Scale and Proportion – The Architect’s Domain

Bob Borson —  August 1, 2013 — 14 Comments

I think that size, scale, and proportion are where a good architect makes their living. There are all sorts of devices that have been developed to help designers determine how best to guide them in their creations … the Golden Section, the Modular, the Canons of Proportion, on and on.

Leonardo da Vinci - The Vitruvian Man

The Vitruvian Man is a drawing created by Leonardo da Vinci during the Renaissance based on the work of the architect Vitruvius. The drawing is based on the correlations of ideal human proportions with geometry described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in Book III of his treatise ‘De Architectura. Vitruvius described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the Classical orders of architecture.

Le Corbusier - The Modular Man

Swiss born French Architect Le Corbusier developed the Modulor – an anthropomorphic scale of proportions – in the long tradition of Vitruvius and Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, to discover mathematical proportions in the human body and then to use that knowledge to improve both the appearance and function of architecture. The system is based on a number of variables including: human measurements, the double unit, the Fibonacci numbers, and the golden ratio.

So why am I telling this? Because I didn’t use any of these methods when I design my playhouses but without proper scale and proportion, these playhouses would suffer. Sounds a bit melodramatic but if I had to share my secret as to why I think my playhouses look so good is because I spend A LOT of time getting the scale and proportions right. This frequently means that I don’t use stock parts and it tends to make the life of my builder a bit more problematic.

Rather than simply walk you through the construction of my playhouse design, I thought it would be interesting to include some additional information about why I designed my playhouse the way I did and how I modified standard off-the-shelf products to get the scale correct – at least as I see it.

Birdhouse drawings Front Elevation design by Dallas Architect Bob Borson

So this is where it all started – the design. Actually it didn’t start here, this was the redesign after I drew up the first one and thought the scale and proportions were wrong. (You can see the original version here). I think that despite not using a formalize device for determining scale and proportions, my experience and instinct told me that what I had originally drawn wasn’t right and as a result, I started over to get this design in place.

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The Bird Playhouse framing complete

BufordHawthorne Homebuilders have built a playhouse for me every single year since I’ve started designing these playhouses and it has been a terrific relationship. They get what I am trying to do, the same guys work on these playhouses every year, and they consistently demonstrate ownership and sound decision-making throughout the break-neck speed at which these playhouses get built. The picture above represents what they got built in one day! I couldn’t even get over there fast enough to capture the beginning of the construction process.

The Bird Playhouse wrapped in building paper

This is the Bird Playhouse – it’s supposed to evoke the look like the classic birdhouse, the sort of birdhouse that comes to mind when you think “birdhouse”. The construction is pressure treated 2×6’s for the deck frame, 5/4″ x 6″ redwood boards for the deck itself, 2×4 stick construction for most of the playhouse itself, Medium Density Overlay (or MDO) for the smooth trim work you see above. Tying my description back into the scale and proportion theme, I spent a good chunk of time sizing the round opening, locating its distance above the perch – even the size of the perch itself. It would have been a lot easier to simply use 2×4’s and wrap them in 3/4″ material, but it would have been too large, the proportion wrong. As a result, I had the 2×4’s cut down 1 3/4″ so that the sizing “looked” appropriate.

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MDO trim boards used for exposed roof framing

This is looking up at the underside of the exposed roof supports (known professionally as “rafters”). The outermost one is the MDO that I mentioned previously but all the internal rafters are plain old generic southern yellow pine 1×4’s. I have used this double rafter look previously – I think the scale is better using the thinner 1x material and I’ve cut the ends of the rafters at an angle so they are thinner as you get closer to the edge – it reduces some of the visual weight of the roof.

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The Bird Playhouse prepared to receive James Hardie Siding

For the siding, I went with an off the shelf product, James Hardie ‘HardieShingle‘ Siding. What you see in the picture above is the HardieShingle® Straight Edge Panel. These panels are 15.25″ tall but on this little playhouse, that would have been way to big. In my construction drawings, I called for the spacing to be set so that only 5″ of the shingle was to be exposed. It required extra product but if I hadn’t made that decision, there would be 25% fewer rows if I installed them with the recommended 7″ exposure.

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The Bird Playhouse with siding from James Hardie

In this picture, you can see that I inserted two rows of the HardieShingle® Half-Round Notched Panel. I wanted to break up the massing of the elevation and thought that changing the shingle type would accomplish that goal. For added visual interest, I decided to break up the elevation a bit further by painting the half-round panels an accent color. All of this was done to modify the perceived scale of the playhouse – it’s small but I didn’t want it to look miniaturized.

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A closeup look at the James Hardie Half-Round Notched Panel

Close up look at the HardieShingle® Half-Round Notched Panel. And my shoes.

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Rear view of the Bird Playhouse with the doors closed

This is the rear elevation. The original design had a single door on the front elevation but once I decided that the door really needed to go on the back, it seemed obvious to me that the single door design wasn’t any good. I went with a pair of doors and asked the contractors to build the doors custom so that they could match the slope of the roof and minimize the impact these doors would have on the elevation.

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The interior of the Bird Playhouse

Here is the inside of the playhouse – awesome right? Okay, I’ll admit it’s a little practical – but that’s on purpose. It may not seem like much fun but I have always worried that my playhouses – any playhouses – would be loved and played in by happy children for two weeks before they moved on to the “next new thing”. Rather than shrug my shoulders, I try to design all my playhouses so they have a purpose beyond those first few weeks. There is a light inside this playhouse, a desk, plenty of work space, you could even use it as a storage shed. I could imagine this playhouse in my backyard, I would have two chairs siting on the deck, my wife and I would have our “lemonades” resting comfortably on the perch as we watched our daughter running around catching fireflies.

For me, when I design, there’s always an internal narrative taking place.

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The Bird Playhouse - almost finished

Almost done, everything’s been painted per the original construction documents … but after studying this picture, I decided that the round opening into the bird playhouse needed to be painted the accent blue.

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Rear view of the Bird Playhouse with the doors closed

The final look at the painted rear elevation. I included this picture because I wanted to point out the visually minimal solution to the door hardware. You can just see a little black blob on the right hand door in the picture above. Since both of these doors can be opened at the same time, there is a piece of metal (called a “cane bolt”) on the left-hand door that slides into the deck to hold that door closed. There is a second cane bolt on the right-hand side that slides into the left-hand door … much cleaner than a generic gate latch.

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Rear view of the Bird Playhouse with the doors open

Close up detail of the Bird Playhouse designed by Dallas Architect Bob Borson

Bird Playhouse designed by Dallas Architect Bob Borson

I took this picture on the morning that the playhouse was scheduled to be delivered. You can see that the trim to the opening has now been painted the accent blue – much better in my opinion. I also included this picture because I found it amusing to see 8 construction workers who were on hand to manually pick this playhouse up and set it on the trailer for delivery. When I told them that they could win this playhouse with a $5 raffle ticket, they thought I was kidding. Nope. $5 and this playhouse could be yours.

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Bird Playhouse designed by Dallas Architect Bob Borson in NorthPark Mall

These playhouses are on display in the nicest mall in Dallas – which if you’ve ever experienced the shopping culture of Dallas, you’ll understand just how nice this mall actually is. Once the contractor delivered the playhouse to the mall, the highly skilled folks at the mall take over and expertly locate all the playhouses throughout the mall. Sounds easy enough right? …

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Bird Playhouse designed by Dallas Architect Bob Borson in NorthPark Mall

Wrong! Navigating these playhouses through the mall where there are obstacles EVERYWHERE takes time, skill and patience. If I didn’t already know how good these guys are, seeing them lift my playhouse up in the air as he’s driving the forklift backwards down a ramp might have made me a little nervous.

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Bird Playhouse designed by Dallas Architect Bob Borson

And the here is my Bird Playhouse siting in its second to last resting place, the last place will be some lucky person’s backyard.

I thought I would wrap up this longer than anticipated post with some cost information. Nobody is making any money on this playhouse. BufordHawthorne Homebuilders pays for everything out-of-pocket – they are the real heroes here because without them there is no Bird Playhouse. Most of the subcontractors they use to build this playhouse donate their supervision but the actual workers get paid their normal hourly rate. The breakdown is:

Frame/Trim Materials = $2,486

Roof/Material and Labor = $300

Carpenter = $1,770

Misc. Materials (hinges, cane bolts, switch, lights, etc.) = $88

Paint Material and Labor = $800

Grand Total = $5,444

All things considered, this is one heck of a bargain, especially since you can get this playhouse for the cost of a venti coffee at Starbucks and you’ll be helping out an abused kid who deserves better than what they got. I said it before, architects have a skill set that lends itself to charity, and I can guarantee you that this will be the best thing I design all year.

Cheers,

Bob signature

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even better

  • TennTex

    Just spending the last few minutes of my day go-doodling and landed on your post …having lived in Dallas and enjoyed the many diversions…especially the annual playhouses event…this brought many happy recollections and a smile or two reading your ‘essay’…love being semi-retired in Tennessee…but I do miss the North Park Mall experience…thanks for the happiness!

  • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

    Small world indeed!

    I would be happy to include the drawings. I’ll follow up with you via email

  • http://www.sdarch.com/ Jeff Winney

    What a wonderful project! That would look amazing in any child’s (or adult’s) backyard or garden. I would love to have something like that with a matching small birdhouse hanging off it. Great job, Bob. Keep up the inspiring work!

  • Thanh Ho Phuong

    Great design Bob ! It’s the effort in working with scale and proportion that make this playhouse look lovable from the first time people see it. We can save the picture then stretch it to see the difference
    Love the color of sky for a birdhouse :) This playhouse will surely gives the wings to children’s imagination.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Thanh – I appreciate the comment

  • archiwiz

    I love the colors!

    But I’m a little confused with the end of the rafter. How come it’s tapered outwards?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      maybe I don’t understand your comment but the roof rafter is tapered up as it heads towards the edge of the roof. Since the top is attached to the plywood substrate, that edge can’t change without creating a fold in the roof. The only other option is to bring the bottom edge up.

      Hope that helps. Cheers

  • Robert R. Machado

    Really a great post Bob! Your birdhouse
    is awesome. I particularly like the care taken to keep scale in
    proportion with the scope of the project!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Robert – it’s taken a few times to really find my groove but I think I’m in the sweet spot!

      Cheers

  • Robert Moore

    Ditto on the great job!
    I didn’t see architectural fee listed in the cost. Do architect’s work for free? I know a lot of people who think so.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      The architectural fees for my playhouses (and all the playhouses in the competition) are donated for the cause. I don’t have a problem charging people for my time when appropriate, but I donate my time to this cause because I feel it’s the right thing to do and I have a skill set that lends itself quite well to their need.

      Thanks Robert – I appreciate you taking time to leave a comment. Cheers

      • Robert Moore

        As well we should.

  • Paul Gerber

    Great job Mr. Borson! Thoughtful design exemplified throughout! I’d let you design my playhouse any day. Not my house though…ONLY for the simple reason that working in the field of architorture I could never afford to actually build the AWESOME house that I’m sure we could collaborate on. (I’m actually starting to wonder if I could afford the playhouse LOL)

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      You and me both! I will be buying some raffle tickets and yes, I will be putting as many as my daughter will let me into my own playhouse … I obviously like it!