From Northern Virginia to Harvard, Nepal, and Ann Arbor, Michigan
A Lifelong Explorer of Houses, Katherine Salant Asks,
"Does This House Make Sense for the People Who Live in It?"
New-house expert and columnist Katherine Salant traces her fascination with home construction to her childhood in Northern Virginia in the 1950s, the era of the huge post-World War II housing boom.
"My parents would have been horrified," says Salant, "to know how much time I spent crawling around construction sites. But there were no parks in our neighborhood, just houses under construction everywhere you looked."
Growing up in George Washington's backyard, Salant was also exposed to many very old houses. Besides visits to Mount Vernon, George Washington's home, and other plantations of that period (including Woodlawn, George Washington's granddaughter's house, and Gunston Hall, home of George's neighbor George Mason, father of the Bill of Rights), she also frequented the Old Town section of Alexandria, Va., which has many row houses that predate the Revolutionary War.
Salant also encountered cutting-edge modern styled houses when she went to high school and discovered that many of her friends lived in Hollin Hills, at that time one of the most famous subdivisions in America. Unlike her own neighborhood of traditional, colonial-styled houses, the one-storied houses in Hollin Hills had nearly flat roofs, huge windows and minimal trim.
"Seeing all those houses, old and new," she says, "made a big impression on me." It also set her on a career path. After graduating from Wellesley College, she earned a master's degree in architecture from Harvard, then went off to Nepal for two years to study village architecture on a Fulbright Scholarship.
"The houses and villages of Nepal were very radically different from anything I had ever experienced. I frequently felt as if I had been transported back in time to medieval Europe and even earlier than that. Not only did everything look different, the way that the villagers used the space and lived in their houses was unlike anything I had ever encountered," says Salant. "I knew that to understand those houses I had to live in them with families."
And she did, even though the villages were several days' walk from the nearest road. Salant quickly learned that the villagers' use of space and materials was nearly always rooted in practicality, varying with climate, crops, animals, available tools and the logistical limitations imposed by the local transportation system-human porters.
"The experience was very humbling because it taught me that a very satisfactory house could be built without any of the inputs I had been trained to think were essential-engineers, architects, factory-made materials and sophisticated tools-and without any of the conveniences that we take for granted like heat and electricity. The experience also taught me to be very objective in looking at houses anywhere. It's not about whether I like a house or not, but does it make sense for the people who live there?"
This mantra-like question was incorporated into her work as an architectural designer in Singapore, Malaysia and Washington, D.C., and as a writer of feature articles, which ultimately led, in 1994, to a regular column in the real estate section of The Washington Post.
Today, as a nationally syndicated columnist ("Your New Home") and author of The Brand-New House Book ("Everything you need to know about building a custom, semi-custom or production-built home"), Salant continues her quest to determine if and how houses make sense.
Sometimes, she says, it's obvious when they don't. For example, a million-dollar show home with an in-law suite over a garage, reached by steep stairs. "Only the nimblest grandmother could make it," says Salant. She's also wondered at fully equipped potting rooms in show homes set on small urban lots with no yard.
But Salant cautions that some things that look ridiculous are not, and she encourages buyers to ask questions about anything that seems odd or veering towards the outrageous. For example, she said, "The same show house with the in-law suite over the garage also had a 3,000-bottle wine cellar in the basement replete with two over-stuffed leather chairs and a table set with cheese and bread.
"On the face of it," she said, "the set-up looked ridiculous. Who would sit in a damp, chilled room set to a constant temperature of 55 degrees for more than five minutes? But when I asked about this, I learned that wine aficionados do sit in wine cellars for long periods and even have dinner parties in them. To guard against the chill, they bundle up. So for serious wine drinkers, this feature was a definite plus."
As research for a column, Salant moved her family of five, which includes her husband and three adolescent daughters, into a 10,000-square-foot "McMansion" for a weekend to test-drive the house.
Each daughter had a huge bedroom and bathroom to herself, but instead of relishing the luxury, they complained that their sisters were too far away. "They missed the camaraderie of sharing a bathroom while getting dressed and doing their hair, and we all realized that their sisterly banter time is an important part of starting their day."
Salant cites that experience as an example of why, in planning a house that makes sense, it's essential to think through the tiniest details of daily life, as well as how the people living in it celebrate major occasions and holidays such as Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.