Ways to keep the world at bay

Architect Glen Irani has lived in three modern houses he designed along the Venice canals. Here are a few of the techniques he uses to maintain privacy in an open, glass-walled dwelling:

Beware of the dark: Those passing by can see inside most readily in the evenings. Pay attention to how lighting is arranged and what it reveals.

Find hideaways: Assume that the first floor, where there aren't many opportunities to hide, is a public space. In his present home on a canal, Irani placed his office and pool on the ground floor. The living room faces the water on the second floor, the master bedroom on the third. Balconies prevent people on the walkway below from looking up into the rooms. "When people see a house that looks like a glass box, they think they are exposed," says Irani. "But I test them. I have them climb into the bed and realize that no one can see them."

Stash everyday mess: Conceal clutter behind wood or opaque glass. In one of Irani's former living rooms, built-in cabinets surrounding the fireplace have lots of space to store lawn chairs and firewood. In the kitchen, shoulder-high maple and cherry panels keep appliances and dishes out of sight of front windows.

Be flexible with window coverings: Avoid tacky overlays or iffy window tints that reduce the sense of expanding into the outdoors. Instead, install window treatments that can be pulled into place when needed. Lutron makes switch-operated shades in 300 fabrics that can provide a range of visibility, from sheer to blackout.

Think side to side: To maintain privacy in close quarters, use frosted glass "light ports" and high clerestory windows in side walls. A path from the frontyard can lead to an entry that is unseen from the walkway.

Grow a screen: Dense foliage makes it hard to see in, but also to see out. Irani uses papyrus with leggy stems and thick pompom leaves that block eye-level views into the house while allowing views to the low canal from inside. Red banana trees will reach 12 feet high and obscure the houses across the canal. Bamboo in the courtyard prevents a hemmed-in feeling.

Rise above it: Build the first floor above street level to avoid eye-to-eye contact with passersby. For Scott Burns' house, Irani designed a threshold deck, a raised platform extending from the living room that hovers above the frontyard. The Douglas fir deck is used as elevated outdoor seating and gives the feeling of separation between the interior and exterior, without looking like a barricade. Rooftop gardens grant unblocked sunsets. In Burns' house, featured in "A House on the Water" by Robert W. Knight (The Taunton Press, $35, 2003), Irani installed a hot tub and potted landscape on the roof, reachable by a winding staircase.

— Janet Eastman

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