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Top 10 Things to Consider When Designing a Vacation Home – Make it Special

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Top 10 Things to Consider When Designing a Vacation Home

A vacation home should be something special, not just another suburban house plopped down on a piece of nice land, and that requires some thought. Jeff Pelletier breaks it down in his Top 10 Things to Consider, from respecting the view, to creating a special place to keep both kids and adults relaxed and happy.

April 21, 2016

Now that we have two kids, I’ve realized that traveling and staying in a hotel is pretty challenging. Once we get two toddlers down for bed around 8:30, we’re forced to, well, sit in the dark and not make a sound. That stinks. To ensure that we can enjoy the couple hours of child-free revelry after they go to bed, we’ve taken to renting houses when we travel. The kiddos can go to bed in their room, and we can sit around a fire sipping bourbon trying to keep the party going until the late hour of 10:30 (aaah, parenthood). Along the way, we’ve stayed in a bunch of “vacation homes,” and – coupled with the ones I’ve designed over the years and stayed in before I had children – I’m left with rather emphatic beliefs about what to consider when designing a vacation home.

Most vacation homes suck.

I’m an architect, so I'm always wanting to re-design things, but you would hope that, while on vacation, I could at least turn that annoying behavior off. Nope. We once rented a home in Leavenworth (a wonderfully fake Bavaria in the Cascade Mountain Range, east of Seattle, for those of you not in the know), and I spent almost every waking second trying to NOT think about rotating the house ninety degrees. It is a curse.

Many vacation homes are simply stock suburban homes that someone plopped down on the beach, or up in the mountains. They’re just wrong in that context. (And I’m being kind… They’re likely wrong in most contexts.) It is clear that designing a vacation or second home is a unique design challenge. So, here are my top ten things (because I’m into the top ten list thing, but there are probably a dozen more points I could mention) to consider when designing a vacation house:

  1. SITE THE HOUSE PROPERLY. Remember how I mentioned that there was a house that I spent an entire long weekend desperately wanting to rotate ninety degrees? Planning where a house goes is half the battle with a vacation house. You’re going to want to maximize solar exposure (or limit it, as the case may be), and orient major rooms towards the view. Don’t get this wrong.
  2. Top 10 Things to Consider When Designing a Vacation Home – Site the House Properly

    The exterior of this house opens up to the backyard and hillside, which is the focus of this property.

  3. DON’T FORGET THE VIEW. This is related to the above point, but it is, in many ways, distinctly different. There is often a prominent view in a vacation house. Usually, that’s why the property cost so much. Design around it. If that’s what you bought the property for, then – please, oh please – don’t forget it. Lower those window sills, raise the top of the windows, and make sure that when people sit at the island, or at a couch, they actually face that million dollar view. To not do so is a failure of design.
  4. GUESTS WANT PRIVACY. Some vacation homes are tailored for a single couple, and so this rule doesn’t apply to them. Most vacation homes, though, are designed for several couples (whether it is friends, or your adult children and their spouses). Each bedroom doesn’t need to be huge, but it needs to accommodate a queen size bed (give them a king size bed if you can spare the square footage), a small storage area for clothes and a suitcase, and maybe a small desk. Pack them in. I like to plan for at least three of these stand-alone bedrooms, in addition to a proper Master Suite. Keep them tucked away from the noise, and even the view, if the site doesn’t allow for it. Plan a quiet and comfortable place to sleep. That's it.
  5. Top 10 Things to Consider When Designing a Vacation Home – Guest Wing

    In this floor plan, we tucked in three cozy guest suites, along with an area for guests to hang out.

  6. LOVE YOUR MUDROOM. More so than in a normal home, vacation homes need really epic mudrooms. You’re likely going to have some sort of special environment you’re in that’ll require putting away dirty/sandy/snowy boots and clothes. You need this to be adaptable, comfortable, and accessible. Yet it should also not take away from the view, so it requires special planning. Think through this one carefully.
  7. FLEXIBLE LIVING SPACES. If at all possible, I like to give guests a small sitting room (which can be combined with the play area), and a bit of a morning kitchen (coffee, fridge, sink). This way, if a rowdy group wants to keep the party going in the main living area there’s a separate area for other guests to wind down or be up early in the morning without disturbing others. Plan for flexibility.
  8. Top 10 Things to Consider When Designing a Vacation Home – Flexible Guest Living Area

    This bar is tucked away from the main living area, and functions as both a cozy spot to hang out and as a guest living / kitchen in the morning.

  9. BATHROOM MAGIC. This needs to be a house where two people can be comfortable, or 12. Plan your bathrooms to be as flexible as possible. Separate the sinks, toilets, and showers so as many users can use the spaces as possible at any time. Every guest room doesn’t need a dedicated bathroom (although it is nice if you can), but plan for flexibility. Showers should be a minimum 36” x 42” (although 48” is nicer). Plan for towel storage, and keep the bathrooms as small as possible to minimize square footage.
  10. Top 10 Things to Consider When Designing a Vacation Home – Compartmentalized Bathroom

    In this example bathroom, the individual spaces are all divided up, so several people can use the space at the same time.

  11. KILLER KITCHEN. I’ve found that people tend to cook a lot in a kitchen when traveling, so plan for a big space that has plenty of room for everyone. We stayed in a gorgeous home a few months ago that seemed great at first, until we realized there was almost no countertop space to actually cook and prep food. I like to have lots of base cabinets and open upper shelves so you can find things quickly. Ideally, the person at the sink and at the prep counter can see the view. (This is perhaps a more personal request as I’m always the one cooking and hate staring at a wall, but I'm not alone.)
  12. Top 10 Things to Consider When Designing a Vacation Home – Respect the View

    With tremendous views, you should maximize glazing and ensure that everyone in the space has access to that view. This generous kitchen is an example of a great place to cook and entertain while still staying focused on the view.

  13. THE TELEVISION IS NOT YOUR MASTER. Now here’s where my biases come into play in full force. I get that having a television on every now and then is nice, but when you’re in an awesome location, really it shouldn’t be your focus. You can have that TV on at home. And when the TV is on to watch a movie, it is likely you want it dark in there, and/or it is dark outside anyway, so the view doesn’t matter. DON’T PUT THE DAMN TELEVISION IN FRONT OF THE VIEW. Remember, the point above about the house with the tiny kitchen? It also had a big wall in front of the view to accommodate a television. There are better ways!!! You can carefully plan the television and the fireplace to work with the view if you think through it carefully from day one. Or, better yet, put it in that extra guest room or a separate media room so people who want to watch a loud movie in the middle of the day don’t annoy everyone who is otherwise peacefully watching the view and trying to not think about going to work again on Monday.
  14. THINK OF THE CHILDREN! This is a big one here. Make the call: is this a house that children are going to be welcome in, or not? (It is OK either way.) If children will be there, then plan for a big bunk room (try and not make this a sleeping area for guests – the parents will be much happier having a door between them and their children). It can be a funky room, or even a loft, but pack them in and give them a weird space. Ideally, you’ll even have a little play area for them where the mess can be kept.
  15. Top 10 Things to Consider When Designing a Vacation Home –  Loft for the Kids, or a Children's Area

    This guest living area has a TV for watching movies, and a fun loft area for lots of kids to roll out sleeping bags and have a special space all for them. (And, it sits above the three guest suites.)

  16. MAKE IT FEEL SPECIAL. This one is a little harder to quantify, and is specific to each house. This house can’t be a standard spec home special. Something about a suburban home plopped down in your magic vacation place just feels wrong. Even if you slap some skis on the wall of your new home, or put a little wood block montage that spells out B-E-A-C-H in your tract home special it just is not right. These homes are there for one reason: to help you relax and enjoy life. They function very differently than a normal home, and part of that means they need personality that isn’t just applied by decoration. Find a way to make this home funky, personal, and something that you will treasure for years.
  17. Top 10 Things to Consider When Designing a Vacation Home – Make it Special

    This home in Lake Tahoe was meant for the family to enjoy for generations. Making it suit their specific needs gives each house a sense of home no matter how many months of the year it is used.

I realize that in writing this that I really do have a bunch more factors that I want to go into, but these seem like some of the bigger ones. With any project that you tackle, you need to go into the project knowing that it should be YOUR space. Own the personality of the home and the site, and let it all work together. When it does, you’ll have a gorgeous and treasured property that will hopefully keep you and your family relaxed and entertained for generations.

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