When people think of Eichlers, they often think of the atrium. Although not all Eichler models feature atria, these room-sized, open spaces may be their most distinctive design feature. When you walk through the front door and step back into the outdoors, you know you are entering a unique home with a personality all its own.
At first, you may be surprised, or possibly even delighted, for your typical expectations of home design are turned inside out. Whatever reaction you have, the Eichler atrium dares you to deal with it on its own terms. Unconventional? Absolutely. Dramatic? Always. Practical? Well, not particularly. The Eichler atrium separates romantics from realists.
Most agree that the atrium adds immeasurably to the feel of the Eichler home, complementing the openness at the back of the house with an open space located in the center. Viewed from the inside of the house by day, the atrium becomes a visual focal point, offering tremendous light and crossviews that bring the house to life.
At night, an aesthetically lit atrium takes on a surreal, aquarium-like presence, reflecting a languid light that softens our experience of place. When standing in the heart of the atrium, you can feel like you're at the center of the universe—at least your universe. On a starry night, with the darkness framed by the roof line, that patch of sky is yours! With the house spread out around you, you may feel a divine sense of being in the world—surrounded by your home and it's ambient meanings, enhanced by the natural elements and the cosmos above in all its harmony and balance. These are the moments when we are moved by the power of our environment.
Capturing a piece of the outdoors and building a house around it also pushes to the limit the Eichler philosophy of transitional spaces. Talking to Eichler owners about their atria, you find a wide range of reactions: everything from one's visual sense to everyday practicalities and even home utility bills. For many, retaining the open atrium is an article of faith in the Eichler legacy. Eichler dwellers love the light and natural showcase for exotic plants, flowers, and other visual flourishes. Those who have kids marvel at the convenience of having their children play "outdoors in the house" within full view of parents.
Bill Mannion and his family have lived in an open atrium Eichler since 1990. Their atrium features a luscious garden with floor-to-ceiling vines and exotic Birds of Paradise plants that give off a sheltered greenhouse effect. A few years ago, Bill added several four-inch-wide redwood strips standing on their sides that extend across the two heavy beams that run the length of the atrium. This cuts down on the light and heat while retaining an open-air quality.
"I really like the openness and airiness of the open atrium,"Mannion admits. "We don't really use it for anything other than as an entryway and small garden. We've talked about putting the ping-pong table in here, but never did. We used to have a chair and table out here, and I would sit here in the morning and have coffee and a cigarette. So, I guess you could call it a smoking room."
Despite preferring the open atrium, Mannion has learned to live around some of the inconveniences that it imposes.
"It does feel like wasted space at times, but I don't know anything I'd rather have in here. The house is plenty big enough for us, so I don't feel pressure to add to the indoor living space. "This house has a thin roof, and the heat comes right through during the summer. So, we really need the air from the atrium to move through the house to keep it cool. During the winter, though, it's tough with the loss of heat, and the rain. While I would like to find some solution for that, I still want to keep it open to the light, because some of the nicest days around here are in the winter months."
For others, the romance of an open atrium quickly falls victim to harsh reality. Having an open atrium severely limits what the space can be used for. Considering the modest size of most Eichlers, useable square footage—especially so centrally located—is at a premium for most families. Most who cover their atria furnish them as sitting rooms, owing to the contemplative atmosphere they induce. Others use them as exercise rooms, play rooms, or solariums.
Robert Bruce Epstein is an artist and furniture designer who uses his covered atrium—its cover is nonretractable but has small vents—as an art gallery, which he calls The Highstone Studio, to display his own paintings and art. Epstein's atrium also features a small Koi pond in the center of the space that casts a tropical look to the lightly shaded environment.