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Joining the Culture Club

You may think of the current approach to home design as “modern,” but many of today’s most sought-after layout configurations actually spring from time-honored multicultural philosophies.

Written by Donna Peak



 Parties can easily flow from the open kitchen, living and dining areas out onto the screened  porch via this retractable glass wall. 

 Photo courtesy of New Energy Works | Photo by Scott Hemenway


Expansive wrap-around porches. Mudrooms. Attached in-law suites and detached accessory dwelling units. These features are the hallmark of classic North American log and timber-framed homes. But what you may not realize is that each one of them has deep roots in a host of other countries and cultures. 
Michael Grant is a principal at Modern Rustic Homes, a Georgia-based design/build firm specializing in mountain-modern homes, and has firsthand experience blending cultural ideologies. Having married into a Latino family, his experience is not just professional, but personal too. With the opportunity to work with clients from around the globe, he’s been lucky to glean a variety of perspectives when it comes to homes’ architectural design and layout livability. 
“We are rethinking how we live, and we’re pulling in these cultural influences — particularly in regards to family culture,” says Michael. “People from various countries of origin outside the United States have interesting ideas about how their houses should function, and I’ve been lucky to learn from them.”
Where can we see evidence of this multicultural impact? Let’s look at a handful of design elements that we now think of as “standard,” and see where they all began (plus, where they can go!). 

Wrap-around porches and decks. 

There’s no better way to expand the living space of a log or timber home than by adding wrap-around porches. They are a natural and economical extension of the interior, and when coupled with disappearing window walls or even oversized sliders, actually eradicate the lines between indoors and out and provide a transition from public spaces to private.
While you might assume these porches are a quintessentially American concept, according to Michael, their origins can be traced to ancient Japan.
“In Japanese culture, they’re called ‘engawa,’ and their intention is to capture nature and bring it inside,” shares Michael. True engawa is a narrow strip of stylized, matted decking, often comprised of bamboo, that seems to float around the perimeter of the building. Plants — or views to greenery, like a courtyard — are integral to their design. Sliding, translucent-paper screens, called “shoji,” provide access to the rooms inside when open, and, when closed, they permit filtered light to illuminate the spaces — essentially the same concept as our current approach to wrap-around porches and decks.


One of Michael’s recent clients is a couple originating from England. They have a primary home in Austin, Texas, but they’re building a cabin in Georgia. What Michael finds most interesting about their project is the scale of what they want. “They like small spaces. They want their home to be cozy but highly organized,” he explains.
“What we now call a ‘mudroom,’ the British refer to as a ‘side entrance,’ and homes in this part of the world have incorporated them into dwellings for eons,” Michael continues. “For this particular couple, that side entrance had to have dedicated spots for coats, shoes, hats and other items you’d deposit in this drop zone.”
Michael was impressed with the importance these buyers placed on this area of the layout and how careful they were about the amount of space they dedicated to it. Clearly, there’s no room too small or insignificant to deserve our full attention.

In-Law Suites and Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs).

For millennia, cultures around the globe have embraced multi-generational households. In fact, the idea that kids “leave the nest” in their early 20s is fairly unique to the United States. In other nations, particularly Mexico, China and countries in the Middle East, it’s not unusual for a home to house at least two, if not three or even four, generations.
On a recent trip to Egypt, Michael noticed something unusual about the housing there. Buildings seemed to be unfinished, with concrete posts jutting out from what would otherwise be the roofline, so he asked his tour guide about it. “He said, ‘They do that intentionally so that when the next family member gets married, they build their living quarters right on top,’” Michael relays, though admits this is not an approach we’re likely to adopt in the U.S. However, the concept of keeping several generations of family on the same property, if not in the same house, is experiencing a resurgence, taking the form of in-law suites (part of the main home) or accessory dwelling units or ADUs (separate, independent structures on the same property).
If fact, Michael is in the midst of this process, himself. He and his wife are exploring the next steps for their family, and these discussions include sharing a house with their daughter and son-in-law.
“This comes from my wife’s side of the family,” Michael explains. “While she didn’t share a house with her grandparents, they were within a block of each other. Many of her friends did grow up with several generations under one roof. There is this connection to family that’s very important in Hispanic culture.”
“Often Hispanic residences will have what’s called a ‘casita,’ which is a small detached or semi-detached structure with everything required for self-sufficiency, including a kitchen,” continues Michael.
This kitchen is not typically a place where you’d prepare full meals — the entire extended family take those together in the main home — but it is equipped well enough to supplement the family member(s) who live in those quarters. 
Casitas are the genesis of the ADU trend. Still used to house aging parents or young-adult children, the possibilities for ADUs have expanded to home offices and even rental income.
“There are a lot reasons other cultures put everyone together under one roof — or at least on the same property,” says Michael. “It was done for protection, practicality, endearment and economy … we’d gotten away from these ideals for a while, but now we are headed back that direction.”
Much like the melting pot that America is, log and timber floor plans bring together the best design ideas other cultures have to offer.  When done right, you can travel the world without ever leaving home.


See Also: Home by Extension

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