Cutting Through The Clutter

How The Process of Subtraction Quiets a Home’s Visual Noise

Homeowners can spend months contemplating a home remodel or new home construction. Maybe you’re one of them, with enough browser tabs open to Houzz, Instagram, and Pinterest to make your laptop beg for mercy. If you’re just as eager to see your dreams come to life, then you’re probably considering the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the types of countertops and cabinets in a kitchen, maybe the lighting and windows for that sweet new game room. Meanwhile, your partner might be considering the furniture, the flooring, and a hundred other ideas faved, starred, and clipped.

Before you look for more inspiration, it’s time to take a breather. And time to consider something that might be new to you—a valuable tool that complements any design: THE PROCESS OF SUBTRACTION.

At October 5, we use the process of subtraction to refine and clarify the form and function of a living space. Incorporating subtractive thinking into the design process enables us to create a home imbued with a sense of calm and purpose from the start. You could go for some of that, right?

Think back to your reaction to first entering a well-designed room (that’s in real life, not via a magazine or website). Remember the quiet, the sense of calm? It’s no accident you felt that way. It’s the result of carefully removing and hiding elements that would otherwise compete for your attention.

Now let’s take a closer look at why and how you should use subtraction to achieve your own sense of peace.

It’s Not Nothing; It’s Everything

When you hear subtraction, you might be tempted to think minimalism. They’re not the same thing. Minimalism is an aesthetic relying as much on the furnishings in a home as the architecture and structure that surround it. Minimalism is about color (or the lack of it), empty space, efficiency, and style. Subtraction, on the other hand, is more of a process and a tool. It’s aim is to examine the structure of a pre-existing space or a yet-to-be-built structure and to carefully question the purpose and placement of every element in the design. At its most essential, subtraction is about removing extraneous elements in order to strengthen a design’s goals. If the goal is peace, serenity, and flow, then whether a design achieves these will largely depend on how well subtraction is used as a design tool.

Photo credit: Pixasquare

Photo credit: Pixasquare

The process of subtraction begins in the design phase. Here at October 5, we use CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) software to take the time to think it through thoroughly. More than a wanna-be tongue-twister, the 5 T’s are the secret to the process of subtraction. (Go ahead, though, try to say it five times fast—it’s worth memorizing.) To that end, we create elevations for all interior walls in CAD. These interior elevations, or interior architecture if you prefer, allow us to meet design challenges in the computer, avoiding costly and time-consuming problem-solving in the field.

Okay…but what does subtraction actually look like in a finished project?

Glad you asked. Here are some examples:

  • Raising low ceilings and exposing ductwork in a home office can give the space a more honest presentation and strengthen the notion of work that the room is meant to convey.
  • Removing drop-headers above interior doors allow doors to run from floor to ceiling. This gives the ceiling the ability to flow uninterrupted from one room to the next, visually guiding one’s eye between rooms, as well as improving airflow.
  • In kitchens, using continuous plug strips mounted under kitchen cabinets give any backsplash an unimpeded surface, while ending tile at an inside corner eliminates the need for a quarter-round or reglet.
  • Soffits, often a last-minute solution to HVAC ducting, can be eliminated with a thorough and strategic approach to airflow, long before framing begins. You know how there’s that unlucky seat at the dining table that gets the cold air in summer and the hot air in winter? Practicing the 5 Ts lets us avoid those kinds of situations, too.
  • Incorporating large elements of glass in an exterior wall can reduce the need for lighting, not only removing the visual disruption of light cans, but also saving the homeowners in energy costs.
  • Spa-like attributes can be brought to a bathroom by moving a laminar-flow fill faucet into the ceiling, removing the need for fixtures that disturb a wall’s tranquility.
  • Careful examination of your lighting needs means common sense electrical wiring and the practical placement of comprehensible lighting switches. No more fumbling at switches that look like they’re part of Mission Control.

These examples embody the essence of subtraction. In each case, arriving at a solution starts with a question: what can we remove to improve the experience of the space? We look at lines, textures, angles, fixtures, flooring (and more) to discover—in CAD software—which elements are distractions. If you wouldn’t miss it—it goes.

Outdoor Palm Springs home
Refined kitchen with an uninterrupted backsplash
Simple entryway with clean lines
Outdoor eating area and pizza oven designed to exacting dimensions.

Incorporating Subtraction, Inside And Out

Subtraction’s not just for interiors. Put your shoes on, we’re going outside. Here, we use subtraction to examine the suitability and integrity of all outside materials. For example, subtraction might lead us to determine that a desired dry-stack stone look on an exterior wall is neither advantageous nor structural necessary. Worse yet, it might come off as superfluous. Replacing this idea with one better suited to the building’s integrity suddenly releases the tension that would have come with the stacked stone facade’s…facade. In this instance, subtraction is as much about reevaluating design ideas as it is about removing unneeded, clumsy, or dishonest architectural features. Once again, subtraction allows us to seek the calm that’s inherent in every well-designed building and to discover the qualities that strengthen a design, rather than compete or push against them.

Messy kitchen with poor quality counter and cabinets.

The Process of Subtraction? Not so much. And it’s not about a messy, cluttered kitchen. Tidying that mess won’t fix that poorly centered electrical outlet.

Modern kitchen looking out to a garden.

A perfect example of subtraction, right? Sorry, trick question. Look closely. If this were an October 5 project, we’d remove the drop-header over the glass doors, use sunk-in ceiling lighting, rethink that heating duct, and use tiles that don’t result in thin strips along the baseboards. Subtracting those visual edges would make this kitchen truly remarkable—but that can only happen with pre-construction CAD elevations of all interior walls and a firm understanding of how to use the process of subtraction.

Subtracting Costs, Adding Features. What’s Not To Like?

Applying the principles of subtraction in CAD software, where everything is malleable, can result in significant cost savings. At October 5, we avoid needing to simplify a design on site and the costs that come from such changes. We also find that simplifying various aspects of a design helps conserve the budget, allowing other features to be implemented that might not have seemed possible before.

Going The Distance—But No Further

How far do you take subtraction, though? If you’re a minimalist, go nuts. For the rest of us, it’s all about letting a fine home exude its qualities of calm and quiet without anyone noticing the techniques used to achieve that emotional resonance. For us, subtraction = unnoticed = quietness = perfection. There’s an even simpler equation, too: subtraction = happy homeowners.

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