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Turn-of-the-Century House Designs
With Floor Plans, Elevations and Interior Details of 24 Residences
By William T. Comstock
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1994 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Suggestions on House Building.
By A. W. COBB, Architect.
IT IS my purpose in offering these suggestions to do so somewhat in the manner in which an architect would advise his client in the process of designing a house. It is intended to carry the reader through the various stages of progress, from the first rough sketches portraying the house as it will appear on the site selected, to its completion and delivery to its owner. Every house, when it seeks to fulfill its conditions as a dwelling and meet the personal requirements of any special family, is in so far a new invention; and the architect has for his problem not only the architectural questions involved, but the character of his client and his client's family to study, that he may build a house adapted to the habits of its future occupants; otherwise he goes wide of the mark in furnishing them with a home, however ornamental may be his design.
The client naturally desires the handsomest and most convenient house that the money appropriation will allow; this may safely be assumed at the outset.
We will also assume that we are discussing the building of houses of a suburban or rural character, such as are portrayed in the designs herewith presented. Let us trace, then, the processes by which the idea of the house to be built is expressed in drawings and specifications, and embodied in the actual building. And at the beginning let us measure rightly the value of this formulation and expression of the house idea, which is the chief function of the architect.
"Whatever a man makes is always a thought before it is a material thing. This is true of all things from a pin to an empire. * * * A steam engine is only a great idea dressed in iron, and it ran in somebody's head before it was set a-going on any railroad. * * * Michael Angelo, at Rome, when building Saint Peter's Church, had to work years long in setting up the structure in thought; myriad details of the great edifice had their patterns in Michael Angelo's mind before they became tangible things." And, as it was with great Saint Peter's, so it is in kind with the design and construction of even the simplest dwelling.
The architect's first definite step in the process of materializing the house idea is the making of study-plans and sketches. These sketches, made in various styles, pen and ink, pencil or color, usually give the client the first tangible expression of the appearance of his proposed house. The architect will at the outset endeavor to obtain in professional consultations the ideal of his client. This ideal structure will always have its "local coloring," under the influence of individual tastes, or suggested by other houses. Here the architect's sketch plans and perspective are most important in putting into shape the house idea, which he and his client have been developing.
The sketches having proved satisfactory, the next step is the elaboration of working drawings; first the plans and elevations at "quarter scale"; then the masonry and framing drawings; details—many at full size—and the specifications; all calculated to guide the builder in constructing the house, which the original sketches have portrayed. By the time that these working drawings and specifications are ready for estimates, the location of the house on the lot has been settled, so that grade lines, outside steps, roadways and terraces can all be definitely shown, preventing any misunderstanding as to amount of excavating, face-underpinning, etc.
The lot has usually been secured before the architect is called in, although sometimes not only is his advice asked in the selection, but he is asked to develop the design as a help in deciding which one of two or more lots will be best adapted to the style of house which the client desires. The most desirable lot for an all-the-year house in our "temperate" clime, is evidently one on a slope somewhere between south-east and southwest, with a shelter of trees or sharp rise of ground to the north or west; the whole contour giving such trend of surface water as to insure a dry cellar. Our early colonial settlers, who had plenty of land to choose from, usually selected sites of this character for their dwellings. But in these present days, when a rapidly-increasing population is gathering around great centres and when land values are higher than they were in colonial days, the lot-hunter of moderate means, who wishes to locate within reach of his business, must take the best lot of land that offers for the money, even though it may not slope to the sun, and even if it requires a rubble drain, with a proper free outlet, to insure a dry cellar. But actual swampy land should be tabooed for residence purposes, unless it can be filled in to a proper grade.
Provided the lot chosen for the dwelling be wholesomely high and dry, the house may be successfully adapted to it, whatever be the slope of the land or its compass frontage to the street. The rooms may be so disposed as to invite the cheerful sunshine, and to repel the prevalent cold winds of the region. The most marked style of house accomplishing this purpose is the old-fashioned farm house, with its two or three stories to the sun, and its long lean-to or shed roof to the north. Various adaptations of this meritorious idea are successfully worked into many of our modern American houses.
As before stated, it is assumed that we are discussing the building of houses of a suburban or rural character. To be quite specific, we will assume the scene of house building to be the suburbs of some large city.
Before proceeding to discuss the details of finishing the house, as these will develop under the combined supervision of the client and architect, let us consider further the question of site, the adaptability of the house to its surroundings. And this signifies not alone the mere planning of the house on its individual lot. To harmonize the house with its surroundings it is necessary to consider the aggregate of houses as a settlement, and their relations to each other. I wish to urge strongly here the necessity of taking this general view, because this matter is too often lost sight of. An injudicious building up of a once picturesque, sylvan neighborhood may in a few years transform it into a mere compacted, systemless aggregate of heterogeneous buildings. The very people who had been attracted to a place by its rural beauties may, by their heedless placing of houses, shops and stables, rob it of its charms. Ill-advised cutting of trees, blasting of beautiful moss-grown rocks, neglect in adopting uniform frontage lines and failure to reserve a choice tract here and there for public parks, and other like methods of procedure, may effectually blight what could have been developed into a beautiful settlement.
I have in mind a happy instance of the right method of procedure in a certain suburb of St. Louis. At the beginning of its development land speculators had blocked out the whole territory into streets and building lots, and the process of covering it with an ill-considered settlement had begun. But control of the tract was later secured by parties who worked it over on a new plan. An area of several acres at the centre was set aside for a public park, avenues were run with regard to artistic effect, stringent rules as to front lines of buildings, location of stables, etc., were incorporated in the land deeds. The result is that the neighborhood which was once in a fair way to be marred is now a most delightful colony, grouped around its central park; every residence street a parkway in itself, with shade trees and ample lawn space.
I have devoted considerable space to this particular branch of the subject, because that while it is not usually dealt with in the specifications and other routine documents of the architect's office, it is yet as vitally important to the house-builder and house-owner as the question how he shall paint his house, or what shall be the style of his wall papers.
Having thus discussed the larger landscape relations of the house and the considerations which should prevail in the securing of the lot and the location of the house upon it, let us proceed with the development of the house itself in detail. The foundation or cellar wall of our model house should be built with an outside batter and should be able to stand alone, free of the bank, before the filling in against the wall is done with loose stone or gravel. If the soil is sandy, so that surface water filters down through it readily, there will be no need of a rubble drain to secure a dry cellar, but if the cellar be dug in hard pan or ledges, there should be a trench not less than a foot deep and filled with loose stone, as a footing for the cellar wall. Or there may be a drain pipe of agricultural tile all around the foot of the wall outside. In either case the drain should have an outlet independent of the plumbing drain, if possible. If it is led into the house drain there should be a trap at the junction.
The exposed underpinning will be brick or stone. If the main walls of the house are also brick or stone, it is well enough, where the appropriation is limited, to make the walls solid without a vaulted air space; and furr the walls inside with 2x3 studding, set one inch clear of the wall. This gives ample air space and secures against moisture from the masonry striking through to the plaster. In this furring, as in all interior studding, fire stopping should be attended to. All chimney flues should be lined, making them thicker than four inches of brickwork. The lining may be fire clay pipe, round or square, or it may be brick set up edgewise, making a six-inch wall.
If the main walls be of wood the frame should be well braced with long braces extending from floor to floor in each story. These are far superior to short braces for insuring rigidity under wind pressure. The braces should not be cut clear through the four-inch studding; they should be 2x4 flatwise, gained two inches into studding and nailed at crossing of each stud. A house so braced will never rock distressingly in high winds; it will stand firm.
Opinion is divided as to merits of back plastering. Stout rosin-sized sheathing paper on wood walls, between boards and the wall shingles or clapboards, is necessary.
Whether the house have masonry or wood walls, either shingles or slating are allowable for sloping roofs. Gutters, though so often made of wood, are far better of metal, either galvanized iron or copper, which can be run up well under shingles or slates, with never a leaky back-joint. The conductor should be of same metals, and in case there is sewerage should be led into the house drain with a trap at each connection. Stopping conductors at grade or leading them into blind cesspools, occasion much annoyance, though this must often be done.
This much for certain essential features of construction. Let us now proceed to consider features of general arrangement and artistic finish of the house.
In a general way it may be said that the model house which we are building should be designed according to the following rules. There should be consideration of:
1. PRIVACY.—The possibility of seclusion in each apartment, especially the bed chambers, yet with ready direct accessibility to the halls from each apartment.
2. COMFORT AND CHEERFULNESS.—It being remembered that the chief element of cheerfulness in a house is the sunshine, which should be freely admitted; covered piazzas being so placed as not to exclude direct sunlight from the rooms.
3. CONVENIENCE.—The plan being arranged to save steps in housework; compactly arranged, with no long or tortuous passages between rooms.
4. DIRECT LIGHT AND AIR.—No borrowed light or air, no skylight wells or light shafts; no inside bathrooms or water closets. In a suburban house standing free there is no excuse for makeshifts of borrowed light and ventilation for any apartment.
5. ASPECT AND PROSPECT TO BE CONSIDERED.—Aspect being the relation of the windows to sun and prevailing winds, and prospect being the view from the windows. A respected English authority on the subject of house designing discourses on this subject thus: "All over England there are examples of a ' well-built house,' as the auctioneers say, situated on rising ground, well sheltered, and affording a view of so many miles of fine country, with hills of neighboring shires in the distance; but how many instances are there of a house whose plan is adapted none the less to make the most of the scenery in this way, but also to give to every part of the residence its most suitable relation to the weather and the daily course of the sun."
Further it is recommended that the dining room have an easterly exposure, insuring the cheer of the morning sun at breakfast time; that library and parlor have south and west exposures; that some large window or group of windows, perhaps on the staircase landing, command the north landscape, which, lighted by the sun from behind the spectator, affords a pleasing picture, grateful to the eye.
And here is advice as to ornament, from the same authority; advice given in that spirit of fresh, assertive dogmatism which has made the British Empire:
6. ORNAMENT.—"Moderation in this, as in all else, is the rule, but nothing less; no exuberance, but no poverty. For there may be even in simplicity an affectation as demonstrative as any other; and when the fastidiousness of excessive refinement takes refuge in a mental blank, it is but an artificial idiocy in taste. * * * * A gentleman's house ought to be not merely substantial, comfortable and well furnished, but fairly adorned. It ought to exhibit a reasonable amount of intellectual liberality, faithfully keeping on the side of simplicity and moderation, and clinging to the grace of elegance as the beauty which shall last the longest; but avoiding none the less that poverty of dress which is not self-denial, but inhospitality."
For statement of the quality which makes the much-sought "style that wears well," the words in italics cannot be excelled. Grace of elegance, not vain show of overwrought adornment, must ever characterize the styles which shall endure in the popular favor.
Following this canon of simple elegance, the most modest cottage may be made beautiful; externally, by force of graceful proportion, which implies adaptability to its site, and by harmonious color treatment; and internally, by the same attention to harmony in the color treatment of rooms effectively grouped to give pretty vistas. There is everything in this management of vistas—glimpses from one room to another—so that in looking from parlor to dining room you see the sideboard and in the reverse view the parlor fireplace, or the curtained bay with broad window seat is seen; or, looking from parlor to hall, the picturesquely disposed staircase terminates the view. This is what is meant by effective grouping of rooms—disposing their features so as to make the most of them. Fail to properly arrange these groupings, and the pretty features of your house may be only half effective, while with the proper arrangement the interior will interest and charm at every turn.
As to the interior wood finish of the house, various kinds of hardwood are beautiful and will stand more wear and tear than soft pine and whitewood. So for artistic and also for practical reasons hardwood finish, though much the more expensive to buy in stock and to work up, is yet desirable. When a client informs you his children are such young terrors to bang woodwork that he intends to finish inside with brown ash, there is nothing else but to say that it is a most excellent idea to finish in brown ash. Yet in a house where moderate cost is desired pretty effects, similar to hardwood in color, may be got by judicious use of stains covered with shellac and varnish. Take whitewood finish, for example. A stain composed of raw linseed oil, spirits and a very little Indian red, will give whitewood a perfect natural cherry color; a little raw umber will give oak color; raw burnt umber added to the raw umber will give brown ash. Burnt sienna with Indian red will give mahogany; simple burnt umber produces black walnut color. These stains for whitewood must be mixed very light and thin, and will then produce beautiful effects, the grain of the wood showing through them. The frequent mistake in using stains is making them too thick and strong in color, daubing the wood with them and obliterating the grain. For white pine finish the stain may be a trifle stronger than for whitewood. A good finish for these stained soft woods is one coat white shellac, well rubbed with fine pumice or very fine sand paper, and then given one coat very best coach varnish. This treatment of the woodwork by a conscientious painter, with the very best materials, is all that is required. Any further coats of shellac or varnish would be superfluous.
Excerpted from Turn-of-the-Century House Designs by William T. Comstock. Copyright © 1994 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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