We need to talk about levels

I have been pondering recently on a repeating theme in my schemes: level change.

A split level scheme sketch. Note the window above the flat roof to pull light in to the interior of the house. Not clear enough? Call me.

By which I mean the step up or down in level, less than a stair, and probably more than one step – a conscious change of height within a single storey.  They are cropping up in nearly all my schemes at present.

This is a consequence of practising architecture in a hilly area: very few homes are built on level ground. I suppose I could be designing homes in the Netherlands, or the deserts of Colorado, but I love the undulations of the West Country, so I’m happy to work with the curves rather than against. But why does it seem unusual?

It seems odd because most houses are built as if what was happening outside is of no relevance to the interior. This applies to the sun pattern, the view, the relationship to the street, and, seemingly at another conceptual level, (ho ho) the height of the ground around the house. So we are used to houses that give us uninterrupted floor planes. We are used to back doors that open on to steps down to a garden, and front doors effectively buried in the ground, or at the top of a flight of steps.

This happens because for most developments, introducing split levels in homes is just far too much like hard work.  To expect level changes to be accommodated inside developers standard house forms is to expect too much. Time spent modifying standard types and details is profit lost.  It is much easier and a LOT more profitable to ignore the character of the site and plonk their boxes down with no regard for height relationships around and between the houses, as if the plan was all that counted, and sections and elevational analysis were mere indulgences (for the record, they are not – if anything the section as a representation is more communicative than the plan because the two dimensions it shows are understandable in relationship to human form and proportion). Sometimes that works –  San Francisco, Ilfracombe, many places feature terraces running up and down hills and are marvellous for it.

But, as with all aspects of good architecture, it is so very important to work with the site rather than against. Sometimes we have to alter aspects of it, perhaps to block a view or a cold prevailing wind, but when I see a building that steps comfortably, up or down with the land it sits upon, I know the architect is thinking holistically, and the design will be richer.

The level change is a wonderful device. It can separate spaces without building walls. It can introduce progression and hierarchy – making an internal space special, protected, a place to settle. In two of my recent schemes we have used the split level to create areas above that are separated from the lower and give a clear view over it. So adults using a kitchen or a sewing room can do their thing securely, whilst keeping an eye on the kids below. You can mix your cocktails, then settle down in to the lounge.

Construction section of a split level - that's a lounge to settle in to..

The Fall Guy - I am pretty sure he had a cool split-level, sunken lounge. Or was it a jacuzzi?

And it’s fun. That step down or up moves one through space and delineates areas gently and powerfully. Do you remember The Fall Guy, a TV show starring Lee Majors in the early 1980s? He had an awesome sunken lounge. And at the high end the of architectural canon,  Frank Lloyd Wright delivered level changes par excellence at Falling Water.

And to counter all of that, NOT changing level can be a powerful statement – Pierre Koenig certainly made that choice with the beautiful, seminal, Stahl House, Case study House 22, one of my all-time favourite buildings, – a bungalow. He knew what he was doing when he co-opted the 100m+ Los Angeles valleys in to the design. Now that is what I call working with the site.