Peace by Design

By Ann Larsen

We asked residential designer Ann Larsen to share with us the books that have most informed her work. Here, she tells us about her two favorites.

When we walk into a new space, we usually get an immediate visceral impression. Depending on the light, views, scale and materials, we might feel drawn in or repelled, comfortable or ill at ease. Sometimes the cause of our response is obvious, but most of the time we may find it hard to identify.

Good homes function on a practical level, but they also nourish us spiritually by providing a connection to the outside, by incorporating spaces that support meditation, and by giving us a general feeling of being “at home.”

Two books have helped me design spaces that support good spiritual health for the people who live in them. One book is architect Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House (1998, updated 2008: Taunton). The author found that many of her clients were seeking relief from their over-sized new McMansion homes. They just didn’t feel comfortable with the enormous rooms or the double-height ceilings. Susanka’s book promotes the concept of quality over quantity in a home – quality of materials, of scale, and of space. She has now written a series of Not So Big books, each with many helpful photos and drawings that illustrate ways to make a home spiritually enriching.

The second book, a design bible for me, is A Pattern Language. (1977: Oxford University Press). Almost 40 years after it was published, it remains an invaluable source for the principles of designing for the well-being of people. The book’s editors identified specific elements that create enriching spaces. They compiled over 200 of these into a massive volume. Important elements are marked with an asterisk, and even more important ones with two asterisks. The book begins by looking at the layout of an entire city, and then moves on to individual homes. Principle #159, for example, describes the desirability of having windows on at least two sides of a room. Principle #180 is about the attractiveness of seating that is close to the light.

Many of the remodel designs I do in older Utah neighborhoods involve a request by the homeowners for more open spaces. We no longer expect one person to be isolated in a hidden kitchen. We live more casually and prepare food more communally. We want walls gone, spaces open to each other, and French doors leading to an arbor-covered deck. As residents are exposed to more varieties of homes through the internet or travel, they bring home a desire to recreate those spaces and the feelings they engen­dered. Sites of spiritual experience are no longer limited to specific religious buildings or even to the great outdoors. New building methods allow for more light and views, more quiet spaces or more communal ones in our homes. For a house I recently designed in Midway, I widened a long hallway, installed bookcases and a window seat, and created one of the owners’ favorite areas in the home. What would have been just a passageway became an inviting destination. This feature employs the kind of spiritually enriching principles encouraged in The Not So Big House and in A Pattern Language.

A Pattern Language is now available online as a PDF, all 1,200 pages.

About Ann Larsen

Ann Larsen came to her life’s work organically, initially without intention. A residential designer in Salt Lake for over 30 years, she says her earliest influence was her father, an architect, and the time spent as a teenager working at his office in the Bay Area of California. In college,

Larsen sought her own path, studying psychology, but when she joined a group of friends on a trip to Washing­ton, D.C. to renovate old row houses on Capitol Hill, she felt her natural talent for design rise to the surface.

“People began to ask me to design projects for them,” recalls Larsen. “I realized that I really enjoyed the work and, when my husband and I moved to Salt Lake, I decided to study for a degree in architecture.”

Larsen began taking classes at the University of Utah. She had her first child (she now has three grown children) and continued her schooling, but family life and university structure collided. “I gave birth to my second child the afternoon after taking my final exam in History of Architec­ture (I got an A),” she recalls.

Balancing a demanding graduate program while dealing with a new baby and a toddler wasn’t working well. She decided to pursue her license by doing a more flexible apprenticeship program.

For the next seven years Larsen honed her craft, working on actual projects in an architectural office. Ironically, before she could take the licensing exam the law changed and apprenticeships were no longer accepted as a route to licensing. “Only university-taught students were allowed to take the exam, but by that time I had a business of my own, focused on home design and I decided not to go back to school.” Unlicensed designers were allowed to work on home design, if a licensed engineer would approve the drawings.

Larsen decided to make a go of her own business. Thirty years later, she’s still hard at work. “I’m something of a dinosaur now,” she says. “I still hand-draw all my plans and I don’t have a website. My only advertising is the small ad I’ve had forever in CATALYST, and word of mouth from clients. Much of my work is with middle-income people who have never been involved in a construction project, so I do a lot of educating, along with the design work. I usually become good friends with my clients and, although I try to be professional, I think I come off as friendlier and less intimidating than some architects from larger firms.”

For the last 20 years, Larsen, her husband and a handful of friends and family have been moving and rebuilding a century-old stone one-room school house on Larsen’s land in Spring City, Utah, “just because we felt such a connection to the structure and such joy in the project.”

One of Larsen’s recent projects is designing a Zen Buddhist retreat in Torrey, Utah.

This article was originally published on August 30, 2015.