Monday, September 23, 2013


In nineteenth century America, the only way an architect could view historic architecture was to go see it firsthand (usually on another continent), or else find engravings of it in books. Since architects of the era were much less likely to travel than their modern counterparts, engravings ended up being their usual reference. Mind you, the engraver unavoidably put his or her own spin on the thing they were illustrating, and this subjectivity, along with a frequent ignorance of historic context, made it hard for architects to get a real grasp of historic styles--one reason for the almost cartoonish nature of so much Victorian architecture.

Often-fanciful engraved illustrations, such as this scene of a procession
making its way to the great Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, were once
the only way architects could view historic architecture from afar.
All this changed in the 1890s with the introduction of the halftone process, which used thousands of tiny, variously sized dots to reproduce the full tonal range of actual photographs. For the first time, photos could be faithfully reproduced in mass publications such as magazines and newspapers, without the subjective distortions of the engraver. 

The National Geographic was among the first magazines to replace line engravings with halftone photographs, but architectural journals were also fairly quick to make use of the new process, As early as 1898, The American Architect and Building News published a popular series on Colonial architecture. After World War I, when many mainstream architects and builders became smitten with Europe’s vernacular architecture, photo features of historic architecture began going further afield. 

By the 1920s, architects were routinely referring to trade journals packed with photographs of European vernacular buildings, whether English, Spanish, or French. In 1926, Architecture magazine began a regular series of portfolios featuring authentic renditions of traditional European vernacular details such as iron railing, garden pools, and window grilles. Spurred by such information, architects explored increasingly exotic styles, whether Moorish, Indian, or North African.

The Depression and the advent of World War II put an end to America’s fascination with European and exotic architecture, and for the next half a century, trade journals instead published equally influential photo spreads on what they presumed to be the future of architecture: Modernism.

Ironically, while traditional detailing is once again all the rage, modern renditions of historic styles--or for that matter, copies of 1920s revival styles which were themselves copies--seem both less erudite and less charming than the originals. Decorative features such as columns, arches, and moldings are misused, overused, or carelessly thrown together in ways old-time prectitioners would have found laughable. This problem is merely troubling in modest tract houses, but epidemic in expensive custom homes, whose larded-on detailing is at once overblown, graceless and and clumsily proportioned--much closer to Victorian-era pastiche than to the refined revival styles of the 1920s and 30s.

Despite the blizzard of informaton to be had on the Internet, we architects seem to have a much lazier grasp of traditional design than did our predecessors. Today’s brand of pastiche strains to evoke the easy charm of tradition, but more often the result is plain old bedlam. It’s a far cry from our colleagues of the 1920s, who composed their “informal” designs with utmost care, and who always kept an eye on their faithful photographs.

Monday, September 16, 2013


Can’t tell a double hung from a double hernia? Then here in a nutshell are the most common window types, along with the architectural styles they’re usually associated with:

CASEMENT windows are hinged at the side and open like a door, usually toward the outside. In addition to being the oldest type of operable (openable) window, they’re also probably the simplest, most practical, and most adaptable. Casements are available in wood, clad wood, plastic, aluminum, and more rarely, in steel or bronze. They can be paired with one or both sash (the part that moves) operable, with or without a center mullion (the divider between individual window units). Casements can also be ganged together into long bands, as in Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie houses. With appropriate muntins (what the window manufacturers refer to as “divided lites”), they’re suited to just about any architectural style, whether traditional or modern.

DOUBLE HUNG windows are another old-time standby. They have a pair of sash that slide vertically past each other, counterbalanced by cast iron weights in older examples and by springs in modern ones. Double hungs are widely available in wood, clad wood, and plastic. Shortcomings include balky operation when they get older and the inability to open more than half the window at a time. Many modern double hungs have a tilt sash feature that makes cleaning much easier than formerly. In some examples, known as single hungs, only the lower half opens. 

Double hungs are mainly associated with American home styles such as Colonials, Victorians, bungalows, and early ranchers. They’re generally not suited to modernist designs or to European-derived revival styles such as Spanish, English, or Normandy.

HORIZONTAL SLIDERS have a pair of sash that slide horizontally past each other. They’re available in wood, clad wood, plastic, and aluminum. Sliders became very popular after World War II, when architectural styles such as the California rancher favored long, low horizontal proportions. Unlike double hungs, sliders don’t have to fight gravity, so they don’t require counterweights, but they have the same limitation of never being more than half openable.

AWNINGS have a sash hinged at the top that opens out, while HOPPERS have a sash hinged at the bottom that opens in. They’re often combined or “mulled” with a larger fixed window. They’re available in wood, clad wood, plastic, and aluminum. Both are mainly found in modernist designs, and will look out of place in most traditional architecture. 

FIXED windows don’t open at all, and therefore can be had in just about any shape and any of the usual materials. 

In general, clad wood windows are the most expensive, followed by wood, aluminum, and vinyl. And lastly, some caveats: Avoid using casements or awnings along exterior walkways or in other locations where people outside (especially frolicking kids) may run into them when they’re open. Remember that bedrooms have to have at least one emergency egress window with a sill is no higher than 44” from the floor, and which will allow a 21” diameter sphere to pass through it when open. Use special window shapes such as round tops, circles, or octagons in moderation, and don’t forget that it can be tough to find window coverings that will match their shape.

Monday, September 9, 2013


Homeowners these days are amazingly facile with architectural jargon, thanks no doubt to the gaggle of home-improvement shows on TV these days, not to speak of the wealth of information on the Internet. But while lots of folks now know their antae from their astragals, as it were, a few stubborn terms are still routinely confused--sometimes even among architects. Here are the usual suspects:

Cement/concrete: Cement only refers to the powder that hardens when you add water. If you add sand and aggregate to the mixture, though, you get concrete. So strictly speaking, a cement mixer should be called a concrete mixer. 
Sash/window: The part of a window that moves is called the sash. The whole shebang--sash, jambs, sill and everything else--is called a window.

Mullion/muntin: A mullions is a heavy vertical or horizontal member between adjoining window units. Muntins are the narrow strips of wood that divide the individual panes of glass in traditional sash. In the case of so-called “simulated divided lites”, grilles resembling muntins are either sandwiched between double glass panes or else installed over the outer surface of the glass to give a divided look.

Trim/casing: On the outside of a house, the decorative frame around a door or window is called trim, while on the inside, the same thing is called casing. Go figure.

Sliding door/pocket door/bypassing door: The term sliding door refers only to the sliding glass variety that usually leads outside. Those interior doors that disappear into a slot in the wall, on the other hand, are properly called pocket doors.  To make things more confusing, the type of paired closet doors that slide past each other aren’t called sliding doors either--they’re called bypassing doors.

Girder/header/beam. In wood frame construction, a heavy horizontal member is called a girder if it’s below floor level, a header if it’s over a door or window, and a beam if it’s pretty much anywhere else.

Wall/partition: Structurally speaking, a wall is always bearing, while a partition is always nonbearing. In most houses, the exterior walls and at least one wall running down the middle of the house are bearing, while all the other walls--er, partitions--are nonbearing. Since these two varieties aren’t always easy to tell apart, it’s prudent to call in an architect or engineer before you go tearing out either one.

Shingle/shake: Wood shingles are sawn by machine and are relatively thin. Wood shakes are larger and thicker than shingles, and are split from a solid block of wood rather than sawn.

Flue/vent: Both of these things stick out of your roof, but a flue exhausts combustion gas from a fireplace, water heater or furnace--anything with a flame--while a vent leads those nasty gases in your plumbing system to the atmosphere. 

Banister/Baluster. Banister refers to the entire railing on a staircase. Balusters are the individual uprights in any railing, whether on a stair, a balcony, or whatever. So it’s fine to slide down the banister, but you probably wouldn’t want to slide down the balusters.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


We Americans have happily given our cars the run of the country, paving over a good forty percent of our cities so they can roam unfettered, and generously ceding a big chunk of our hard-earned homes to keep them warm and dry. But apparently that’s not enough. Now some interests are suggesting that, in order to keep our four-wheeled friends tanked up at all costs, we share our food supply with them as well.

Imagine creating fuel from plants instead of having to drill for it! We can guzzle all the biofuels we can grow! No more oil wars! No more Third World countries trying to push us around! 

Alas, as appealing as all this may sound, it’s a pipe dream. Among the many pitfalls of the biofuels concept:

Economics. Farmers across the globe, whether corporate or independent, will switch to growing plants for biofuel the instant it becomes more profitable than growing food crops. The current price of gasoline will give you a good idea how many seconds this decision might take. Result: Besides ceding even more of our environment to automobiles, we’ll also be competing directly with them for food. 

Logistics. To replace even a small fraction of current fossil fuel consumption, vast portions of arable land would have to be dedicated to growing biofuels crops. It’s been calculated that satisfying ten percent of the European Union’s total fuel demand with biofuels would require an agricultural area the size of Spain.

Science. U.S .and E.U. leaders alike are jumping on the biofuels bandwagon as a panacea for petroleum woes. Case in point: An E.U. directive instituted in 2003 required that 5.75% petrol and diesel should come from renewable sources by 2010--a quota the E.U. plans to increase to 10% by 2020. Yet the European Environment Agency’s Scientific Committee--the E.U.’s own advisory panel on biofuels--has concluded that this move will not curb the production of greenhouse gases, and in fact may actually increase them. 

“I see absolutely no reason to use a lot of energy, money and large swaths of farmland (to produce biofuels),” concluded Professor Helmut Haberl, a member of the E.U. panel. “The E.U. should scrap the 10 percent mixture rules."

In the United States, a recent study led by Timothy Searchinger, an agricultural expert at Princeton University, concluded: 

“By using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land-use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%.” 

While the scientific news is bad enough, the worst thing about the political push for biofuels is that it only mires us deeper in a broken system, pandering to America’s energy addiction and perpetuating a culture and an economy in thrall to the internal-combustion engine.

We’d all like a world with adequate energy, a clean environment, and fewer conflicts. If biofuels can’t help deliver it, what can? In the short run, at least, that answer truly IS easy: Conservation. American technology, not to speak of American resolve, could easily reduce petroleum consumption by ten percent given the moral leadership to do so. The fault is not in our fuels, but in ourselves.