If these principles are starting to seem a lot like common sense, it is because they are. It is in our nature to seek out the sort of order that they prescribe. Honest structure and simple forms strike a chord with us because they are true to nature’s law of necessity. Sound proportions strike a chord, too. Certain proportions seem to appear everywhere — in sea shells, trees, geodes, cell structure, and all of what is commonly called "the natural world.” That these same proportions continually turn up in our own creations should not seem too surprising or coincidental. We are nature, after all, and so our works are bound to contain these natural proportions.
Proportioning is one of the primary means by which a building can be made readable. Repeated architectural forms and the spaces between them are like music, the pattern (or rhythm) of which we understand because it is always with us. We intuitively understand good proportions because they are a part of our most primal language.
On the most conscious level, good proportion is achieved by first choosing an increment of measure. Making such a seemingly arbitrary decision can be made easier if meaning is imposed on it. Ancient civilizations created systems of measure based on human and geodetic significance. A Mediterra — nian precursor to the foot we use today was 1/360,000 of 1/360 (one degree) of the circumference of the earth. It was also related to the conventional calendar containing 360 days of the year plus five holy days, and it was 1/6 the height of what were viewed as ideal human proportions. The eighteen — inch cubit (distance from elbow to longest finger tip) and the yard (1/2 of the total height) also relate to this canon. We have inherited a measuring system imbued with meaning that relates us to our environment. Our buildings are literally designed to embody the characteristics of the Self.
Today, plywood is milled to 4’ x 8’ pieces; lumber comes in 6’, 8’, 10’, 12’ and 16’ lengths; metal roofing is typically 3’ wide, and most other building materials are similarly sized to fit within this one foot system of measure. Great efficiency can be achieved by keeping this in mind during the design process. A large share of bragging rights deservedly go to a designer whose structure has left little construction waste and has required relatively few saw cuts. Simplified construction is nearly as much the aim of subtractive design as simplified form and function are.
The unit of measure we use to compose a harmonious design can be more than just linear. In Japan, a two-dimensional increment called the "tatami mat” is often used. It is an area of three by six feet (the Japanese foot, or shaku, is actually 11.93 of our inches). This area is meant to correlate with human dimensions. The Japanese saying, "tatte hanjo, nete ichijo,” translates as, "half a mat to stand, one mat to sleep.”
Once an increment has been chosen, be it a foot, yard, cubit, tatami mat or a sheet of plywood, we can begin to compose a home comprised of simple multiples and fractions of the unit. This process should be fairly intuitive. Each one of us will compose somewhat differently, but our underlying principles are the same. These principles are not arbitrary, but the same that govern the composition of all natural things.
Dee Williams’ house in Olympia, WA