House Rule 1 – Build a Small and Simple Shell
Cape Cod, saltbox, colonial, barn; American vernacular prototypes have simple rectangular plans, and shapes that are mere extrusions of their end walls. These plain and practical forms represent the oldest and arguably most authentic stream of American domestic architecture.
A.J. Downing’s hugely influential 1850 book, The Architecture of Country Houses, is the prototypical rule book for designing an American house, and a key to understanding its direction ever since. Downing championed houses designed in picturesque historical European styles, largely abandoning the unadorned foursquare early American tradition. Pictured above, ”A Villa in the Norman Style,” described by Downing as the work of architect W. Russell West, “is highly picturesque, and, in a suitable locality, would have a very striking and spirited effect. Such a locality, of course, would hardly be found in a flat country, but amid wild scenery and hills, whose pointed tops are in harmony with the strength of the heavenward-pointing round-tower. Of course, this is not a house to please a practical, commonsense man. It is not a rational house, in the same manner that the classical villa, full of logical, straight lines, is rational – for there is here hardly a single continuous, unbroken line – every opening is arched, and all tendency is toward the pyramid or the curve.” The design’s meandering perimeter, arched windows and piled up gables and peaks are hallmarks of today’s tract mansion, even as Downing’s format of seductive rendering above floor plan is now the standard of every house plan book and housing development brochure.
To Downing, a landscape architect, a house was only as good as its resonance with its natural setting. He certainly wouldn’t approve of today’s suburban mansions on flat tracts, co-opting his naturalistic roof peaks to vie with each other as mountains of conspicuous consumption while betraying their owners’ egos and insecurities. The examples in Downing’s book were designed by accomplished architects of his day including the great Alexander Jackson Davis. The uninspired designs in today’s house plan books and suburban developments are less likely to be by registered architects than members of the self-serving American Institute of Building Design. (“Use your AIBD affiliation to enhance your credibility.”)
“A Laborer’s Cottage” is the first and simplest example in The Architecture of Country Houses, which has sections on cottages, farm houses and villas. The book’s farm house and villa illustrations prefigure modern suburban house forms, while its modest cottages are actually more suited to the small households of today and make better models for a people carrying unprecedented levels of personal debt. Downing wrote: ”In each of the three classes of country houses, there is a predominant character, to which all other expressions . . . should be referred. In cottages, this predominant character is simplicity.” (Four years later, Thoreau would declaim in Walden, “Our life is frittered away by detail . . . Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” Even as Downing cautioned against spending beyond the owner’s means, Thoreau lamented those who are “needlessly poor all their lives because they think they must have such a [house] as their neighbors have,” homeowners who “have become the tools of their tools.”) Downing idealized cottage dwellers as “industrious and intelligent mechanics and working men, the bone and sinew of the land,” but the seductiveness of his book’s romantic villas and the national promise of upward mobility made the humble cottage an unlikely American ideal. In naming the simplest example in his book “A Laborer’s Cottage,” Downing stigmatized the simplicity he espoused for cottages as the mark of a working class that was also viewed as lower class. (When an immigrating woman was screened for mental competence at Ellis Island with the question, ”How do you wash stairs, from the top or bottom?” she replied, “I don’t come to America to wash stairs.”) The elaborate European house models Downing imported spread like invasive species in the soil of an American class consciousness that had only wishfully been defeated with the British. The lasting and anxious lesson developers have taken from The Architecture of Country Houses is that complicated houses project success and higher class. How much better today’s houses would be if – like both his examples shown here – they instead followed just one of Downing’s practical rules: ”The principal entrance or front door should never open directly into an apartment of any kind, but always into a porch, lobby, or entry of some kind. Such a passage not only protects the apartment against sudden draughts of air, but it also protects the privacy and dignity of the inmates.”
An American icon, the Airstream trailer was originally designed in 1935 by Hawley Bowlus, chief designer of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. (Photo courtesy Airstream). At once an advanced industrial product and a self-contained dwelling unit – with bed, table, seats, kitchen and bathroom – it indicts both the technological backwardness and material excess of the standard American house. Only the mobile home segment of the housing industry has followed its lead, with less mobile results, and without the grace needed to overcome the class stigma enshrined in the words “trailer trash.” Beyond freedom and mobility, theAirstream promises a chance to trade the burden of all one’s possessions for a single object as smooth and unitary as a river stone. Motivated by aerodynamics, its single surface is the opposite of one of A.J. Davis’s spiky villas while answering like nothing else Thoreau’s call for simplicity. The Airstream brings out the subversive Thoreau in each of us, secretly craving liberation from our belongings. It points to where the appeal of a new American house might lie.
Rule 1 is to build a small and simple shell.
Build as small and simple an enclosure as possible. (Don’t be tempted to add bedrooms or a basement you don’t need just for resale purposes. The next buyer is just like you. Most American households are an individual or a couple.) For a small house, a pure rectangle will almost always make the most sense. Construction costs will be reduced by minimizing material and labor, while life cycle costs will be kept down by a compact envelope that’s both energy efficient and easy to maintain. If conventional, modular construction materials are to be used, base the dimensions of the house on a 2-foot module to reduce waste and labor. If a garage is to be attached, try to include it within an overall simple enclosure, and locate the main entry to the house near the garage, close to the driveway by which guests will arrive. Place the door leading from the garage to the house – often used informally by guests – near the main entry door, so both doors can share a transitional entrance area within the house, screened from private living spaces.