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Get Your House Right

It’s easy to distinguish between a two-hundred-year-old colonial house and a modern imitation—and not just because McMansions are puffed-up and super-sized. There’s a mysterious quality in a well-designed home—grace, proportion, something almost ineffable about the way they look “right.” Many older homes share that mysterious quality; few modern ones do.

How can we give our work that quality—to the homes we build, to their interior and exterior woodwork; a beauty that will live through the ages and not look clumsy, pretentious, or just plain ignorant?

This is important! As carpenters and woodworkers, our work is our life. It will be here long after we’re gone. And I, for one, desperately don’t want my legacy to be a big pile of trees wasted in bad and ugly work.

Here in New England, I can look at classic architecture: Colonial, Federal, all types of Victorian homes, and try to puzzle it out—learn how to replicate the look of a well-designed home or detail. But it’s still hard for me to tease out everything—the proper proportions, the symmetry—all on my own, and I’ve worked in these old houses for years. And what about my friend Gary Katz? He lives in California. He thinks a craftsman house built in 1920 is as old as the Parthenon. How is he ever going to learn to design a graceful Georgian-style mantle?

Amazingly, I discovered a book that makes it all much simpler. It turns out that there are rules of thumb and basic concepts we can use to design architectural woodwork that looks right. Not only that, but these rules were well known by the builders of the 19th and 18th century in this country, and even by builders going back to the old world in Europe and ancient Greece. Lucky for us, a group of authors and illustrators have put these rules and suggestions into a form that even us carpenters can understand. This awesome book is Get Your House Right (GYHR).

Everyone who has anything to do with building homes should own this book. And they should read it, too. In fact, we should do more than read this book—we should study it.

I first recommended this book to Gary Katz almost three years go (where would he be without me? Sometimes I think I’m the wizard pulling his strings—oh, that’s a mixed metaphor, isn’t it?). Now I notice that other carpenters are reading this book, too. That’s encouraging. We should take our craft seriously; we should try to do good work, work that is not only built to last, but work that is beautiful so that it should last. Get Your House Right is a good first step toward designing beautiful work.

The book begins with a great introduction, titled: “Why You Need This Book.” Don’t skip that introduction. It should be required reading by anyone who picks up a hammer and calls him/herself a carpenter; or by anyone who picks up a pencil (or a CAD program) and calls him/herself an architect!

And the book ends with a delightful explanation of rules and how they apply to architecture. Obviously, if Frank Lloyd Wright had followed all the rules in GYHR, we would never have enjoyed Falling Water or the Prairie Style; and I sure wish this book had included rules about Gothic architecture, too. But even the authors admit that GYHR is about classical rules, what they refer to as “The Great Game”. They write: “To know how to play any game, you need to understand the rules. But to play it well, you need to learn to break the rules, too.” But you can’t break the rules unless you know the rules.

Like a good 18th century pattern book, GYHR begins with a discussion of unity and a review of the Classic Orders, and soon delves down into the specifics, with easy-to-follow examples of proper molding design and placement, from base to cornice.

The authors cover every aspect of a home, from arches to windows to doors, and in exciting detail. Don’t miss the mullion and muttin layouts, the sill details, or the right and wrong brick designs.

In our age of zero lot line McMansions (the recession hasn’t been all bad!), we’ve seen enough architectural sins to last several lifetimes. If you aren’t familiar with some of them, but still get a queasy feeling when you look at many contemporary homes, you’ll learn a lot from the first chapter of this book: “Nine Things You Need to Know”: a concise and focused essay on how to design buildings with grace and simplicity; how to design homes with sustainable materials and sustainable features!

I’ve always felt that one of the best ways to teach someone how to do something is to show them the wrong way, then show them the right way. The authors of Get Your House Right must have felt the same way. They frequently compare examples of what to AVOID with examples of what you should USE.

If you’ve ever wondered about proportions—how wide or how tall something should be—you’ll find the answer in this book.

Here at TiC, we’ve already taken subjects from GYHR and turned them into comprehensive and easy-to-follow articles (like The Misused & Confused Chair Rail, and Terminating Versus Supporting Moldings), and I’m sure there will be more in the future. This is one useful book.

Comments/Discussion

26 Responses to “Get Your House Right”

  1. Josh

    Lol, I saw this in one of Jesse’s pictures just a few months ago and had to know what book it was, so I messaged him and bought it that day. Great book!

    I really think that it’s a super value for a carpenter know his stuff and be able to provide input on dimensions, lay out, etc. to be able to make all of his work look great and (in my situation) have contractors that are glad you’re on the job because they value your input and know they can trust you to “make their house right”. Books like this are mandatory if a “tradesman” is to understand anything about architecture and proportions (unless you have someone that’s been successful in the business for 50 years showing you everything)…

    Reply
  2. Benjamin Berk

    The catalogue says it’s on the shelf at my library. Thank you Jed.

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  3. jeff

    Well you convinced me, its ordered. Thanks for the recommendation as I am always looking to hone my craft,

    Reply
  4. Ed Latson

    Jed Dixon-
    Your second and third paragraphs should be on every carpenter’s and helper’s tool box; lumberyard receipt; coffe shop doughnut box…..well…you know. I am forever dumbstruck how so many , so often, so consistently can create homes and renovations that look ‘unfinished’ and amateurish–even when completed works.
    I’ve had the great fortune to travel a bit to Europe and around; have experienced the grace and splendor of our early American designer/master builders and I’ve always been stunned by their grace and symmetry.
    Thank you so much for the introduction to this wonderful book.
    Ed Latson—-still respectful of those who’ve gone before me.

    Reply
    • Josh

      Well said Ed, being informed by works like this usually have the effect of overwhelming discouragement when looking at almost all modern (past 40 years) architecture, but it is fun to go through the old neighborhoods and have a new appreciation for the thought and skill that went into creating those works of art that still exist today.

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      • Ed Latson

        Josh- We moved north up into Vermont about 6 years ago. We had lived, worked and raised a fine family in the Berkshires of Massachusetts for over 30 years. And the Berkshires, like many regions in this country, have a wealth of historic homes, downtowns, and museums like the Hancock Shaker Village. All that you need to do is take a camera, a sketch pad, a 16′ tape and ask one of the interpreters or almost any staff member for permission to measure some architectural elements. These folks will almost always bend over backwards to assist you. We have been given tours reserved for the large donors and special guests simply because we were expressing our passion for – not just old stuff- but great design ,details- all enduring attributes that keep these historic buildings intact. There is a great deal we can all learn from these old buildings. All we have to do is to look and to ask. And just go buy this fine book, and any of the old pattern books by master builders like Asher Benjamin; go to your library and ask for the books on the work of California architects Greene and Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright, and scores of other fine master builders and architects. And learn to ‘see’…not just look.
        You don’t ask..you don’t get……

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        • Josh

          Great points. I wonder if we’re living during times when our industry is trying hard to lean too much on cutting edge products, tools, materials, etc. and not valuing craftsmanship to a healthy degree. (Design and install included)

          I recently replaced some Hardi siding and trimwork on a home that had a combo of 7 round top and gable dormers. The poor installation is what caused the homeowners of 5 YEARS! to have the product reinstalled by us. Everything was jammed to the roof and the Hardi delaminated along with rotten trim boards.

          The point I’m getting at, is that the widespread craftsmanship that could install any kind of wood siding correctly years ago, easily beats the wam bam thank you mamn crap that goes along with “newer better products” and is the current widespread trade mentality that most people these days employ.

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          • Gary Katz

            Josh,
            Did you happen to take pictures of that job? Before and during and after??? Let me know. I’m always on the look-out for articles about Exterior Trim & Siding Failure. We all have a lot to learn about that!

            Gary

          • Ed Latson

            Josh- Prior to our move to Vermont, the bulk of our work was as ‘Corrections Contractors’—spending anywhere from $20K-85K (on a time and materials basis, too…which I don’t often care to do) on homes that were less than 10 years old– removing, re-engineering, retrofitting, repairing….and what the Brits call: conservation carpentry on very expensive new homes and additions.

            Why? The major ‘faults’ were poor water tracking (felt papers lapped incorrectly,etc.) very,very poor flashing details; and non-existent allowances for splash from rain and eaves….simple fixes….Oh! And the attempt to do furniture-type joinery–when it was totally inappropriate–on exterior woodwork.

            It seems that BOTH the craft and the art of building are suffering. And we now must also address the science of proper construction and home building.

            We, at times, seem to rely too much on our expensive tools….and far too less attention to make those tools work for us with proper applications.

  5. Jesse wright

    This is THE book that changed my life and career as I know it. Thank you for Turning Gary on to it as he turned me onto it. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for that!

    Reply
  6. Barry

    When I first learned of the Classic Order I found what I could on the internet and downloaded it. It seems that carpenters back in the day had a handbook that they lived by for their trade. Now I have ( or will be ordering ) GYHR for my own reference. So glad that there are still people out there who actually CARE about their product instead of making a FAST BUCK!

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  7. Gary Katz

    Jed,
    Thank you again for contributing to TiC! Your articles are always filled with a quiet yet commanding voice. I’m listening. Honest.
    Gary

    Reply
  8. larry haun

    Thanks Jed,
    As you well know, what we have lost in the last 50 years, in my opinion, is good design and good craftwork. Houses really can be inviting and give off a warm feeling. These are the exterior elements that make me want to look further into what goes on inside. So thanks for the book tip. I also have a fondness for some of the design work of John Ross. Have you checked him out on the web? larry haun

    Reply
    • Ed Latson

      Larry Haun-Well……the man who kept Fine Homebuilding alive all those years with the terrific articles on framing,on production cutting tips and secrets & on layout–many thanks, Mr Haun.

      I have Googled John Ross and am not having much luck–is he one of your ‘left coast’ designer/architects? Or is he a builder?
      Again, many thanks for all those great articles,
      Ed Latson( from near the ‘right coast’)

      Reply
  9. jed dixon

    Thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments. I’d especially like to thank Ed Latson for pointing out that we can learn alot by looking at the work around us , especially older work, with a critical eye.I use a sketch book too, and it’s a wonder I haven’t been arrested for measuring peoples houses when it looks like no one’s around. Now I stop my truck and take pictures with my phone.
    GET YOUR HOUSE RIGHT was very helpful to me to learn what to look for, but I have found that my eye is getting better and better, as I’ve tried to educate myself.
    I’m sorry I didn’t respond to your comments sooner- we still have no electricity here in rural Rhode Island because of Hurricane Irene.

    Reply
    • Ed Latson

      Jed- Many thanks for the kind words. And…Hurricane Irene? Here in downtown Danby VT-population 1200 souls…..Irene cast the entire neighbor’s house-formerly sited about 200 yards upstream from us on the same side of Mill Brook- like a lopsided drunkard into the brook. The most fortunate aspect was that the 150+ year old house broke apart as it struck the 1927 concrete bridge……it happened so fast that the prospect of trying to run or to drive away would have been futile. The most amazing thing to watch was how the house sat there cantilevered over the newly gouging stream with nary a tip nor a tilt….until more than half of the old marble foundation was swept downstream…then the house just slipped into the brook like it was in slow motion…then ‘POOF!’…it was gone downstream in seconds( a whole 2000 sq ft house-timber framed with slate roof…).
      A quick note about poorly designed projects: I have bid on-and lost- many projects that got ‘dumbed’ down by the winner of the bid—meaning–take out the proper windows; lose that nice new front porch detail,,,etc,etc all in order for the winner to maintain his margins and to get the job.
      And the best of good fortunes to any of you out there who are suffering from this horrific storm. Ed Latson

      Reply
  10. Mike Pelletier

    Thanks for directing us to such a great reference. It is a truly library of information all in one book, what a bargain. Just received it from amazon, I will be taking it to work today to share with the crew. Thanks again.

    Reply
  11. Tom Bainbridge

    jed, well said that man, it is attention to detail every moment of the day

    sometimes its the simplest things. moulding shapes and the nominal timber dimensions from which they were/are cut change over time both in height and thickness (although the “name” of the moulding doesnt change) .

    even if you get all that right. if you use a roman moulding when you need a grecian, or worse you mix them

    get any one of these things wrong and the work looks like a dogs dinner

    Reply
  12. Dan Kolbert

    I picked this book up at JLC Providence last spring and have been slowly working my way through it. I agree that it’s a terrific book, and made me realize how mediocre my design knowledge is.

    Reply
  13. Rob Potter

    Thanks Jed for the recommendation. I believe I flipped through this at the JLC live bookstore this past spring and I’m sorry I didn’t pick it up then. I’ll definitely order a copy.
    I want to echo the comments about looking around and learning from what we see. I am fortunate to live in an area of western MA with a lot of old houses. One of my favorite things to do is walk around my little town and just look at how these old houses were put together. It’s an informative, enriching, and ongoing experience. I wish more carpenters used their eye and mind this way.

    Reply
  14. Brian

    Jed thanks for the review – I don’t know how I missed this one. I think this is the best book on the subject. Usually you see design books that gloss over the classical orders but this author explains it to the craftsman. I like how she shows what to avoid, I think it’s just as important.

    Brian

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  15. Sam Marsico

    This is a great book. I must admit that I am guilty of committing several of the authors’ “don’ts” in past work. It is good to finally have a reference that systematically explains why some details just don’t look right.
    One detail still has me stumped though:
    On page 85 she explains a method for plotting the profile of a raked cyma molding. I can’t visualize the miter that occurs between the differing profiles, but am guessing that it is similar to those in Keith Mathewson’ s article “raked baseboard returns”. What I’m wondering is how this can be practically employed on a building. Hand carving the short stair return is one thing, but a couple hundred feet of crown is another. Perhaps it is possible to order paired moldings, but they would have to relate to the roof pitch.
    Any examples or input is appreciated.

    Sam

    Reply
  16. mdhills

    For anyone who has read this book, does it have much for a homeowner working on modest renovations of a 1950’s ranch, or is it primarily targeting the older styles, where only a complete tear-down and rebuild would bring a ranch into alignment?

    thanks,
    Matt

    Reply
  17. Jed

    Hi Sam, Sorry it’s taken so long to answer your comment!

    The mitre of a level eave molding to a rake molding is simple. The eave molding ( a wood gutter in many old houses) is mitered at 45 degrees ,bevel set at 0 degrees. The rake is mitered at the rake angle with the bevel set at 45. That’s the beauty of it.
    At one time rake moldings to match ogee gutter were a lumberyard item. No longer- you’ve got to make your own or have it made at a mill shop. I make mine on a Williams and Hussy machine with a custom ground cutter.

    Reply

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