If you own a house, you have probably thought about form and function.  Maybe you’ve heard that architects are more interested in form (what it looks like) than in function.  But maybe for practical reasons you feel more interested in function (how it works) than in form.

In my architecture practice, I make it a goal to strive for both.  Some people care only about how it looks; some care only about how it works.  Why can’t we have both?

I will illustrate the idea by talking about dormers, as a way to get more space in a house.  More space can be achieved, while we still pay attention to how the house looks.

Suppose you have a cape house, a familiar, classic house-shape like the one shown below.   There is something satisfying in it’s clear, simple, symmetry. Cape House


(Many houses have flat roofs, which have an entirely different set of concerns.  I’ll save that discussion for another time.)

Now suppose you’re using that attic space for storage, but you want to use it for living space; for example a bedroom.

In that case you probably want to add windows for light and fresh air.  In fact, modern building codes will almost certainly require that you add a window – if it’s a bedroom – one that is large enough that you can escape through it in the event of a fire or other emergency.

The classic response is dormers, like this:


This looks good, but, what if you want even more floor space?  You might try a long, shed dormer, like this:

Shed Dormer

So far, it still looks good.  But suppose you want even more space?  Now you move the front wall of the dormer out to the front wall of the house, and break the roof line, like this:

Shed Dormer 2You might move the side walls too, but either way, in my opinion, you’ve now gone too far.   By breaking the roof-line you have lost the satisfaction of the original, pleasing house-shape.

As long as that simple, symmetrical shape was still visible, and still dominated the overall shape, it was ok.  You still had a house with dormers, rather than a lopsided house.

Function has become too dominant.

Similarly, a person might let form dominate.  They might have stopped at adding the two dormers, fearing that anything bigger would be too much. 

In either case, your house will remind you (and your neighbors) of where your priorities are.  Why not show that you care about both how it works and how it looks?

Rarely do I feel satisfied with one extreme or the other.  The art of architecture is, I believe, finding the place in between that suits my clients; in finding the right middle ground.  I think the shed dormer in the third image achieves this middle ground.

Below are some real-life examples that have found a pleasing balance:


Notice that in the photo below the dormer walls actually do align with the walls below, but they don’t break the roof-line:


This one could have been longer, but still looks good:


Here we see the contrast between a house with dormers and the next-door house without them:


This one looks like two dormers joined together, giving some extra character:


I’ve used dormers here as an example, but balancing form and function is a challenge we face over and over again in architecture projects.  The goal is to find a good balance between the two.


The author, Paul Hatem, is an architect in Arlington, Massachusetts.  Paul specializes in designing residential and small commercial projects.