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Flagg's Small Houses: Their Economic Design and Construction, 1922
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Flagg's Small Houses: Their Economic Design and Construction, 1922

by Ernest Flagg

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A celebrated New York architect and designer of the city's fabled Singer Building, Ernest Flagg (1857-1947) was most famous for his skyscrapers. But Flagg was also an ardent proponent of the well-designed single-family dwelling. As this classic treatise illustrates, he devised a variety of structural economies and ingenious innovations.
Filled with 526


A celebrated New York architect and designer of the city's fabled Singer Building, Ernest Flagg (1857-1947) was most famous for his skyscrapers. But Flagg was also an ardent proponent of the well-designed single-family dwelling. As this classic treatise illustrates, he devised a variety of structural economies and ingenious innovations.
Filled with 526 blueprints, photographs, and other illustrations, Flagg's Small Houses embraces modular designs, the use of ridge-dormers, and saving space, materials, and costs. Flagg offers advice on every corner of the home, from the practicalities of plumbing and heating to the aesthetics of color choices and landscaping designs. Modern designers, both professional and amateur, will find this book a timeless source of advice and inspiration.

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Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Architecture Series
Product dimensions:
9.30(w) x 12.10(h) x 0.40(d)

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Flagg's Small Houses

Their Economic Design and Construction, 1922

By Ernest Flagg

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13602-8



These designs are, made on a module system. That is to say, there is a modulus or fixed unit of measure running through all parts. The sheets are divided into squares of uniform size. In general, the elevations are grouped about the ground-floor plan so as to bring each one opposite that side to which it belongs. When necessary a section of the building, taken on some designated line, is also given. When the building contains more than the ground floor the plans of the other stories are placed at one side. On most of the sheets there is a perspective sketch of the building, or a particular part of it, and sometimes detail drawings illustrative of design or construction on a larger scale. The module lines do not apply to the perspectives, but to the plans, sections, and elevations; and all dimensions, horizontal or vertical, may be ascertained by counting the squares and consulting the table of modules at the upper left-hand corner of the sheet. With the details the scale is given in each case.

Great economies result from the use of this system both in making plans and laying out and executing work, so that certain features such as beam ceilings, which without it would involve greater expense, with it reduce cost. By it practically all figuring of drawings and all liability of error, on that account, are avoided. One side of all walls (generally the inside) runs on the module line and most partitions, door, window, and other openings, are centered on it. If, for any reason, a departure is made from this rule, it is only necessary to give the distance to the nearest module line. When drawings are made in this way nothing is left to doubt; every dimension is fixed, and a mistake in one part will not affect other parts.

By the common method of making working drawings it takes almost as long to figure the dimensions as to make the drawings themselves, and there is great chance of error; moreover, a mistake in one figure may cause mistakes in other figures.

By the use of the module system the work of making the drawings is so simplified that it can be done by the architect himself, free-hand, as these drawings are made, to the great benefit of the design and at a saving in time and cost.

In this country the general practice is to leave too much to the draftsman. By so doing, the architect loses individuality, especially if he has a large practice. He is apt to become a business man rather than an artist. Any system which tends to give the architect more intimate control of his work and make of it a profession rather than a business, ought to be of benefit.

The writer was once told by an English architect, visiting this country, that the thing which most surprised him here was the number of draftsmen in architects' offices. He said that in London the most prominent architects rarely have more than three draftsmen, and that one well-known architect of his acquaintance would never accept commission for more than a single building a year, that being all he felt he could properly care for.

The module used in these designs is 3' 9". On the working drawings this is divided into five parts of 9" each and the sheets ruled accordingly. The reason for adopting that particular unit for these little houses .was because multiples of 3' 9" give very convenient dimensions, both for the room and story heights and also economical sizes for building materials in the avoidance of waste. Standard lengths of lumber, for instance, are graded at two-foot intervals. Beams and other scantling are cut to lengths of 8', 10', 12', 14', and so on. Multiples of 3' 9" give lengths of 7' 6", 11' 3", 15', 18' 9", so that, by using standard lengths of timber, these distances can be spanned, and sufficient bearing had on the walls, without cutting, and therefore without waste. Multiples of it also give very suitable dimensions for rooms of the kind wanted. Three feet nine inches is a convenient unit in setting the forms for masonry, and divisions of it apply in many ways. All beams and rafters are spaced on the module and half-module; one-quarter of a module is a suitable width for stair treads of the more important stairs, while one-fifth of a module serves for others. The full module is a suitable width for corridors and also most windows; and permits the use of standard panes of glass without cutting. Two modules, or 7' 6", does for most story heights, while three modules, or 11' 3", serve for the higher stories.

The use of the module, in construction, induces a degree of accuracy and precision almost unknown in work of this class. Indeed, it makes it easier to build accurately than otherwise. If the main module lines are exactly established, all goes ahead like clockwork. Everything fits and most things may be gotten out in the shop and simply stood in place.

For the proper standardization of work, the module is essential; for by it alone can commensurability be obtained throughout. When a building is designed without a module it is next to impossible to avoid special features. Occasions arise when the standardized features will not fit and special drawings and workmanship must be resorted to; always at a loss of time, money, and efficiency. If the module is of sufficient size, this is avoided. All things, being governed by the same unit, work together in harmony. Beams, for instance, are always properly spaced with regard both to the room itself and all features of it, such as windows, doors, and other openings; which always come in their proper places with respect to the rest of the plan; and the work has an appearance of finish and forethought seldom found except in the most carefully studied monumental constructions. All of which is accomplished at a great saving of time, trouble, and expense.

The system of building, described in this work, is intended for repetition. It would hardly pay to adopt it in its entirety for a single house if the matter were to end there. Where the processes and apparatus are used, over and over again, great economy should result; but for a single building, the trouble and expense of introducing so many new or unusual features and methods, might well offset the benefits which should accrue under more favorable conditions. Standardization both of parts and workmanship plays a great part in the economies obtained and standardization implies quantity.

Plate 1 is the actual working drawing for the little house of Plate 30. When used in connection with the standardized methods and details, as described in this work, no other drawing is necessary in the erection of the building. It was made by the writer, free-hand, in about three hours. To supply the same information in the usual way would require about as many weeks of a draftsman's time and a cost which would consume most, if not all, of the commission. The drawing was made on paper ruled, as has been said, with the module lines and parts, and from which blue-prints may be made.

In laying out work on the ground, the main module lines—a, e, k, 1, 4, and 9—are first established. This is done by setting up two stakes with a crosspiece between, a little beyond the work at each end of the line needed, and driving a nail in each crosspiece on the line, so that a cord drawn from one nail to the other exactly defines it. (See Photograph.)

The trenches are then dug and the foundation walls built and made smooth and level on top, at two inches below the finished ground-floor level. The module lines are accurately marked on these walls, the uprights for the forms for the masonry walls are then set as indicated by the dots on the plan. (See Mosaic Rubble VI.) Any irregularity in setting the uprights can be readily detected by sighting along the lines.

If the forms are well made and the work of setting them properly done, this method secures remarkable accuracy, and all parts fit with the most surprising and delightful precision, which greatly facilitates progress. If all necessary materials are on hand, as they should be before beginning, the work proceeds with a degree of exactness and speed uncommon in ordinary building.

As all parts and methods are uniform in each instance, the workmen soon become used to them. Although the designs may vary indefinitely, the parts and their manner of use remain the same; so the process soon resolves itself into a matter of routine.

As all walls, foundations, partitions, framing, floors, doors, windows, and other details throughout are made and used in accordance with the methods herein described and illustrated, no other specification is necessary than to indicate the kind and quality of the materials. Owing to the standardization, it is not necessary to show how the various parts are made and fitted, but simply their location; which is done with accuracy by the lines without figured dimensions. All parts will agree, and there is less chance of those disagreeable surprises which sometimes happen when the various floor plans do not correspond. Of course, it is not contended that no mistakes can occur; but there is less chance of them, and, if made, they can more readily be detected. Moreover, a mistake in one part will not affect other parts, as where there is an error in a row of figured dimensions.

The method of designating the modules as illustrated on this working drawing (Plate 1) where longitudinal modules are indicated by figures, lateral ones by letters and heights by roman numerals, has been found convenient in practice. It is thus easy to designate any part of the work with accuracy. If, for instance, one says 9, d, III, there can be no doubt as to the exact point indicated.

By this system the drawings may be fewer and smaller than usual, a great convenience in building, because large drawings are troublesome to handle in the open air. For this purpose the sheet is mounted on a piece of compo board or similar material. If the house is small only one drawing will be necessary, and except for the larger ones two sheets generally suffice.

As will be seen on many of the plates, the module lends itself admirably to illustration in detail. If it is desired to show any part of the work at a larger scale than that of the general working drawing, one has simply to assume that the squares represent some convenient subdivision of the module, as 3", 5", 9", or 15" and work accordingly.

Both speed and economy in building depend on forethought, and no kind of forethought is so effective as a well-digested system of this sort. The one presented here is the result of much thought and experience, and, if properly followed, should greatly reduce the cost of building.



For more than two thousand years the meaning and use of the Greek triglyphs have been a mystery and an archæological problem of the first magnitude. This is not because there is anything which ought to be mysterious about them, but simply because the Greek method of design has been a lost art. To the Greek the meaning and use of the triglyph was certainly as obvious as those of anything else about the building. It was an essential element of the design. Greek art was extremely simple and direct; both in design and construction the Greek mind abhorred complication. The meaning of every other feature in Greek architecture is as clear and transparent as day, and so it is with this when the mystery is unlocked.

If one wants to learn the meaning of the triglyph, let him take the plan of any Greek Doric temple and draw lines through it in both directions from the centers of the triglyphs. He will then see that the lines so drawn undoubtedly formed the basis of the design (see Plans). The Greeks designed by a modulus or fixed measure, and that modulus, for the Doric order, was the distance between the centers of the triglyphs. This distance is in fact the primary unit of the design upon which every dimension, both of plan and order, depends. The design cannot be begun until it is determined, for the slightest variation in it affects the whole building and every detail connected therewith. The triglyphs stand in the frieze, at the corners of the building and at regular intervals on all sides of it; between them are panels, called metopæ, which are always square. The distance between the triglyphs, therefore, determines the height of the frieze. The height of the frieze determines that of the architrave, which is the same. The distance between the triglyphs also determines the spacing of the columns, for except at the corners of the building the center of each column coincides with that of every second triglyph. Upon the spacing of the triglyphs, therefore, depend absolutely the proportions both of plan and order. That spacing constitutes a fixed modulus for the entire design which never varies in its application and is, in fact, the harmonic scale of the monument.

For the Greek the triglyphs were indispensable. They fulfilled a function which in his eyes was all-important. From the main frieze they were never omitted and if for any reason they were dispensed with elsewhere, in places of secondary importance, as, for instance, to permit of a continuous band of sculpture, the proper location for them was carefully indicated by carving, on the architrave below, the base and guttæ. All this care was surely not taken in order to perpetuate, in stone, beam ends, which perhaps appeared at the sides of the earlier wooden structures; though those beam ends may have, in the first instance, suggested the form of the triglyph. Evidently it was done because the triglyphs were thought to be necessary, and this necessity was considered just as great at the ends of the building and under porticoes, where the beams could not have appeared, as at the sides.

Now we know that to the Greek harmony was of supreme importance, and if the triglyphs represented the harmonic scale of the monument—if they formed the measure upon which the harmony of the dimensions depended, their meaning and use is abundantly explained. Those men practised architecture on a plane which has never since been reached. It is not surprising therefore to find them using methods unknown to subsequent art. The universal admiration which Greek proportions have always excited proves that the method of obtaining them was correct.

It was only within comparatively recent times that several refinements in Greek architecture formerly unsuspected, such as the slight entasis of the columns, the greater size of the corner columns, and the convex curve of the stylobate were discovered, and now here is another refinement of even greater importance.

For more than two thousand years architectural design by the use of a modulus, except in the case of the classic orders, has been a lost art. It is one which should be revived and a subject worthy of the most profound study, but upon which the schools are silent.

It is almost universally admitted that certain combinations of dimensions produce harmonious results, but since the time of the ancient Greeks no system of design, consistently based on that knowledge, has been formulated.

It seems too evident to need argument that one who uses, in geometric design, only such combinations of dimensions as are known to produce harmony, will have a great advantage over him who depends on guesswork or chance for his results. It is also reasonable to suppose that when, in architecture, one uses a fixed unit and combinations of it, to produce harmony, the effect should be most striking and apparent where the measure is seen or felt, as it is in music by the measured beat and in poetry by the cadence and rhythm. This the Greeks fully understood and that scale or measure was supplied by the equal spacing of the triglyphs. No wonder they considered their presence of supreme importance.


Excerpted from Flagg's Small Houses by Ernest Flagg. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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