The Good House: Little Design Details That Matter

Tailored trim, cool counters and a nice weighty door — such details add so much to how a home feels to the people inside

By Bud Dietrich, AIA  /  Courtesy of

We tend to focus on the big picture when we set out to design a new home. This means we’ll focus first on the floor plan, how the home will sit on the land and, perhaps, the style we want the home to be.

But the home isn’t going to be just about the big-picture items. For the design to be successful, we’ll have to lavish as much attention on the details as we do on everything else. In fact, to create a home that resonates in a truly holistic manner, the details will have to come to the fore.

For me, this means that the materials and objects we will come into daily contact with will have to have been thought about and selected with as much care and thought as the floor plan and the exterior look.

Here are some of these delightful little details that truly matter.

1. Weighty doors and door hardware. If you’re designing a new home or renovating one, take the opportunity to open and close a hollow-core door at the same time as a solid core door. While you’re at it, hold doorknobs of varying weights at the same time. Ask yourself which feels better and which will hold up better. Chances are, it’ll be the solid-core door and the heavier hardware. These will just feel “right” every time you open and close that door and every time you walk into and out of that room.

And while you’re at it, make sure that all of the door’s hardware has the same finish and is consistent in its style. So if the knob is oil-rubbed bronze, make the hinges, strike plate and other hardware the same. This one small choice communicates just how important the details are to you.

2. Tailored trim. Like a well-tailored suit, a room that’s been trimmed well has a finished and elegant appearance. It’s less like the rumpled cargo pants and wrinkled T-shirt and more like creased and cuffed trousers.

Doing trim well means picking the size that’s appropriate for the room as well as orchestrating each element of trim to make a unified whole. And don’t forget to use trim that’s stylistically aligned with whatever else is going on in the house. Whether Colonial, Craftsman, Georgian, contemporary or other, the trim selected should reflect the totality of the home’s design.

3. Cool counters. Taking the kitchen windowsills to just above the counter is a great detail. It will open up the room by providing a wonderful expansiveness. 

And while some will say that placing the windowsill so low will create a place for dirt and water to hide, just remember that, like a child, a beautiful room needs attention to stay that way. Surely the coolness of the stone counter warmed by the sun streaming into the windows and the generous views to the outdoors will be worth it.

4. Right-height counters. While the standard 36-inch-high kitchen counter and 30-inch-high bath counter work most of the time, there are instances when a different counter height is not only warranted but a real pleasure to have. In the kitchen it’ll be easier to roll out and knead dough on a counter that’s lower than 36 inches. And in the bath, the standard 30-inch-high counter is OK for children but not so much for adults. So the trick is to think of who will be using the area, what will be done there and what the optimal height is for that person and that use.  

Sure, this sounds like having to purchase pricey custom cabinets. But maybe not. You can have some freedom by attaching a standard cabinet on the wall in lieu of setting it on the floor.


5. Nice niches. Whether single stems or a bouquet, flowers offer a bit of changing color and soft texture that complement all of those unchanging colors and hard surfaces. So introducing niches for flowers in unexpected places, like by the bath vanity, is a way to introduce a bit of variety and unexpected delight.

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6. Architectural storage. Your new home should have a place for everything, and everything should be in its place. So in addition to the standard drawers, closets and pullouts, think of what you want to store and where you want to store it. With so many options available for storing stuff, you should be able to find the best solution.

And think of storage as architecture too. Maybe some open shelves with decorative storage are the answer. Or maybe the solution is a mix of jars, bins and boxes that will hold all that stuff yet be out in the open to bring in some nice detail, texture and color.

7. Inviting house numbers. It bothers me when I can’t find the house numbers when looking for a particular address. It’s almost as if the homeowners don’t want me to know where they live. Surely having some larger numbers that are well lit makes it easier to find the house.  

Think of the house number as a great opportunity to do something creative and inviting — something that reaches out to the public realm of the street and announces that the folks who live here want people to know it.

Now you: Please tell us about your favorite design detail in the Comments section below.