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Interior vs. Exterior: a Blurred Line

Blurring the boundary between interior and exterior has been a popular design choice for successful architects for many years now. There are many products that allow a user to completely open up a wall so that the interior rooms essentially become part of the patio space. La Cantina doors ( are a prime example of one of these products. With their multi-panel folding and sliding door systems, they can easily blur the line between inside and outside to create a singular space for inhabitants to enjoy a beautiful day at home.

Architecture by Five9 Design Inc., Scott Thurber


The above image (courtesy of La Cantina Doors) presents a beautifully designed space, anchored by a fireplace and flanked by large sliding doors that open the room to natural ventilation and atmosphere.

While this level of design may create a pleasant home, there is still a very distinct border delineating between natural space and conditioned space, between inside and out, between nature and man. In the above image, note how all the finish materials change at the precise point of the door threshold. The ceiling turns from gypsum board to wood soffit planks. The floor changes from a natural wood finish to a completely different wood decking. Despite the large glass door, the energy inside feels completely different than the energy outside. This distinct separation will always segregate the spaces and the whole will never be fully harmonious.

Have you ever been inside a house and wondered what the outside looked like? Probably not as often as you've been outside a house and wondered what the inside looks like. The exterior of a house exists in dramatically different conditions than the interior, so it has become normal for the two spaces to be designed differently. The outside may have shingle roofs, lap siding, and stone accents to combat the elements, while the interior may have plaster walls, wood floors, and granite surfaces catering toward human touch. So often do these spaces utilize completely different palettes - for functional reasons, of course - but this is the nature of the inherent divorce between inside and out.

As the great architect Louis Sullivan famously stated (and others famously perverted) "form follows function". Since the exterior of a building serves a different purpose than the interior, should they be different? Why should there be a harmony between outside and in? Why should people inside a building have a sense for the outside of the building, and vise versa?

What is so easy to forget about Sullivan's famous (or perhaps infamous) phrase, is that he saw aesthetics and beauty as a critical function of a building. If an entrance is beautiful, then won't people want to use it? When confronted with the choice of entering a building through a large revolving door or an adjacent swinging door, I'd bet most people would opt for the revolving door. Revolving doors are fun, they are interesting, they are a special experience. On a functional level, revolving doors are much more environmentally friendly than swing doors, however kids don't know that ... and they want to go around and around and around inside them.

Sullivan Center northwest entrance in Chicago, Illinois designed by Louis Sullivan in 1899


So why are we, as architects, so intent on eliminating the architectural impact of our buildings as soon as users enter into them? Why do we design a building with our exterior palette, only to automatically switch to our interior palette the moment we pass the threshold? If we want to truly blend the interior and the exterior to create harmonious architecture, both inside and out, designers need to look past larger doors and windows and start blending the palettes.

One case study that utilizes this idea of interior/exterior harmonization is the Dorsey house on Bainbridge Island, WA by Coates Design Architects. The house was designed as an interpretation of the client's unique personality - tough and strong first impression, warm and friendly once you get to know him.

Dorsey house front view: Dorsey house rear view:

The house has a very clear primary palette of concrete (street frontage) and wood (rear). What makes this house important as a holistic architectural gesture is how these two materials are continued as finish surfaces inside the house as well.

The interior concrete walls are not covered up, but rather they are accentuated (and even celebrated) with wood texture forms. While the interior concrete is a continuation of the exterior material, the wood on the exterior feels as though it is a continuation of the interior cabinets and floor finishes. In this way, the external and internal compositions are reflections of each other and create a harmonious overall architectural gesture.

Notice how the exterior palette of wood and concrete is unabashedly reflected in the interior palette.

Louis Sullivan's idea of form follows function can be truly embodied when the function of the house is to create a holistic architectural interpretation as specific as reflecting a client's personality. While this may seem like an unconventional design challenge, it turns out to be what makes this a truly interesting piece of architecture.

While the function of a house is to provide shelter, the function of a home is to enrich a person's life and promote happiness.

One final note, while working on this blog, I visited a relative's family cabin on Whidbey Island, WA. I was struck by how they utilized this concept in a very practical and effective way. They placed shingles on the wall around the fireplace to reflect the house's shingled exterior skin.

While I was enjoying this space I realized that this simple (and cost effective) design choice seemed to draw the summer energy of playing in the beautiful water-front yard into the house. If form follows function, the function of this house is to make the family feel like they are in their comfortable vacation home, away from the stresses of everyday life. Whether enjoying the summer cocktails outside or breaking bread indoors, it is these details that make this house a home.

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