A Camouflaged Entrance to the Neo-Mega-Mudroom.

(By John M. Corbett with Bob Moulton. Published in the "Building Arts Notebook" in the Spring 2003 Period Homes Magazine.)

It is a cliché to note that the automobile has redesigned the American landscape. The news is that it is hard at work on a new project, redesigning the American home. Nowhere is this more evident than in the frozen north where the garage is evolving into a grand reception area and usurping the function of the mudroom as primary entrance to the dwelling. Designers have long been at pains to incorporate this structure, at first just a storage shed for the family car, into the site as gracefully as possible. As Americans acquire more cars, and as it becomes less common for a family member to leave the house without one, this task has become more complex. As garages grow to three, four and more bays they can begin to dominate the site, transforming it from a home to a car storage facility with onsite accommodations for drivers, passengers and baggage. For measures that can be taken to conceal its presence, and observations on culture and building design relating to the family garage, we consulted with Robert Moulton of Moulton Custom Garage Door Company in Duxbury, VT. Mr. Moulton is an artisan and garage door technician who specializes in muting the effect of a blank garage door by camouflaging it with traditional architectural detail. These are sectional, overhead doors disguised as rolling or swinging doors by the detailed application of traditional materials. They create a remarkably sturdy illusion dispelled only by the raising of the door and the successive breaking of its horizontal sections for storage below the ceiling.

Robert Moulton is a native Vermonter and student of the way traditional North Country buildings deal with the snow, ice, slush and mud, or any combination thereof, that surrounds them for half the year. The mudroom, for example, is a partially heated chamber at the primary entrance which allows people to shed this slop before entering. The familiar connected barn complex, another example, interposes a string of subsidiary buildings between the barn and house so that it is never necessary to venture out to reach the cows. The overhead garage door itself is an adaptation to the northern climate, being operable in snow without the necessity of clearing a passage to allow the opening of the door. He sees builders incorporating these large vehicle reception areas into the home by working with these traditional ideas. These garage areas function as sort of a grand mudroom and are frequently modeled after parts of the connected farmhouse, Victorian carriage house and other familiar adaptations. He himself refers to these same buildings to develop credible, accurate period detail. Recently, he has furnished doors for a residential barn conversion in which the first floor was dedicated to a three bay garage with living quarters directly above. He removed weathered board and batten siding from the back of the building to build a garage door that disappeared into the existing historic fabric. In doors for an Adirondack "camp", he worked with peeled logs for siding.

Growth of the garage has been driven not just by the need to store more cars but by the demand for more dedicated space per vehicle. In the old days, passengers and cargo would frequently remove from the car in the driveway, because the garage was too cramped to permit door swings sufficient to allow a comfortable exit. In the grandest of our new grand vehicle reception areas, room is allowed for full door swings and easy passage around the vehicle plus, often, raised curbs alongside for foot traffic. Growth of the size of the bay area has been followed by an increase in the size of the door. The standard door size of 8 by 7 feet in height is now no longer stocked. Robert Moulton finds himself working mostly with sizes of 10, 12 and 14 feet in width and 8 feet tall. He recently built an 18 foot by 11 and a half foot door for a garage with a 26 by 52 foot footprint and a second door at the far end. The door itself weighed 1,800 pounds and bore a cover depicting two pairs of double swinging doors, with hardware, separated by a raised mullion or pilaster.

The cost of heating these large spaces makes it necessary to create a tight seal for these openings and to fill them with a material with a high insulating R value. A diligent and experienced technician can create a very tight building seal with an overhead door. It may be useful to note that the general technique is to install the door first and then to build the mechanicals back from there. The R values are determined by the base material of the horizontal door slabs, plus the cumulative value of the covering material. The base slab material is either a foam filled hollow core wood slab or one built out of a tube of 20 gauge sheet steel with an insulating value of about R16. Besides the high insulation, the steel slabs also offer a high level of security. The wood core slabs, on the other hand, offer a level of design flexibility since they can be fabricated to almost any width. Whatever the material, the bottom slabs are, in general, of uniform width while the top slab can be left tall enough to accommodate any height windows. Long sectional windows give away the overhead door format whereas taller windows support the illusion of carriage doors. As base layers, finish, trim and false hardware are added to the cover, R values will increase significantly above that of just the slab and so will overall thickness and weight. A covered steel slab can finish out three inches thick. The capacity of all the mechanical systems should be increased to match the additional weight of these heavier loads. Whatever the weight, if it is carefully counterbalanced, it will be easily opened by hand in an emergency, should the vehicle ever be needed during a power outage.

Climate dictates that North Country garages will become an extension of the living space whereas the garage in the South or the West is a security measure or just something nice people do for their car. Wherever they are located, however, local architecture can furnish traditional models for humanizing these structures and harmonizing them with existing buildings.

As seen in the photo above, designers have long been at pains to incorporate this structure, at first just a storage shed for the family car, into the site as gracefully as possible.


Click on images below to enlarge.