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Sightlines make a huge impact

by Steve McKee on May 2, 2004

Men, have you ever used a urinal where you are on display as soon as the door to the restroom is opened? Great piece of design, that. (Does sarcasm work in a newspaper?) Women, how about that restroom where you feel private as you work on your makeup, only to realize the mirror is reflecting everyone’s view in at you from the door after all?

It’s about sightlines. They can be used for good as well as evil. They cost nothing and their impact is big. An example of a good sightline could include the long diagonal view across your family room out the picture window and through the yard to that nice corner of the garden. Get some nice landscape lighting in that garden and you’ve hit a homerun. These sightlines are not that obvious to the uninitiated when considering a design in the early phases, especially with so many other things to focus on. But there they are, very easily studied on paper, just by using a straight edge to see what is cut off by walls and doors and what isn’t.

An important sightline to consider is the view from the hall through the master bedroom into the master bathroom. You should be able to stand at your bathroom sink in your altogether and even move about freely in the buff without any threat that you will be seen from the hallway if the bedroom door is opened. The bathroom should be your realm to be comfortable and carefree. If you can also get visual privacy while traveling between the bathroom and closet, so much the better. And, in this modern age of sizable master bathrooms, another sightline to avoid is the view from a sink (or mirror) directly into the toilet room.

A real clunker occurs when guests can see your kitchen sink (complete with dirty dishes) from the front door or entry area. I ought to know, because I did this to myself in the design of my own home. I can only attribute this to a rookie mistake that I’ve never made since, all to the benefit of every client I’ve had since 1989.

Another one that I try avoiding (unless clients direct me to not worry about it) is the view of the family television from the front entry. Even if you don’t mind sharing your viewing habits with visitors, I think I would find it somewhat distracting to have a visitor glancing over my shoulder to check out some flashy image on the tube instead of focusing on my witty comments. On the other hand, you may really want to see the TV from the kitchen. This is done so that the poor soul laboring to provide the meals for the others can watch the news, or avoid missing the good parts of the movie, or at least not feel a sense of loss as uproarious laughter erupts from the family room due to some sight gag on a TV just out of view. There are little kitchen televisions available, but isn’t it simpler and less noisy to not have to introduce a second TV? If, like some, you would be very happy to not see the tube from the kitchen, well that’s just fine. Just make sure you’re in control of whatever outcome you desire.

I personally think it’s not half bad if you get a little taste of the family room or great room from the entry, as long as that’s all it is, a little taste. A small slot of a view of this space can evoke a sense of much more to come if the guest is invited further into the family realm. This glimpse into the vitality of the house can be done without compromising privacy if done well.

A good sightline to consider is the effect of a series of portals or arches in a row. The effect of two or three arches all aligned and uniformly spaced, either at opposite ends of major rooms, or maybe occurring more intimately in a wide hallway, can be stunning. Grand buildings do this all the time, but it can be done in private residences at very little expense and seem not at all pompous, but rather totally cool. “Enfilade” is the technical word for these aligned arches (originating from a Napolean era military tactic) and, by the way, you’ll go your whole life and never be expected to hear or use this word ever again.

Good sightline: Being in a hallway and getting to see out a window, even if only a slot of a view seen through an open door at hallway’s end through a bedroom and out a window. This sure beats the alternative, the closed-in hall. If you can’t get this, do an art niche in the end wall of the hall. Good: You gave the water view in the master bath to the soaking tub, but you can still enjoy it from your vanity because of the big mirror over your sink reflecting it behind you. Bad: Seeing into a bedroom from the family room (or from any other room other than a hallway, for that matter.)

Bad: Looking from the hallway into the powder room and seeing the toilet. Good: Looking from this same hallway into the powder room and seeing the vanity or pedestal sink (because it signals to guests that this is a bathroom, but in a more demure way.)

There are also vertical sightlines to be considered, such as whether or not you will see the top of the hills across the Carquinez straights, and even some sky above, when you look out the window from back deep in the Family Room, or do we have to set the windows a little higher than standard to achieve this? Many a house misses on this one. Being able to look up and out of a house at a view, or maybe just up into trees, or even just up and into sky and clouds is something that every house should have, and it costs nothing to accomplish, just an awareness of how to do it. Also, since we’re on the subject of vertical sightlines, will the neighbor have a view of you in through your bathroom window, and is this cured if we just set the window higher on the wall?

How to achieve a home with “sightline sensitivity”? Step one might be this: Don’t have your house or addition designed by your general contractor just to save a few bucks. Step two: Take a little time early in the design process to lay a straight edge (such as a simple ruler) through rooms and along view corridors to see what is visible or not from certain vantage points. Don’t forget to consider the ricochet of the view in mirrors. Do this early enough in the design while things are still fluid and “moldable” and changes are easily made. If you wait till the end then it can be too late.

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