Monday, October 17, 2016


Grant Wood's painting American Gothic
features a "Carpenter's Gothic" cottage
of the kind that was built across the nation
during the 1850s, when Andrew Jackson
Downing's plan books were popular.
Stock building plans have helped shape America’s domestic architecture since the early 1800s, when Asher Benjamin’s The American Builder’s Companion helped popularize the Federal style.  It was among the first American plan books to find widespread popularity.

In 1850, the self-taught architect Andrew Jackson Downing published a plan book of Gothic Revival cottages decorated with brackets, finials, and gingerbread.  These designs, derisively nicknamed “Carpenter Gothic” due to their rather two-dimensional detailing,  nevertheless became enormously popular.  Soon Gothic Revival cottages were springing up from coast to coast, particularly in rural areas. The painter Grant Wood later immortalized them in his most famous work, American Gothic (1930), which features a very Downingesque farmhouse behind the pitchfork-wielding farmer and his dour wife.
Victorian-era plan book houses were by no means
small; elaborate examples such as this one
could range up to twenty rooms or more.

Victorian era plan books offered a huge range of architectural styles, from Italianate to Mansard to Stick to Queen Anne, as well as quite a few that defied categorization.  Floor plans ranged from one story cottages all the way to three story confections with twenty rooms or more.  When Victorian home styles fell out of favor in the late Nineties, the sedate Colonial Revival and shingled designs of such East Coast firms as McKim, Mead & White were quickly copied by plan book publishers. The national availability of plan books during this time also helped disseminate the latest architectural trends from the East Coast, which traditionally set the architectural pace for the nation.

During the 1920s, plan books helped
spread the popularity of the so-called
California Bungalow across the nation,
and made the West the trend setter
for residential design thereafter.
After the beginning of the twentieth century, however, plan books began to create the opposite effect. They played a major role in popularizing the bungalow, a humble little house that, unlike its Victorian predecessors, emphasized economy and space efficiency. In 1915, E. W. Stillwell & Co. of Los Angeles published a plan book entitled “Little Bungalows” which featured a whole range of charming and inexpensive bungalow homes. Furthermore, it sagely advised:

“It is better to build a small house than to overburden the budget with a large one.  A beautiful small house is just as expressive of character, aims, and aspirations as the large house. Mere size is a waste of money and human endeavor.”

These post-Victorian arguments for simplicity and economy apparently hit home. The little plan books were extremely popular, and the Stillwell firm quickly followed up with others, as did its competitors. The so-called California Bungalow style gained enormous popularity throughout the state, and in short order began appearing across the nation as well. For the first time, a new residential style had originated in the west and spread eastward—a development due in large part to the widespread availability of plan books.

Yup, these "Contemporaries"
were plan book houses too—this one is a
Lindal Cedar Homes plan book dating from 1990.
Following World War II, stock plans gained another forum through mass-marketed home magazines such as Better Homes & Gardens.  The frequency of these publications made them even better suited to respond to rapidly changing tastes. During the Fifties and Sixties, for example, such magazines helped popularize the California Rancher and other West Coast styles nationwide; more recently, they’ve helped spur a renewed national interest in Colonial and other traditional styles.

Today, with the Internet's vast collection of architectural plans available in seconds rather weeks, stock plans will likely be more influential than ever.

Monday, October 10, 2016


About this time of year I start getting calls from homeowners who inform me, with grim resignation, “My roof needs to be replaced.”

Yup, it may look ugly, but that doesn't mean it will leak.
On many types of roofs, the roofing felt
keeps out the water, not the shingles.
“Does it leak?” I ask.  

“No,”  they respond.

Remember that old saw, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?  It applies nicely to roofs, too.    
Many people confuse a roof’s appearance with its ability to keep out water. But many types of roofing—wood shingles and shakes, in particular—can look positively awful and still function perfectly well.  So don’t automatically assume that a shabby roof is a leaky roof.

Vents and other roof penetrations are notorious spot
for leaks to develop. Look there first. You may
save yourself a ton of money.
Moreover, even if an isolated leak does develop, you may be able to repair it with a five dollar tube of sealant rather than a twenty thousand dollar reroof. That’s because the majority of roof leaks occur at pipe or vent penetrations, or at intersections with other roofs or walls—in short, wherever the roof material is discontinuous. Leaks are less common out in the “field” or middle of the roof surface, so re-roofing these areas to fix a single small leak is often a waste of money.  

What’s the answer? Find a roofing contractor willing to determine the cause of your leak rather than shotgunning the problem with a costly new roof. This may not be easy—understandably, most contractors would rather sell a big-ticket item like a complete re-roof—but there are a few out there who are still willing to hunt down a leak.  

The stain is here—does that mean the leak is
right above it? Not necessarily.
A sharp-eyed contractor may find something as simple as a seam that’s opened up or a vent with its storm collar missing.  Flashing (the sheet metal installed at roof intersections and penetrations) is another common leak point, especially at skylights, chimneys, and areas where roofs abut vertical walls. Even building movement due to ground settlement or earthquakes can sometimes open up junctures between roofs and walls or chimneys, creating leaks where there were none before.  

Because water often travels sideways along rafters or runs down inside walls before appearing inside your house, water stains in ceilings or walls aren’t always a good indicator of a leak’s location. A discoloration in the middle of a ceiling might well be caused by a leaking vent ten feet away. That’s why it’s a good idea to leave leak-finding to a pro. Besides, a lot of careless stomping around on a roof can create more leaks than it fixes.  
You just spent $20,000 on a new roof.
But was a tube of this stuff all you really needed?

Hunting down roof leaks can be frustrating, but in some cases it may put off the need to re-roof for many  years. Once the leak is found, it’s just a matter of repairing it as recommended by your roofing contractor—sometimes, a tube of caulk or roofing mastic will be all that's called for. 

If the leak can’t be easily repaired, or if the field of the roof leaks—or if you just can’t stand the way your roof looks anymore—then it really may be time to reroof. But until then, repairing isolated leaks can save you a great deal of money. 

So don’t drive tacks with a sledgehammer. Before you resort to the expense of a whole new roof, try the simple solutions first.  

Monday, October 3, 2016


Count Rumford:
Fired up over efficiency.
Would you believe that a conventional masonry fireplace actually wastes up to 95% of the heat  it produces? It’s true. A burning fire creates a very strong draft of air up the chimney. All that air being sucked out of your house is then replaced with cold air that infiltrates through cracks and crevices. The warmth you feel from the fire is mostly radiant heat—essentially, infrared heat from the firelight. So a roaring fire that seems to be warming your home is actually contributing a pitifully small amount of heat.

Few things in the home have evolved as slowly as the fireplace. In 1798, the English scientist Count Rumford developed the first theories for fireplace efficiency. In the subsequent 150 years, very little changed in fireplace design.
The tall, narrow proportions of the
Rumford fireplace (this is a modern day
example) didn't suit Modernist architects,
no matter how efficient it was.
(Contractor: Monterey Masonry,
Sheffield, Massachusetts.)

In fact, many fireplaces actually regressed in efficiency—modern architects didn’t like Rumford’s high, narrow, and shallow fireboxes, which didn’t fit in with postwar home styles. So they modified them to look more modern.  The results were fireplaces even less efficient than those of Rumford's day.

Still, there were some improvements during the twentieth century.  One of the earliest refinements was a metal jacket installed around the firebox that took in cold air near the floor, warmed it, and exhausted it through vents above the fireplace.  Although it was a simple idea, it made a big difference in efficiency.

In 1927, Heatilator introduced the manufactured steel
fireplace unit, now the standard of the housing industry.
This more contemporary Heatilator advertising image
shows how the units distributed warm air into the room.
Eventually, prefabricated metal fireplaces were developed that completely eliminated the use of masonry. In the late 1920s, Heatilator introduced the first "manufactured" fireplace built of steel; in later years the company pioneered a system that could be supplemented by fans and ductwork to distribute warmed air to other rooms. In 1954 one of Heatilator’s competitors, Majestic, patented an all-steel fireplace that could be installed directly against wood framing, making installation much simpler and cheaper.  The unit could be positioned anywhere in a room and didn’t require any special reinforcement or fireproofing.

In the last thirty years, improvements in fireplace efficiency have been even more dramatic, thanks in part to nationwide energy efficiency mandates based on those pioneered by California in 1978 under Governor Jerry Brown.

Modern fireplaces are required to have glass doors
and to take in combustion air from outside. Hence,
while efficiency is way up, sitting in front of a fireplace
nowadays is more like watching television.
Today, prefabricated metal fireplaces are the rule rather than the exception. One reason is that they can be installed for about one-third the cost of a masonry fireplace. They’ve also been continually refined for efficiency and good draft, properties that in masonry fireplaces had depended largely on the mason’s skill. Here are a sampling of the choices available in prefabricated fireplaces:

•  Standard single-sided fireplaces are available in a large range of sizes, from a firebox opening of about 30” wide all the way up to 48”.  When equipped with optional electric fans and ductwork, they’re about four times as efficient as a conventional, open-fronted masonry fireplace.  Because the glass doors somewhat restrict the view of the fire, the smaller-sized units are often raised off the floor for better visibility.

Down on the Corner: A popular type of
corner fireplace suited to modern interiors.
This one is by Majestic.
•  Corner units, which are open at the front and on one side, are often used in a modern setting.  However, these fireplaces, and the types that follow, generally will look out of place in a traditional style home.

•  Two-sided (see-through) fireplaces can be used as room dividers between  living/dining or bedroom/sitting areas.  In recent years they’ve also been used directly next to whirlpool baths, although the practicality of this location seems doubtful.

•  Cove or peninsula type units have glass on the two broad faces and one narrow face, and are also very useful as room dividers.   Bay-type units are open at the front and on both sides.

•  Island fireplaces have glass on all four sides and are entirely freestanding.  Of course, they’re still enclosed on top to hide the flue.  Don’t confuse these with the rocket-shaped fireplaces of the 1960s, though. They’re much more low-key.


Monday, September 26, 2016


In honor of this presidential election season, get your mind into the gutter. The rain gutter, I mean. It’s one of the most prominent architectural features on a home, yet few people make a conscious choice about which style to use.

Your garden-variety ogee (or "K-style") aluminum gutter
and downspout. These make up about 80 percent
of all gutter installations.
Traditional home styles, for example, usually demand some type of molded gutter profile—an ogee or cove, or less commonly, a half-round. On modern home styles, a bolder, more linear profile such as a plain box will generally look best.  Many new homes feature “full fascia” gutters that are deep enough to cover the rafter tails, eliminating the need for a separate fascia board behind them.

Downspouts (technically called “rain water leaders”) should also be carefully thought out before installation time. I’ve seen lots of beautiful houses defaced by downspouts snaking all over the walls. Figure out where they’ll be least visible, and then verify the locations with the gutter installer.

Oops—you forgot to maintain those
sheet metal gutters.
Now it's going to cost you.
If you’re not sure what style of gutter and downspout will complement your home, take a drive through a neighborhood with similar home styles and find one you like. A skilled sheet metal contractor can duplicate most any profile, but bear in mind that complex shapes can get very expensive.  

Here are the most popular types of gutter in use today:

• Aluminum gutters have become the standard of the residential industry. They’re available in traditional ogee and half round profiles as well as more rectilinear modern styles. Most have a baked-on finish that's available in a limited number of colors. Although they're available in twenty-foot lengths, many common gutter profiles can be fabricated onsite from continuous coil stock, allowing gutters of any reasonable length to be fabricated without seams.

Traditional half-round copper gutter and ornamental
leader head—beautiful and essentially maintenance free,
but with a very substantial first cost.
• Sheet metal gutters are much more substantial than aluminum and will hold a crisper bend—an important consideration if you're using traditional ogee profiles. However, while sheet metal gutters are invariably galvanized, they'll nevertheless corrode over time if not properly maintained. Painting the visible surfaces is a must, or rust will get a foothold. Allowing leaves and mud to accumulate inside the gutter will also cause corrosion.

• Copper gutters are similar to sheet metal ones in most respects. The big differences are that copper does not corrode, nor does it require any finishing, since it naturally oxidizes to a beautiful verdigris color over a period of years (if you’re in a hurry, a patinator can artificially age them for you). As you might guess, copper gutters are expensive, generally running about $25 per lineal foot installed.

Plastic gutter and downspout: Looks are not its strong suit.
•  Redwood gutters, commonly installed on tract homes prior to World War II, are milled from a length of solid redwood stock, and use round sheet-metal downspouts.  Although they’re durable, they tend to develop leaks at the joints as they age. That’s why most original redwood gutter installations have been replaced with other materials over the years. The depletion of quality redwood has also (rightly) made these gutters astronomically expensive, so they’re best used when a natural wood look is imperative.

• Metal downspouts for all of the foregoing gutters types are available in a variety of sizes, in both round and rectangular shapes.  Rectangular downspouts are more common, but round ones can be used for a more traditional look.

•  Plastic gutters are made of PVC and are available in a limited number of colors.  Their main claim to fame is simple, do-it-yourself installation.  Although they're cheap and rustproof, plastic gutters have multiple drawback: They're susceptible to degradation from sunlight, often have a wavy or saggy look when installed, and use clumsy looking snap-together joints. On top of all this, they're a petroleum-based product that's not particularly friendly to the environment.

Monday, September 19, 2016


Cologne Cathedral: The twin 511-foot
spires are visible at left.
Cologne, Germany: The great Gothic cathedral begun in 1248. You’re inside the base of the north tower, in a cramped spiral stairway of stone.  It is very dark.  You begin to climb the steep flight of steps to the spire more than five hundred feet overhead. At intervals, tiny window slits cast a dusty shaft of light into the blackness.  After a seemingly interminable climb, you step into an even darker passageway, barely able to glimpse the plank door straight ahead. You pull the heavy door open.

Inside the tower, a seemingly
endless climb up a stone staircase
finally takes you from darkness...
Suddenly you find yourself in brilliant sunlight. You’re standing beneath the towering fretwork of the spire, five hundred feet above Cologne. The sun streams through the openings in the spire’s Gothic tracery, casting fantastic patterns of light all around you. After the long, climb dark climb, the effect is other-worldly. You have made the transition from darkness to light.

These impressions of Cologne Cathedral relate one of the most ethereal yet powerful attributes of great architecture: light. The Gothic cathedral, with its superb interplay of  light, dark, pattern, and color, probably represents the ultimate use of light in architecture.  But the same basic principles can add interest to residential design as well. Because light effects don’t rely on scale for impact, they can be applied to any building, however humble. light. Looking upward into the soaring spire
of Gothic stone tracery.
•  First, there must be contrast in light levels to achieve drama.  A uniformly bright series of spaces will be cheerful, but they’ll also be bland because there is no gradation of light level. On the other hand, passing through a darker space before entering a light one will redouble the impact of a bright room. This can be done by intentionally limiting the size of windows in anterooms such as foyers and halls. It’s also a good opportunity to use special window shapes such as circles or octagons.

The drama of light and dark
needn't be limited to
•  Introducing pattern is a subtle and evocative way to use light.  In Gothic architecture, stone tracery casts intricate patterns of light and shadow. In a residential setting, window muntins (the pieces that divide the glass), leaded or patterned glass, or a pierced screen shading a window can provide interesting shadow patterns in interior spaces.  These patterns will change as the sun moves across the sky, casting an ever-varying arabesque of light and dark on interior surfaces.

•  Finally, introducing color can add richness to the quality of light within a space. Just as the dark, somber interior of a Gothic cathedral contrasts with the brilliantly colored light entering through its stained glass windows, small panes of colored glass will cast jewel-like rainbow effects on interior surfaces that will vary with the time of day.  Or,  for a bolder effect, stained-glass pieces can be suspended over the full area of windows. Likewise, a small beveled glass panel suspended in a bright window will shower a room in an ever-changing pattern of prismatic reflections.

If your windows have muntins dividing the glass, a less expensive alternative to beveled or stained glass is to use colored glass in certain panes — for example, across the top row.  In either case, for the most dramatic effects, choose windows that receive bright sun.

Monday, September 12, 2016


Julie Harris peers over the edge of an extremely cool
spiral staircase in the Robert Wise-directed film
The Haunting (1963)
Spiral stairs have gained a melodramatic reputation through their appearance in films like The Spiral Staircase and The Haunting.  That alone justifies their use for some purposes—in order to add edgy atmosphere, for example. The intriguing form of a spiral staircase can lend a great deal of sculptural interest to an otherwise humdrum area. But spiral stairs have a practical side as well, especially where space is at a premium.  
First, a few definitions for terms that are easily confused:  A true spiral stair has treads radiating from a center post.  A circular stair, on the other hand, has an opening in the middle: it’s basically just a regular stair that curves. A winding stair is a conventional stairway with angled treads where the corner landings would normally be. The last two are not spiral stairs.

Metal spiral stair available in kit form. Treads can typically
be ordered in wood or plain or nonskid (checkerplate) steel.
True spiral stairs are ideal for access to lofts or basement areas where a straight staircase would consume too much floor space. While a conventional stair might require around 42 square feet—not counting landings—a spiral can make the same trip in about 25 square feet. This difference could get you out of a planning tight spot, as it has many an architect over the years. However, think twice before using these stairs if there are children or elderly people around—their high riser height and sharp edges can make them hazardous to negotiate. 

Generally, the minimum nominal diameter allowed by building codes is 5’.  The maximum riser height on a spiral stair can be 9 1/2”—considerably steeper than the 8-inch rise allowed for conventional stairs. However, because spiral stairs are steeper and more dangerous than conventional stairs, buildings codes restrict their use in certain situations—check with your local building department for specifics. The distance between balusters—the vertical pieces in the railing—can be no more than 4”. Floor openings can be either round or square, or the staircase can be entirely freestanding adjacent to an upper floor gallery.

Wood spiral stairs are generally better suited
to traditional home styles. The wood species
and finish can be matched to existing trim.
Metal stairs are available with a variety of tread surface materials including smooth or industrial checker plate steel, hardwood, or a backing material suitable for carpeting. A few manufacturers offer cast-iron stairs, which have a more ornate appearance suitable for Victorian-era homes. Although 5’ is the minimum diameter for egress stairs, diameters as small as 3’-6” are available for use as plant shelves and the like.  

Wood spiral stairs have an even wider range of designs, making them appropriate for both traditional and contemporary home styles. They’re available with ornamental turned balusters or simple dowel-like ones, and a large range of finishes are possible.  

Although top-of-the-line spiral stairs are usually custom-fabricated, many manufacturers offer more economical spiral stair kits in both metal and wood, some starting at less than $1000.  These kits are assembled on site. Some of them require the total rise to be specified before ordering; others can be adjusted to suit varying field conditions.  

Monday, September 5, 2016

THE GAZEBO: Pure Architecture

Webster defines gazebo with this one brisk phrase:  “A freestanding roofed structure usually open on the sides.”  And that’s just what makes creative types swoon at the chance to design one—a gazebo doesn’t have to do much of anything except hold itself up.  It’s as pure as architecture gets.

This gazebo/pagoda/bandstand (which was referred to as a "pagoda"
back in the day) used to grace St. Louis's Forest Park.
Built in 1876—apparently before earthquake codes—
it survived until its collapse in 1911.
Perhaps the most flamboyant gazebo of all time was built in St. Louis’ Forest Park in 1876, a huge, top-heavy confection of turrets and onion domes, all improbably supported on eighty reed-thin iron columns. This tottering extravaganza was declared unsafe in 1911, and just in time, too.  The following year it collapsed.

The late nineteenth century was the golden age of the gazebo. That’s when every self-respecting estate had one, and when every town square boasted its big brother, the bandstand. Some gazebos were built of natural tree branches, some of cast iron. Still others were supported on tall columns of river stone.

You've probably seen a thousand of those garden variety eight-sided gazebos you can order in from the back of magazines, but don't let yourself be limited by that preconception. Pretty much anything goes, and that’s what makes building a gazebo so much fun. It’s a great way to indulge your artistic and/or craftsmanly urges. You may not wish to get quite as fancy as St. Louis did. But it's one of the few projects you can really go a little nuts on.

A round gazebo: Unique, but not a DIY project for the faint-hearted.
Naturally, you need a building permit—and hence plans—to build your gazebo.  Before you put pencil to paper, though, scout out a nice location.  Consider the view from inside the gazebo, as well as how it will appear in the garden. It should harmonize with the surrounding landscape so it won’t look like it dropped out of the sky.

While most people go for octagonal gazebos, there’s no law against other shapes (not yet, anyway).  So let your imagination soar. Round, square, cruciform, polygonal, and asymmetrical gazebos have all been built to good effect. But remember:  the more sides, the more labor. This should tell you something about building a round gazebo.

Once you’ve decided on a shape, choose a design for the supporting posts. 4x4s are usually too flimsy looking.  6x6s are better, but you may want to fatten them up even more by applying 1x batts to the centers or  corners.  Or, you can build up hollow columns out of 2x stock, or use round peeler cores, or even real logs. Make sure there's a railing or some other design element to brace the posts or you may end up with the same result St. Louis did. If you can't figure out how, talk to an architect or engineer.

Rustic gazebo built of branches.
Since a gazebo is mostly roof, think that part out carefully. Usually it’s best to use some variation of a plain hipped roof, since the small scale of the building will make a complicated roof look too fussy.  Choose a roof pitch appropriate to the building’s siting. If the gazebo is on a slope and will usually be seen from below, you’ll need to use a steeper pitch or the roof will disappear. If it’ll be seen from above, pay special attention to the material and detailing of the roof surfaces—they’ll be the most visible part.

Since a gazebo’s walls are open, it doesn’t much matter if the roof leaks; this is another reason architects love these buildings.  For roofing, you can use prefabricated lattice, self-spaced lath, or 2x2s to admit light while affording a bit of shade. Or, if you prefer, you can build a conventional solid roof and cover it with roll roofing, wood or composition shingle, or even sheet metal.