Why Is Architectural Symmetry So Satisfying?
Symmetry is popular in classically-oriented and more formal architecture. Because of the visual harmony of symmetrical homes, they tend to be among the most popular and appealing options on the market.
Here, we will look at styles that emphasize symmetry and some of our favorite and most popular symmetrical home plans. We’ll also touch on the few drawbacks of pure symmetry in architecture and some of the best alternatives, should you need one.
What is a Symmetrical House?
Symmetry is a simple concept. In it, each side of a shape is a duplicate of another – so if you could fold an object across itself, the pieces would match perfectly.
In architecture, symmetry refers to the geometry of a building. This means that the building is the same on either side of the axis.
While there are multiple facets of architectural symmetry, the two most common types are Bilateral and Radial. In Bilateral Symmetry, two sides act as mirror images of each other and can be vertical (up and down axis) or horizontal (across the axis). In Radial Symmetry, the pieces “bloom” from a central axis, like a starfish or a tulip flower. You might see this in architecture in gazebos or cupolas.
This Southern Country Colonial-style home is a good example of horizontal bilateral symmetry. The facade forms a perfect mirror image on each side of the front door and central dormer (Plan #142-1040).
The Most Common Features in a Symmetrical House
Here are the kinds of things you can look out for when assessing the symmetry of a home:
Each symmetrical home design has a focal point. This point is what “splits” the house. In other words, this is the home’s axis. This could be anything from a well-placed front door, an entry path, or even a landscape element.
If the home is designed well, this focal element is not hard to find because your eye is immediately drawn to it.
One of the most common elements of a symmetrical house plan is that the windows are completely balanced in both placement and proportions. The window peering into the master bedroom matches the window into the breakfast room on the opposite side of the house perfectly.
If there are any extra features, like the color of the framing, the frequency of the grilles, or a design in the panes, those match too.
Gables are extremely difficult to pull off effectively in non-symmetrical homes because they often look out of place alone. They typically come in multiples of two and are evenly distributed across the frontal facade of a home.
If there are an odd number of gables, then the central gable is aligned with the home’s access and functions as a mirror image of itself.
The European style home is a study in symmetry, starting with the paired half-hip gables on each side of the house. It went even further with paired garage doors and paired lower- and upper-story windows on each side of the dormers central vertical axis, central upper window, and front door (Plan #195-1088).
Complementary Roof Lines
A symmetrical home is all about clean, matching lines. Whatever the roof is doing on one side of the home’s focal point, it will do the other. Essentially, you could fold the house in half along the middle, and it will fold perfectly.
Advantages of a Symmetrical House
These are the main reasons why homeowners might choose to purchase or build a symmetrical home:
Overall Aesthetics of the Home
This is likely the most popular reason builders choose to create symmetrical houses, and homeowners enjoy living in them. Elements of symmetry have been proven to be aesthetically pleasing to the human eye. In terms of architecture, symmetry offers clean, predictable lines, making for a very organized home.
The Option for Partial Symmetry
An entire building organization can be made symmetrical; however, it’s also possible to have only partial portions of the home completely match.
For example, the front of the home’s windows and gables might match, but its sides might have different numbers of windows or dimensions. This still gives you the flexibility of a non-symmetrical home while still maintaining the appearance of the preferred aesthetic.
An Appeal to Tradition
In the early days of American home architecture, symmetrical home designs were the only available options. Because of this, many moments in American architectural history can be defined by these features.
Builders and buyers who prefer a more traditional home are likely to enjoy symmetry.
As you can see here, the front door and the upper-middle window act as a dual focal point for this Colonial Style home. The front porch windows and secondary upstairs windows match completely. This particular home also takes advantage of the concept of “partial symmetry” by adding a bonus room on the left above the garage.
For more options in the Colonial Style, please click here.
Cape Cod Homes
This lovely Cape Cod home uses the second-story window as a focal point, as each element of the home, including lighting fixtures, porch features, rooflines, and extensions, seems to unfold effortlessly from this central location. Note that the entire house, including the garage on the right, which is often an added "appendage," conforms to exact symmetry.
For more Cape Cod house plans, please click here.
Finally, Georgian homes are often also built in a symmetrical style. In this Southern Colonial-style house in the Georgian tradition, you can see the equally placed dormers, columns, and windows, all fanning out from the front doors central axis.
To see more Georgian homes, please click here.
Disadvantages of a Symmetrical House
As widely popular and pretty as symmetrical house plans tend to be, there are still a few caveats to consider:
Requires a Symmetrical Floor Plan
If the outside of the house matches, it often follows that the inside of the home does, too. This can be a bit constricting because different rooms might have different importance to certain homeowners.
For example, in a symmetrical Colonial Style home, the living room and the master bedroom might be opposite each other off of the central hallway. But, they might also have the exact same dimensions and window placement, which could be stifling for some.
Places Fashion over Function
By putting “function” first, it is possible that a custom-built home could more closely fit your family’s lifestyle and needs, rather than trying to build within the rules of symmetry.
As mentioned, following a rigid structure might be a drawback when constructing a home. Sometimes things that look nice might not make perfect sense.
If you find yourself running into this problem, you might consider abandoning symmetry for simple balance instead.
What is an Asymmetrical House?
An asymmetrical house is simply one that doesn’t have a central focal point – or doesnt display mirrored balance along an axis.
These homes can still be aesthetically pleasing and highly functional, as long as there is a “balance” of positive and negative forms throughout the structure.
For example, popular asymmetrical home styles include both European and American styles.
This Tudor home displays characteristics that the style is famous for unmatched steep gables and tall windows of varying heights. However, even though they are not perfectly matched, the elements in well-designed examples of these homes still create visual harmony, as they don’t compete for attention.
To learn more about the English Tudor home, please click here.
The French Eclectic style is known for being at least two stories with high rooflines, steep roof pitches of different heights, dormers, and multi-paned windows. Even though these elements, as they appear in this French Country style home, are asymmetrical, they still follow a pattern, which creates balance.
To learn more about this style, please click here.
These homes are rather special. Their popularity and flexibility can follow many different design principles and be both symmetrical and asymmetrical.
In either instance, these homes traditionally feature gable or hip roofs with classic shingles and overhangs, porches with columns, exposed rafters and beams inside, lots of windows, a fireplace, and natural building materials.
To see more Craftsman Houses, please click here.
When Asymmetry Goes Wrong
The most important part of asymmetry is balance. If a home’s exterior is unbalanced, it creates tension, and elements may feel distracting.
There is a phenomenon known as the “McMansion” in which there are so many overlapping volumes, mismatched elements, and shifting planes that the eye constantly jumps from place to place, with no moment to rest.
This house is large, but that may be about all it’s got going for it. There is no focal point for the eye to make sense of the architecture and no visible design plan. It almost looks like two or three buildings randomly mashed together. For example, there are seven different sizes of windows on the front facade alone and at least four styles of window trim/framing (photo credit: Salinas California Residential Area by Brendel under license CC BY-SA 2.5).
That is, McMansions often jumble together too many different architectural styles and elements, like combining steeply sloped roofs, multiple rooflines, and pronounced dormers to produce an assault on the senses.
Symmetry is a popular architectural element for a reason. Because of the visual harmony of symmetrical homes, they tend to be among the most popular and appealing options on the market. However, even if a home isn’t perfectly symmetrical, elemental balance is still essential.
Footnote: The upper left house in the lead image of this article is a 1-story Farmhouse style home with 3 bedrooms and 2.5 baths in 1993 sq. ft. For more information, see Plan #142-1183.