Designers sometimes use the phrase "prospect and refuge" to
describe a pleasing environment that offers a good view of its
surroundings while still providing a comforting sense of
shelter. Our attraction to this type of setting runs deep: For
most of human history, survival depended on scanning the
horizon for saber-tooth tigers or raiders from an enemy tribe
while staying within easy reach of a good defensive position or
hiding place. The countless generations of distant ancestors
who survived by doing that have passed that genetic trait down
to the present day.
Or at least that's one explanation. Whatever the reason, the
prospect-and-refuge model seems to strike a chord with most
people. Saber-tooth tigers or not, it's a human trait that
designers and builders need to respect.
How Not to Build
With that in mind, consider a typical new house on rural
acreage (see Figure 1). A two-story, center-hall colonial with
an attached garage floating on an acre of bluegrass lawn offers
no refuge other than inside the house itself. Garage door
openers allow the homeowners to drive directly into the house,
and once inside, they seldom venture outside again. Why should
they? They're exposed on all sides.
Figure 1.A typical new home today is entered
through the attached garage. When that sort of structure is
plunked down at random on a large rural lot, it appears to
"float," with no real connection to the land. The front porch
is so exposed to passing cars that it's unlikely to see more
than occasional use.
In this setting, a front porch usually doesn't work very well.
Where houses are close together — in an urban
neighborhood or inner suburb — a porch can be an
appealing place to spend time with friends and family, and wave
to or chat with passing neighbors.
But when a house is isolated from any neighbors, there's no
one to socialize with. Rather than sit out front and feel that
they're being stared at by those driving by, the owners are
likely to retreat to the house, leaving the porch an unused
Adding a back deck or porch may not be much of an improvement.
The back of the house may offer more privacy, but the feeling
of openness and exposure remains. The result, once again, is
that the owners stay inside. And what's the point of living in
the country if you never go outside?
The Farmstead Model
One solution is to extend the house into the landscape to
create smaller, more human-scale spaces. Traditional farmsteads
offer designers and builders a perfect model for how to create
a comforting sense of shelter on wide-open land. A farmstead is
always composed of many different buildings. Humans feel
sheltered, protected, and psychologically comfortable in the
smaller spaces created between house and barn, machine shed,
granary, and other outbuildings.
In new construction, the easiest way to extend the house into
the landscape and define some smaller, more human-scale outdoor
spaces is by separating the house from the garage. Other
possibilities include turning a detached garage at a right
angle to the main house, breaking the larger house into wings,
or building outbuildings like storage sheds, pole barns, pool
houses, gazebos, or freestanding screen porches.
In the slightly modified design in Figure 2, for example, the
driveway now leads into a comfortable courtyard rather than
shooting straight into the garage. The result is a sheltered,
hard-surface space where small children can ride bikes and
teenagers can play basketball. This simple space between two
buildings provides a feeling of shelter and a sense of safety.
A hedge helps define the space and accentuates the feeling of
Figure 2.Given ample space to work with, detaching
the garage from the house is a good way to create a human-scale
space. As on a traditional rural farmstead, the smaller areas
between buildings provide a comforting sense of
An easy way to enhance the farmstead effect is to orient the
front entrance of the new home porch toward the courtyard
rather than the road (Figure 3). Adults can comfortably lounge
on the front porch, watch their children play in the courtyard,
and keep an eye on who's driving by, all without feeling too
Figure 3.Eliminating the nonfunctional front porch
shown in the previous drawings and replacing it with one
oriented toward the courtyard shifts the focus away from the
road. The whimsical tower above the relocated master suite
affords a sense of "prospect and refuge" — a protected
vantage point that offers unobstructed views.
The tower included in this design cartoons the idea of
prospect and refuge, creating a small space up high with a
wonderful view out across the landscape. People love towers
— from the Queen Anne designs of the last decades of
the 1800s to more contemporary versions like this one
— and the sense of safety they provide is probably
Turning the entry away from the road may seem radical, but it
acknowledges the fact that formal front doors are rarely used
today. That was also true of traditional farmsteads, where
day-to-day activities centered around a side door facing the
barns and outbuildings. A front entry, while usually present,
was traditionally reserved for ceremonial occasions.
Using Landscape Elements
Elements like fences, rows of trees, and stone walls, and
simple structures like a trellis or pergola can also be used to
define a more protected outdoor space (Figure 4). A homeowner
or guest sitting in this backyard is going to feel comfortably
sheltered and protected on three sides.
Figure 4.Seen from the rear, the house, bonus-room
garage, freestanding pergola, and low flanking wall combine to
create a pleasant backyard compound. This has an added
practical benefit: It suggests planting the high-maintenance
bluegrass only in the enclosed yard. By planting a wild seed
mix across the rest of the site, the homeowners can avoid
mowing and fertilizing their entire acreage.
Even more important, when you step out of this house, you
always step into a protected transition space. The front door
leads to a front porch, the kitchen steps out onto a patio
beneath a trellis, and the master suite steps out onto a
covered porch. Again, the homeowners will feel sheltered and
protected, not exposed and vulnerable.
There's often little money left for landscaping by the time
the house is built, so a landscape like this one may take years
to complete. Still, I believe that it's important to offer the
homeowners a long-term vision. Planning ahead makes it possible
to site the most permanent elements — the house and
garage — in the right place to begin with, rather than
trying to develop a plan around them later.
Robert Gerloff, AIA,is an architect and writer in