holiday. This has of course to do with the beautiful spot next to the dunes and the hospitality of the residents. But it also relates to the spatial character and the material with its special features, all of which are physically palpable: its warmth, its texture, its peacefulness and its gravity, the light and the colours, the proportions. Nature comes close, can be touched, inside as well as outside.

Machelen Corridor Wheelchair

Care Centre Home Parkhof Machelen, photograph Maurice Tjon, June 2017

Living and care

We are convinced that in the future, the concept of domesticity will play an increasingly important social role. In our view, the design of ‘homely’ residential environments for people whose well-being largely depends on spatial quality but who are no longer capable of shaping it themselves is certainly one of the most urgent design issues of the moment. We therefore started to use our experience with houses for the design and the research of homes and rooms for care, especially for the elderly, with and without dementia. 

Aj Schreuderschool Stairs

interior A.J.Schreuderschool- inspiring yet low on stimuli

After the assignment for a school for children with a mental disability, the A.J.Schreuderschool in Rotterdam, the assignment for the design of a residential care centre near Brussels was an important opportunity to put this ambition into practice.

We started the design process with the conviction that the interior of the building deserves the same attention to domesticity as our houses. The priorities of healthcare institutions, however, are usually practically motivated; this is a world determined by budget, conventions, and hygiene requirements. Nevertheless, within certain limits, care institutions are keen to apply certain stereotyped attributes of homeliness to some of their rooms, using projections, prints and other references. The question is how many of these merely visual effects reach the residents or clients as their eyesight usually deteriorates and perception, at an advanced age and with diminishing cognitive abilities, becomes increasingly sensory. 

Due to the sheer size of the care centre we designed, stacking two and three floors on top of each other was inevitable. As a result, it was virtually impossible to design spaces with different ceiling heights, or to use (structural) timber and all the other design ingredients we usually embrace. We had to adapt our design principles to a completely different reality. With very limited means at our disposal we had to achieve the desired domestic character. On top of that, we had to deal with a building that largely depends on choices made by others and the daily routine of the people working in the institution. In order to contribute to a sense of homeliness as much as possible, we set ourselves achievable goals, and passionately defended the use of real wood instead of wood prints, the use of old furniture alongside the inevitable project furniture and the application of a balanced colour scheme and carefully selected wallpaper.


Machelen Garden Flowers

Care Centre Home Parkhof Machelen, photograph Maurice Tjon, June 2017, before completion

The most definite step we were able to take was linking domesticity, the experience of nature and the stimulation of social contact. The new care centre therefore includes a public square with a terrace on one side and opens on the other sides to the park around it. The nature elements inside the building are even more important. A large enclosed garden plays, literally and figuratively, a central role in the design, surrounded by a gallery, which hopefully will evoke similar associations as Marie José’s veranda in Ghent. To provide more attention and budget to the garden we defined both planting and programming as a work of art. In cooperation with a nature-loving artist, the garden was designed as a green, recreational and social space, formally subdivided into various flower and vegetable beds to be used and maintained by people from the surrounding village as allotment and school gardens. The choice of plants and additional elements such as a stone fountain and several rough timber fences refer to scenes familiar to the residents. The work in the garden brings different generations together, producing vegetables, fruit and flowers to harvest and providing sensory wealth. 


Machelen Garden Column Tree

Care Centre Home Parkhof Machelen, photograph Maurice Tjon, June 2017, before completion

Fortunately, medical science has undertaken sufficient research to prove that a living environment with a view to nature generally has a positive effect on the well-being of people. We therefore have strong arguments for a garden as we like to see it, with birdhouses, schoolchildren and chickens. For the moment, however, it seems that too little research has been done about the possible positive effects of true spatial quality, daylight, colour and a solid and healthy materiality. We would love to have scientific arguments that support our architectural instincts and that are powerful enough to break the prevailing conventions of the interior of healthcare institutions. The only thing we know for sure is that very old and demented people perceive the world with other senses than with their eyes. We therefore assume that they are likely to feel better in an environment that truly radiates security and homeliness and does not merely look like it superficially. But as long as there is no scientific proof of that, cleaning a room will weigh heavier than a sense of space.


As architects, we think we know what good spaces are and what they mean, to ourselves and to our clients. We have a clear idea about ideal spaces and acknowledge that our ideas about the character of a care environment differ very little from our ideas about good homes for ourselves. But how can we ever entice people in the care sector to enter the spatial world of Wittgenstein, Van Hee, Moore, Alexander, Messina, Hammershøi or Murcutt? Or our own design world consisting of nature, timber and closed corners? And would we really be doing them a favour if we could?  

Machelen Therapy Garden

A visit to my mother-in-law, who just moved into a brand-new nursing home, puzzles me. The new building consists of three stacked flat floors and many smooth white walls. The interior space here is formed by the consistent distance between the vinyl flooring and the suspended ceiling. Walls and doors are lined with wood prints in many shades of beige, occasionally interrupted by a trendy, tiny balcony with a balustrade made of coloured glass. I hide my unease as well as I can. My mother-in-law is mild in her judgment, except for the unusable balcony that colours her bedroom with an inescapable purple. She seriously listens to my story about the school garden I envision as the centre of a building for her generation. She would love to have such a thing in her surroundings, especially because of the presence of children. But where she lives no one reserved space for a garden. And there are no schoolchildren anywhere near.

0000 Presentatie Diemen Met Marlous

school-garden and care center combined- simple experiment and dream

What does she like about her own building? She mentions the view from her room, which I certainly did not notice as being positive – on the contrary. In the past few weeks she has spent her time observing a large building complex being demolished and gradually being rebuilt, a daily spectacle with many actors. She desires life around her; she wants to see young faces, wants to participate, even as a spectator. Moving slowly through the long hallway to her room with her walker costs time and effort. But with a warm smile, the old lady points to the photographic wallpaper that shows portraits of different people in traditional costumes – ‘oh, so beautiful’. The surprisingly sharply illustrated clear eyes of a young girl look straight at us, more than life-size, from the wall.