Good Proportions: A Town Topics Column

by Lasley Brahaney Architects

QEven though there is plenty of natural light in my living room, the space just doesn't feel right. What could be the problem?

ASome rooms are delightful to be in while others make us feel uneasy. It can be the lighting, or the wall color, or even bad feng shui (the Chinese practice of arranging space to harmonize with the environment). Or maybe your uneasiness is a result of the room's proportions.

A room's proportions are the relationship between its width, height and depth. Architectural thinkers have worked out detailed mathematical systems describing ways to optimize this relationship, but for our purposes, let's let our gut feelings guide us.

When we're in a well-proportioned space, we feel instinctively that the room is structurally sound. Good sense tells us that heavier weights and longer spans need greater support. It feels better to set a wine glass on top of an encyclopedia than it does to put an encyclopedia on top of a wine glass.

When we're in a room that feels oppressive, we sense the weight of what's bearing down on us from above. A long narrow room with a low ceiling feels too long relative to its height and we get the feeling that if the ceiling were just a few feet taller, the room would feel better. It's not always practical to raise a ceiling height, but one could add columns or partitions or rearrange furniture to subdivide a space. By creating two smaller areas that have a better width-to-height ratio, each space feels more comfortable because it is better proportioned.

Sometimes a room feels too high relative to its width. The next time you go into a "double-height" entry hall, ask yourself if it feels grand or if it just feels like you're standing at the bottom of a well. If you can stand back enough to take in the entire space and the ceiling without having to crane your neck, chances are it's been designed with good proportions in mind. If not, you might consider lowering the ceiling.

There are other options if you cannot add or subtract a wall or a ceiling. Take a good look at your windows. The size and placement of openings in a wall can affect a room's proportions. If the openings are too small and spread too far apart, a room can feel cavernous. If they are too large, the room could make you feel like you're in a fish bowl. Rule of thumb is to try and achieve a satisfying balance between wall space and openings.

If you live in a traditional house, adding moldings can help trick the eye into reading better proportions in a room. Moldings at the bottom, top and even part way up the walls can lend a room a more human scale. With a tall base molding and a deep crown molding in a high space, the room will feel lower. A chair rail molding at about 36" above the floor, a medallion in the ceiling or decorative trim around a door or window can also lend needed balance.

Another trick for modifying the perception of a room's proportions is to change the colors. If you want the walls or ceilings to recede, choose shades of blue. If you want them to come forward, try using shades of red.

If you don't like the way you feel in a room, trust your gut: the problem could be the room's proportions. By changing a room's width, depth or height either literally or perceptually, you can improve the way you feel in the space.