Article by Eden Muir for le Tour Sutton, October 20, 2014.''... THIS ISSUE'S THEME: "AMENITY" Click images to expand

The Amenity Boom: The Luxuries that Define Us

Is it valid to judge a civilization by its plumbing rather than by its poetry or philosophy? Absolutely! Just ask the tourists lined up to explore the superb stone vaulting of the Roman sewers that lie under the ruins of the ancient Forum. amenity image There is a deep curiosity about how great civilizations deal with the mundane by elevating the amenity from necessity to luxury. Consider the palatial bathhouses of Rome, with their heated floors and pools, and magnificent vaulted ceilings. Not to mention their large communal toilets, socially awkward perhaps, but lined in polished stone. [ill. A]

How will future generations interpret our allocation of resources for shelter and comfort? Each economic cycle seems to raise the bar on luxury. During the heady days of the Reagan boom I helped to design a home for a Wall Street baron who wanted a monument that reflected his love of history as well as his prosperity. I naively thought amenity image we were designing close to the practical limit in extravagent luxury, a laughable notion by today's standards.

Located on Connecticut's "Gold Coast," the mansion's design was based on Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home and the Villa Rotunda by Palladio with its four great porches. The plan was a jigsaw puzzle of interlocking figural spaces, ovals, octagons, squares and circles. [ill. B]

The client demanded "all the amenities" including elevator, wine cellar, pool and tennis court, and we delivered. Each of the eight bedrooms had a private bathroom (WC). There was some debate around the drafting table as to whether that was excessive. Today, nobody would bat an eye at a 1:1 ratio of WCs to bedrooms. Factor in multiple powder rooms and his-and-her WCs, and today's ratios approach 2:1 in some luxury markets, according to BusinessInsider.com.

The mansion's central rotunda's marble floors, based on spiral patterns sketched by Michelangelo, were quarried and cut in Italy. Advanced electronic systems were discreetly installed behind plaster walls. The classical details were impeccable and the construction was top-of-the-line. The luxury was not showy--it was carefully integrated into the architecture.

The least pretty of the house's many features were the three big garage doors leading to a bunker-like basement. Early in the design process the doors were located on the east facade, facing a cluster of luxury homes. On the west side was a famously brash real estate developer. He had his lawyers request a preview of our design to make sure it "met his high design standards."

My boss, the architect, was so incensed by this interference that he plucked the tracing-paper sketch from my desk, and with a great flourish flipped the plan upside down so that the bunker doors now directly faced the developer. "That's better!" he said, "Draw it up!" Soon after, the meddling real-estate mogul divorced and moved to another of his mansions. We didn't know it then but we were working overtime to finish the project just as October 19, 1987 was looming. "Black Monday" on the stock markets would wipe out many fortunes and lead to the loss of many architectural jobs, including mine.

Perhaps we need a Residential Amenity Index (RAI), a quick and easy way to quantify luxury so that we can rate these environments just as the Body Mass Index (BMI) measures excess fat. Take the most prominent markers of modern luxury and add their surface area measurements. Then multiply by the bathroom-to-bedroom ratio. [ill. C]

One essential marker is the kitchen island. It used to be a utilitarian affair, designed to facilitate access and circulation. Today a 4 by 10 foot slab of granite is not uncommon, and it makes sense: everyone seems to want to hang out in the kitchen. Future historians and social anthropologists will ponder the cultural significance of the early 21st-century kitchen island. Did it result from, or help cause, the multi-tasking informality of today's domestic lifestyle where socializing, entertainment, and technology all merge in an open-plan zone not too distant from the refigerator?

amenity image

The other data point on the RAI scale will be the size of the master-bedroom shower. Once a 3-foot-wide afterthought, it is now a small room behind glass partitions, equipped with seats, dual rainheads, steam, and colour and aroma therapy.

When we add the shower area to the kitchen island area in a modest post-war cottage, and multiply that result by the WC:BR ratio, we get an RAI of about 5. A typical suburban bungalow from the 1960s rates 16.5 on our scale. With a rating of 48, the Connecticut mansion looks almost modest compared to today's high-end homes. The data also show the arrival of off-the-charts luxury in a number of recent Townships projects. So get out your measuring tape! How does your humble abode, or your castle measure up on the Residential Amenity Index scale that stretches from Spartan frugality to extravagance? Is it worthy of a Caesar?

© Tous droits réservés 2014. Photos, illustrations and text: Eden G. Muir, Architect www.ateliermuir.ca

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