Sunday, November 16, 2014

House Refinements

What is the difference between architecture and building? For some, the difference is related to the structure's use, i.e: all public buildings are architecture whereas, all domestic or industrial buildings are simply places for people to take shelter from the weather. Yet there are beautiful pavilions, small buildings, and houses which are considered great works of architecture.  For others, the significance of the structure is what separates architecture from mere building. This would suggest that the Philadelphia Waterworks by Benjamin Latrobe is mere shelter for waterworks equipment, whereas Snow White's Castle (a very significant structure for many) is architecture - and we know that is not the case! Monticello is simply a house, albeit a beautifully crafted one. It is one of the most iconic pieces of architecture in America.  Its architect, Thomas Jefferson was not only the third President of the United States but also, a refined man who traveled Europe and learned from the best examples before embarking on his own architectural pursuits. We propose that what separates architecture from mere building is architectural refinement.
Monticello by Thomas Jefferson

Philadelphia Waterworks by Benjamin Latrobe
In modernist architecture the idea of refinement is seen in buildings by Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Khan and Richard Meier, among many others.  Wright's materials and proportions, especially in houses like Robie House and Fallingwater, demonstrate refinement in proportion, scale, and in how different materials come together. Louis Khan's use of brick in his buildings at Chandigarh, his use of stainless steel and wood panels on the exterior of the Yale British Art Gallery, are very refined uses of those materials in architecture. Richard Meier's three dimensional geometrical essays in white painted wood, glass, and steel and their painstaking detailing is certainly among the best that any one architect could achieve in a lifetime.

Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright

Douglas House by Richard Meier
But what about traditional houses, are they architecture or simply building? We suggest that the same answer applies to traditional houses; what can make them transcend into architecture is their refinement. Houses must accommodate a program (i.e. rooms based on needs) into a predetermined area but only those that do so with refinement are considered excellent works of architecture. Our service as architects and designers of houses consists in creating beautifully proportioned buildings fitting in with their surroundings and beautifully proportioned rooms seamlessly integrated with the specific client requirements and decoration.

Gunston Hall, a Georgian house

A Dutch Colonial house
Most traditional houses today are a developement of a Colonial Revival type.  These vary by regional use which is influenced not only by climatic factors, but also by cultural ones: Victorian, Tudor, Georgian, Federal, Shingle, Dutch, Cape Cod, etc; the names vary according to region and local usage, but the idea is the same.  We decide which type is culturally relevant, depending on where we are designing.  One of my mentors, Jaque Robertson, who began his architectural career as a "moderninst" and later developed into a "traditionalist", talks about the type's "DNA" rather than referring to these as styles.  Conceptualized this way, the architecture regains its tradition and its freedom since one is not bound by rigid rules of "style" but, one is free to invent while keeping the "DNA" of the type.  Since there are many expressions within the language of traditional architecture, there are also many expressions of architectural refinements. What follows is a discussion of some of these refinements.
Graduated clapboard siding at the Mather House

Graduated roofing slates
While the massing of traditional houses is composed of simple volumes, the materials used on the roofs and walls vary as much as budgets will allow. Slate roof shingles would not be used on Cape Cod houses but they would be entirely appropriate for a brick or stone Georgian house. Slate roofs should be graduated so that the thicker shingles are used towards the bottom of the roof while the thinner ones are used towards the top.  There are also instances where the wall siding exposure is also graduated so that the wider pieces are used at the bottom, and the narrower ones at the top of the wall.  One such instance occurs at the Mather House in Connecticut (see photo above- courtesy of More commonly however, siding variances simply accommodate the sizes of windows so that the siding begins and ends on a whole board.
Larger windows on the lower floor

Colunmns with entasis
In most traditional houses windows are typically smaller on the upper floor and larger on the lower floor, not only in response to the uses (more public on the first, more private on the second) but also, because this makes the building look more elegant. Entry porticoes typically have columns with entasis which also renders them more elegant than simple tubes. In houses, entasis starts from the bottom of the columns instead of a third up the shaft to enhance the feeling of verticality. Also, instead of sitting the columns on a wood plinth, it is better to support them on bluestone plinths to avoid rot and give a greater sense of strength and stability. These columns will support an entablature which in turn can support a pediment. The entablature aligns with the upper necking of the columns which means that the porch footprint is slightly larger than the footprint of the roof covering the porch.

In shingle type houses, it is customary to use Alaskan yellow cedar shingles on the roofs and bleached western red cedar shingles on the walls. When the shingles weather to a gray color, the different wood makes the ensemble look more interesting because of the slightly different shades on the roof than on the wall. In many instances, the walls and roofs are built with an outward bend at the bottom edges; this makes the buildings look lively rather than staid.

Alaskan yellow cedar shingles on roofs and bleached western red cedar shingles on walls
In stone houses, even when rubble is used, all the openings should have a properly proportioned lintel and sill.  In some cases, coursed stone walls can also be graduated so that the coursing varies slightly from wider stones at the bottom to narrower ones at the top; this enhances the feeling of height in smaller buildings.  This effect can be observed at the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. Charles Platt designed the Freer in 1916; by then, he had successfully completed about 30 houses.
Details on a house by Charles Platt

Freer Gallery by Charles Platt
Carefully coordinating the proportions of all these elements and in turn coordinating them with the particular "DNA" of the architectural type is the job of the architect.  When done well, it is a continual source of joy and discovery for both the owner and the architect.

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