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The Thresholds of a House

Jan 30, 2017 07:45PM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

This week marks the start of another lunar year, the Chinese New Year, which began with the new moon this past Saturday. With any moment that signals a transition into something new, there is usually some form of celebration. At the very least, there is a marker placed, to indicate that something has changed, that things are no longer what they were.

In a house, there are many of these markers, and in the architectural trade, we call them thresholds. The term derives from thresh (to separate seeds from grain) and tread (to step on), a stepping onto a separate condition. In a pragmatic sense, we think of thresholds as that strip of wood, metal or stone on the floor in a doorway, facilitating a change in flooring material between one room and the next. But to architects, it has more meaning than a mere construction detail to resolve material differences.

We accentuate thresholds, call attention to them and raise their stature. The front door is the most prominent case. Crossing the threshold into a house is a deliberate act, a significant moment when we have entered a new realm, from the outside world into the inside, a personal space into which we have been invited. By doing so for the first time, our perspective of the homeowner changes, our mental image of them now includes all of the things we find inside their home; their character deepens to include a layering of artifacts housing a lifetime of experiences. 

Once we pass through that threshold, we can no longer return to a previous state. Our relationship has changed and the front door to a house celebrates that moment and sets the stage.

In my own house, the front door has what we refer to in the trade as a no-step, accessible threshold—the floor inside the house is level with the ground outside. The physical transition is subtle, but the effect is there nonetheless. In case you might miss it, I placed a second threshold within the house between the living room and kitchen, where there is a step up. During construction of the house, I laid a couple pieces of 4x4 cut-offs as a makeshift step. My plasterer teased me at the time, saying that I would never get around to replacing it with a formal, finished step.

He was right, though a couple years ago my wife tiled over it with broken mosaics, adding color and a playful spirit to complement the house. The step finally felt as if it was meant to be; the threshold was properly delineated. Aside from a functional purpose, this step does something more for the house. As in many homes, most people enter through the back door, in our case, the kitchen door. The point of reference into the open space of our ground floor is from the kitchen, and when one moves into the living room, they step down, a lowering into.

Combined with the living room walls that lean in, there is a definite sense of enclosure, a burrowing down, nestling into a cozy place. By contrast, for those who enter the house through the front door, the step takes you up into the kitchen, elevating, as if placed on a pedestal; something that is clearly not by chance but with intent. Entering into our kitchen, one gets the sense of arriving at the heart of our home.

The difference between these two experiences, the sensations defining these two rooms, are in large part the result of this step, a threshold that changes perception by the direction of movement through it. In the end, that is really the point of a threshold; to mark the location where perspectives change, to signal an envelope has been reached with irreversible implications, not as in a tipping point, but rather a milestone. 

Where space makes a palpable shift, the atmosphere takes on a different feel. For an architect, this is one of the devices that we use to shape space; to create experiential architecture. The articulations of a threshold may vary—a step or no step, or sometimes simply the narrowing of a constricted passage. No matter the case, this is the toolset in which we play.

With a new year upon us, what the future holds is unknown. One thing, however, is always certain—life is in continuous change. It may very well be the driving force behind all living things and the reason why we humans celebrate its thresholds.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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