Coastal Design Element #4

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Ruminations on Living at the Top

The Inverted Floor Plan

By Jeff Evans

Ruminations on Living at the Top

Here at Coastal Home Plans we offer up a good many home designs that feature what we call an "inverted floor plan." This type of plan positions the living areas on the highest floor while allocating space for the sleeping areas to the middle or lower floors. The purpose? It's all about maximizing the views! Many coastal properties (ocean, lake, bay or river) have obstructions that block the coveted water views. Placing the living areas on a lower level may place your line of site straight into a row of trees or a neighbors house. Since most of our time is spent in a home's living areas, architects took to flipping the traditional floor plan upside down and voilą, long, unobstructed views became available to happy homeowners. In addition to capturing views, inverted floor plans also have a few additional benefits: 1) Capture prevailing breezes 2) Allow for more dramatic, vaulted living areas and 3) Lessen the nuisance of pesky mosquitoes and other biting insects.

Giving credit to the first architect or designer to utilize this sleight of hand trick is rather difficult. Figuring out where the inspiration for the inverted floor plan came from is a little easier to decipher. From early on, humans have strived to ascend by climbing the highest mountains. The physical excitement caused by taking in views from an elevated perspective is a reaction built into our DNA. Setting up camp on higher ground is also an effective strategy for protecting one's self. The cliff dwelling Anasazi Indians survived more than 2,500 years using this simple, but effective technique. Traveling back to medieval times, the castle presents the first and most dramatic example of the inverted floor plan. Designed for safety and protection, the castle utilized a floor plan with a series of concentric circles beginning with a moat and an outer wall interspersed with towers. In the middle of these concentric circles designers placed the tallest tower, called the Castle Keep. This was the last line of defense for the inhabitants and was where the living quarters were usually located. By placing themselves at the highest point, the occupants could look out over the entire surrounding landscape as well as the interior of the outer castle walls. The benefits of incorporating this into their castle design were obvious - hark the marauders approach! One wonders if they enjoyed, between invasions, the views that their perch provided?

Here in America, the inverted floor plan most likely came into existence as those in the upper classes began to build residences in "view worthy" locales. The antebellum homes that look out over the harbor in Charleston, SC come to mind. If you tour one of these homes, you'll notice that many incorporate parlor rooms not just on the lower level but on upper levels as well. Surely the pervasive use of double piazzas in Charleston Single home designs were placed not just for the prevailing breezes but for the delightful views too. While these residences don't fully "flip" the traditional floor they may represent at least a nod in that direction.

At the turn of the last century, as Victorian era seaside homes went up along the Eastern Seaboard, the exteriors where fanciful, but the floor plans were largely traditional. The same can be said of the Stick and Shingle style designs made popular by the architectural firm McKim, Mead and White. Perhaps somewhere along the way, an enterprising home designer noticed that family members were congregating in one of the larger waterside bedrooms on the upper level of one of these seaside beauties and decided, in a piqued state, to move the living room to the upstairs level.

While homeowners may have been a bit leery of inverting the floor plans of their primary residences, they were more willing to experiment with their vacation homes. Property owners with building lots located adjacent to view worthy landscapes, such as the vacation communities situated on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, began to see homes built with the living areas on the top floors. In fact, one of our bestselling designers believes that the first inverted vacation home in the country was built in the town of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1981. An updated version of that design, called the Kitty Hawk Rental, is available on our website and remains popular. At first, folks considering an inverted plan were skeptical ("we'll have to carry the groceries up all those stairs?"). But once they took in the expansive views offered by the inverted design, attitudes quickly changed.

As residential elevators became more affordable in the 1990's, the inverted home has taken off in popularity. The elevator solved the "carry the groceries up two flights of stairs" issue. In fact, in some coastal areas, such as the Outer Banks, it is far more common to build a home with the living areas up than down. The rationale for this remains the same as ever: better views, better breezes and living areas with room under the roof line for soaring and dramatic vaults.

In the end, we shouldn't be surprised that architects and home designers altered their design approach so that they could maximize views for their clients. Modern architecture has always coveted the spaces at the very top. When we hear the word "penthouse" we know this space will not be a view-less room located in the basement. It is fitting then, that the number of residential designs featuring inverted floor plans has increased so dramatically over the past 20 years. If the view from the top is so treasured, it only makes sense to place the rooms where the most time is spent on the uppermost floor. Our DNA demands nothing less.

If you'd like to preview our collection of house plans with inverted floor plans, click here:

Inverted Floor Plans

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