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.