blueberry farm, flavin architects


The Japanese concept of borrowed scenery, or shakkei, is the idea of incorporating the natural landscape into the cultivated garden. At Flavin Architects, this is a principle that we take into consideration in our home design. We aim to understand the surrounding land to make sure both the built home and the manicured spaces that encompass it speak to, and have cohesion with, the site.


Shakkei is known as an aesthetic concept primarily attributed to the spatial relations depicted in Japanese landscape paintings. When considering this notion, whether in painting, gardening, or design, you start from the outside and work your way in. What this means is that the artist, architect, or designer first takes a step back and looks at the greater surroundings of the site. Does the space have a view of the mountains, a river, or a valley?  You then consider how these natural elements will play into the design of the garden and the home; by incorporating an expanse of windows that face the vistas, as well as thoughtful landscaping choices that lead the eye to the spectacular natural elements, you embrace the borrowed scenery.


blueberry farm, flavin architects


In our Modern Blueberry Farm project in Lincoln, MA, which we completed in collaboration with Ben Wood Studio Shanghai, borrowed landscape had an impact on the design of the home. As the name would have it, the home is sited on one of the areas last surviving blueberry farms. Not only did the owners want to preserve the acres of blueberry bushes, they also wanted to create a space that was modern while being attune with its natural surroundings. The dining and living areas of the home have floor to ceiling windows that take in spectacular views of the farm, while also letting in an abundance of striking natural light found only outside of city living. The interior of the home is predominantly white, from its walls to the finishes and furniture. This is a welcomed juxtaposition to the greenery which envelopes the majority of the property.


Thoughtfully take in your surroundings when designing your home as a nod to the beauty of the natural world. Instead of separating yourself from this world, by borrowing from it and incorporating it into your daily life, you make it yours. 


Text by Alejandra Bennett, Studio Manager
Flavin Architects


Bologna, Italy


The computer has revolutionized design by giving architects the ability to convey their ideas in 3 dimension. We now email 3D models to our clients so that they can navigate their way through our designs from their iPads. With this tool, clients can better understand their home design and be fully engaged partners in a way that wasn’t possible before. The advent of virtual reality will soon make walking through a future home and making adjustments in real time a feasible endeavor.


Given the extraordinary powers of the computer, why do architects still rely upon the use pencils, paper and a few simple drafting tools? To begin to understand the strong resurgence in architectural hand drawing, an approach that has changed little since the 15th century, just search #architecturedrawing on Instagram and you’ll be amazed by the vibrancy of the drawing culture.


I first found an answer to this question when I attended architectural school in the 1980’s. High on the walls of MIT’s drafting studio were ancient plaster casts made from iconic Greek temples from the Acropolis. For nearly 100 years, budding architects had honed their drawing skills by sketching these fragments. I took up the habit, making sketches of the historic pieces and then going on to try my hand at drawing everything is sight: caricatures of professors, campus buildings, and interiors.


As I practiced drawing, I learned that my hand-eye coordination and ability to understand objects in 3D was dramatically improving my ability to design buildings. By observing, and then drawing, the environment around me I learned how the built world is made: from its building blocks to its proportions. The act of drawing the world around us commits our observations to memory and they, in turn, become part of the designer’s tool box.


Urbino, Italy 


On a recent trip to Urbino, Italy I sketched the Piazza in front of the Ducal Palace. I focused on both the overall view of the space, and then on a close up of the Egyptian Obelisk in the Piazza. When doing the sketch in closer observation, I noticed how the Renaissance architects mounted the obelisk on a contrasting marble pedestal. While I’m pretty sure I’ll never be asked to design the support for an obelisk, I did learn how contrasting design elements can be incorporated into a seamless composition and how the pedestal served the purpose of raising the obelisk so that it visually held its own in the plaza. Perhaps the most interesting observation I made was how the 2,000 year old obelisk is weathering much better than the 500 year old marble supporting it.


While living at a time that is so technologically driven definitely has its benefits for our industry, sometimes you have to do things the “old school” way to not miss the details that make up the world around us.



Text by Colin Flavin, AIA
Flavin Architects




Flavin Architects, Modern Screen Porch in Wellesley, MA


The practice of uniting residential architecture and design to a home’s natural setting first became popular in the Unites States in the 1920’s. It’s an idea that resonates greatly with our studio’s philosophy of Natural Modernism. At Flavin Architects, we strive to create homes that speak to their surroundings in a cohesive and fluid way.


To create this relationship, we approach the built environment of your home and its surrounding landscape as reciprocal spaces. Connection between your home’s interiors and the landscape can be done successfully by establishing visual connections, using a natural material palette, and making cohesive furniture selections.


In your interior, high ceilings and steel framed windows and doors create the illusion of disappearing boundaries. Open floor plans and clear lines draw the eye to the outdoor spaces, inviting you to “experience” the natural surroundings of your home from the interior. You can also connect your spaces through decoration. Lean towards natural materials: you can look beyond wood and use cane, rattan, or other natural plant fibers in your home furnishings. Juxtaposing these elements with softer textures and pops of color creates a sense of warmth necessary for an indoor space. Incorporating natural materials like stone and wood further tie indoor rooms to your outdoor space. A bluestone for the flooring used inside your home can be continued onto a terrace to define a larger entertaining space.


Furniture that is designed withstand the elements, while still speaking to the interior, is ideal for your terrace. Cohesion through contrast can be achieved by incorporating industrial materials in your lawn furniture. Using modern materials like stainless steel in your garden decoration carries the finishes seen inside a contemporary home to the outdoors. 


Flavin Architects, Modern Screen Porch in Wellesley


For a renovation project in Wellesley, MA we worked with Landscape Architect Zen Associates to blur the boundary between interiors and exteriors. The addition of a modern screen porch seamlessly links the home’s structure to the extensive gardens. A grey granite floor runs from inside the screened porch to the outside terrace to achieve an extension of the home’s entertaining space. A black nylon insect screen is used for maximum transparency and a standing seam copper overhang projects the home into the garden.  The addition of the porch creates a refuge from the blaring summer heat, while allowing the owners to savor the fresh air and surrounding landscape.   


Henry Hoover House,


In Massachusetts, Henry Hoover was a pioneer of the movement to unify a home’s interior design with its natural landscape. Hoover benefited from working in a post-war era where he had access to an abundance of mass-produced materials like glass, metals and concrete. In the design of his own home in Lincoln, MA, he took advantage of such materials to fashion rooms with high ceilings, vast open spaces, and a south-facing wall of windows to capture the vistas of the Cambridge Reservoir. It was imperative to him that his homes have a harmonious union with their natural surroundings, and he picked his sites based on where his homes would best “grow.”  Instead of leveling the land to fit the needs of an ideal home, Hoover designed imaginative and modern structures that fit into the landscape like a puzzle piece.


When the distinction between inside and out becomes fluid in your home design, you redefine the spaces in which you live.  


Text by Alejandra Bennett, Studio Manager
Flavin Architects

Sketch of the Courtyard Garden at Ryōan-ji, by Colin Flavin


Ever since reading “The Secret Garden” as a child, I have been fascinated by the idea of enclosed gardens. The book, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, describes the mystery and thrill of entering a walled garden after it being hidden for years. At Flavin Architects, we’ve tried to capture the essence of the walled garden by designing diminutive courtyard gardens in many of our homes.


Our design approach is a departure from the classic New England style where the form of the house bears little relationship to the surrounding land. Instead, we favor a floor plan design where the house is laid out into distinct “wings.” for example; the bedroom might be located in a wing that is perpendicular to the main structure of the house. The different wings of the home stretch out into the landscape, coming together to create outdoor spaces that are contained by the house on three sides and are open to nature on the fourth. We love creating this sort of reciprocity between house and land, and witnessing the intimate exterior spaces that the relationship ultimately creates.


Japanese Characters written for Colin by a Monk at the Gardens of Ryōan-ji, Japan


This approach can often be seen in buildings that have expanded over time. A perfect example of this can be found in the designs of Japanese temples and houses. Over time as a temple complex grew with the addition of new spaces, like a meditation hall, dining or sleeping quarters, these new structures were simply added to the original composition. The resulting outdoor spaces created by these additions are wonderfully serendipitous, coming together to form a range of shapes, sizes and orientation. Rather than being a negative, these leftover spaces are inherently more intimate in scale than the surrounding landscape and provide the garden designer with a creative constraint to make a garden specific to that space. The gardens of Ryōan-ji in Kyoto, Japan, where I visited and made a sketch of the floor plan, are contained by buildings on two sides and garden walls on the other two. Remarkably, the garden designer created a miniature ocean with waves of raked gravel and islands of carefully chosen boulders.


Gardens of Ryōan-ji, Japan. Floor plan sketch by Colin Flavin


Our approach riffs off this Japanese tradition by creating surprising outdoor courtyards that capture nature. These spaces ultimately take on a different character, depending on the particular site conditions, orientation to the sun, and Owners preferences.


We don't suggest one particular style for these gardens, but to let the natural surroundings be the inspiration. For example, when the courtyard is abutting a wetland, a good idea is to go with plants that naturally grow in that environment. Orientation is key to garden design. A north facing garden of ferns, moss and some native shrubs, like azaleas, can be spectacular. A south-facing courtyard has many more options. One of my favorites is a gravel or stone terrace to sit in the sun during the shoulder seasons, the surrounding walls of the courtyard capturing the sun’s rays and blocking the wind. The addition of stepping stones can provide access and a defining structure for the garden.


If the courtyard is surrounded by windows that allow the garden to be seen from many vantage points throughout the house, make a garden that looks beautiful year round. The branching structure of many small trees and shrubs are beautiful in the winter, also known as  the “stick season.”


The lesson here is to embrace the nontraditional house formation. Thinking outside the box can lead to the creation of beautiful, unique and unexpected spaces. In the words of Burnett, “If you look the right way, you can see the whole world is a garden.”


Text by Colin Flavin, AIA
Flavin Architects