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Masters of Illusion : Designing to Minimize Space Problems


The trick, they say, to designing houses today is to pack it all in so artfully that you hardly notice the tight fit, or, as one architect put it, "so it doesn't look like you've crammed 10 pounds of building into a five-pound bag."

The day of the rambling ranch house on a quarter-acre parcel is long gone. For architects designing housing for the small lots now the norm here and elsewhere in Southern California, that means an increasingly important trick of the trade is the ability to fool the eye into seeing more space than exists--inside and out.

Illusion is so important that Costa Mesa architect Richard Lewis includes a handbook on visual illusion on a short list of the three key pieces of reference material no architect should be without.

Lewis specializes in high-end custom homes but says that the principles explored when he and other architects do projects where budgets are relatively unlimited quickly find their way into the mainstream.

Sometimes what solves space problems in a $2-million house can work as well in one that costs $200,000.

"Custom homes are the R&D lab of the industry," says Lewis, whose award-winning designs range from commercial buildings and multimillion-dollar custom homes to 900-square-foot "snowbird" retreats in the desert outside of Phoenix.

Earlier this summer in San Francisco, Lewis won a Gold Nugget, the top award of the Pacific Coast Building Conference, for his "small" custom home design: a 5,924-square-foot Lido Isle contemporary.

That home and other Orange County projects also awarded Gold Nuggets demonstrate how the use of illusion extends from a waterfront custom home in Newport Beach to production housing at Newport Coast to a high-density apartment complex in Irvine.

Each project created housing for different uses and with very different budgets, but each faced space constraints.

The trilevel house that Lewis designed for Tom and Joan Riach is situated on a 5,500-square-foot bay-front lot that is only 39 feet wide on the street and 44 feet wide on the water. The width of the 100-foot-long house ranges from a 28 feet at street side to 34 feet overlooking Newport Bay.

Some of the same space-stretching techniques used by Lewis were used by architects at McLarand, Vasquez & Partners in its winning designs for a $700,000 semi-custom Italianate villa at its Santa Lucia development in Newport Coast. The firm used them again in its design for the San Paulo apartment complex in Irvine, where a mix of flats and multistory apartments are fitted into a high-density design that mimics a Mediterranean village. And those stretching tools were called upon again by architects at Richardson Nagy Martin in a tract of homes priced from $270,000 to $400,000 in Newport Ridge in which neighbors borrow space from one another to enlarge the usable yard area and to expand the view from the inside out.

The architecture of most housing being built in Orange County in the 1990s has been shaped by these principles. Walls between rooms are likely to have the center cut out of them to allow an uninterrupted sight line; yards are arranged on only one side of a house to give them more bulk; roof lines and facades are staggered to keep them from closing in visually; tall windows and light wells open up a home to the sky--that rare place where space doesn't come at such a premium.

The entry to the Riach home on Lido Isle has something in common with most Orange County tract houses of the past two decades--it takes a back seat to the garage doors, which monopolize the street view of the house.

The entryway is on the south side of the house about 60 feet from the street. Side yards, which would have accentuated the narrowness of the rooms, are almost nonexistent. Lewis designed to provide a feeling of spaciousness in areas where none existed.

"The Riach residence is loaded with illusions," he said. "They are what give us the ability to expand space. We trick the eye to make things seem big and wide open, and we do it at all (price) levels. The architect who doesn't understand and use visual illusion is a handicapped architect."

Although the Riach house is narrow, it is deep and Lewis needed to separate the rooms while still opening up the interior so each room would not feel enclosed. He did it by using a minimum of interior walls and by incorporating a three-level rotunda, capped by a circular skylight, for the entry.

While the rotunda, located almost in the middle of the house, is open, its curving walls provide separation between the family room at the narrowest end of the ground floor and the dining and great rooms at the wide end fronting on the bay.

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