What style is my house? A common question among homeowners wishing to better understand the design of their home. It seems simple enough, but with most things, the more you begin to learn the more complex such a simple question can become.
The go-to book in this category is “The Field Guide to American Houses” by Virginia and Lee McAlester. The authors break down the style of American homes into six major categories, each with a handful of sub categories, resulting in approximately 39 identifiable styles of American Homes.
We’ll take a more in-depth look at six of these categories commonly found in the Washington DC metro area. First, let’s have a quick lesson on three key architectural terms that are vital to the understanding of style; Scale, proportion and pattern.
Scale: Scale and proportion are similar, but when we talk about scale we are generally speaking about how the size of the building or building elements relate to the size of a person. This could also mean how the size of the building relates to the neighborhood or surrounding built area.
Proportion: Proportion is used to describe how the size of elements within a design relate to each other. Large objects may be out of scale compared to a person, but still work within the context of the design because they are in proportion. Think about the columns at the Parthenon.
Pattern: In the context of this writing, pattern describes the visual arrangement of building features as viewed from the street. How the rhythm of elements such as windows, columns, materials changes, and accent features such as brackets, are used. People are pattern seekers and symmetry is a pleasing and easily distinguishable base to a pattern. Many styles discussed here lend themselves to asymmetry and pattern can be an effective way to bring asymmetrical massing together.
Colonial Style: (similar: Georgian, Adam):
This is a very general category, most commonly brick, two stories, flat front, symmetrical windows with shutters, a small portico or porch and a center hallway. As the name implies, Colonial architecture began in the early and mid-Eighteenth century American colonies. As with most preindustrial styles the materials tended to be regional and easily transportable. Glass could only be made in small sizes, leading to multi-paned windows. Brick color was limited and metals were scarce and expensive, so joinery was much more important with so few nails.
Scale: As with most historical styles that predate the industrial revolution human scale was almost always imposed by the way a house had to be hand built. Even large old colonial houses have an intimate scale in their detailing. The bricks are small and approachable, and if the house is clad in siding even that is made of many small identifiable pieces. As with all things small it is invariably cute.
Proportion: A Colonial house usually has a center hall with a room to either side. This results in a symmetrical front elevation. Most people either like symmetry, or at least acknowledge it is the basis upon which the human body is designed. It has a place in our hearts, even if our hearts chose to break that rule and skew to the left. The symmetry of a Georgian floor plan results in a front elevation that approaches a proportion that is at least similar to the “Golden Section” which is a topic unto itself but let’s just say its withstood the test of time as an important standard in pleasing proportion.
Colonial architecture will typically have a single material covering the entire façade, and so windows and doors are the primary elements that break up the monotony. We often see four windows and a center door on the first floor. Five smaller windows on the second floor will stack over the first floor windows. If there are attic dormers they will be even smaller yet, and align with the spaces between windows. This layout establishes a repetitive horizontal pattern that is also reinforced vertically with a diminishing scale. “Five, four and a door” is a quick idiom to remember the pattern of a colonial façade.
Shingle Style originated in the late 1800s and was adopted by many of the Robber Barons and their esteemed architects for homes of leisure. Think Newport Rhode Island or the Hamptons, though many beautiful examples exist on a smaller scale.
Scale: As with Colonial architecture the scale relates very well to the human form. Porches, balconies and dormers visually break up the mass of the building into more human-sized elements. Eaves that go all the way down to the first story also help to break down the scale of larger houses.
Proportion: The forms of Shingle Style houses can be can be more complicated. As the Field Guide states, it is “a complex shape enclosed in a smooth surface”. Often a large roof defines the house but is broken up by a series of gables, dormers and bay windows to create a composition. These elements are often each properly proportioned and then used as part of a complex composition of shapes that are all part of a greater whole.
Pattern: The style gets its name from the continuous cladding of shingles. This was uniquely American and any patterns here are typically brought about by the elements such as windows and porch columns that repeat in often seemingly random patterns. It is a complex style. Strips of three or more windows is one identifiable pattern, and within the windows themselves we see multi-pane top sashes over single pane bottom sashes. Curves are a notable feature, often used in eyebrow windows, walls and flared bottom edges of siding.
Prairie style is often associated with Frank Lloyd Wright as he was a principal innovator of this style during his early career. The Field Guide dates it between 1900-1920. Visually it is defined by low slung horizontal lines, hip roofs and deep overhangs. Even the bricks used tend to be Roman Brick which is very long and narrow. It originated in the American midwestern prairie as its name implies, however with the rise of plan books, and the rise of the railroads, this style was quickly transported from the mid-west to the east coast.
Scale: Like the Shingle Style, a Prairie Style house can work with both symmetrical and unsymmetrical volumes but its overriding feature is strong horizontal lines that are often reinforced with a very deep overhang at a second story eve. Though the houses are not necessarily large, the elements such as porch columns or wide bay projections can take on a massive scale.
Proportion: The resulting proportions of the prairie style break from the Golden Section principal that guide much of the colonial proportion. The resulting long and flat volumes tend to ground the house and make one look outward rather than upward. On occasion a two-story element such as a massive chimney or a window bay is used to break the horizonal lines. This contrast can be quite balanced and appealing.
Pattern: Again, as with the Shingle Style the larger massing is broken down and typically windows and porches are used to develop pattern and sequence. Often the resulting two-story elevation is further divided into horizontal masses with material changes. The first story material, often brick is carried all the way up to the sill of the second story window, grounding the house. Then repetitive windows, in groups of four or more create a vertical rhythm in this horizontal mass. The second story appears to float above this and additional patterns of windows, siding or stucco panels run horizontally, all under a massive overhanging eave that further grounds the house.
Craftsman style shares the low sloped roofs with the Prairie style and porches and porch supports are a very integral part of the style. Bungalow houses are the most prevalent example of Craftsman style architecture. Craftsman has had a big comeback in recent years, though this has been aided by less-informed builders adding brackets and other ornamentation to a non-descript home and calling it Craftsman.
Though American Craftsman style architecture originated in 1893 in California, the style has its roots in the English Arts and Crafts movement, which was a reaction against industrialization. Once again the “handmade” feel is present in the elements. As with the Prairie style, Crafstman architecture traveled east through plan books and became quite prevalent in the railroad suburbs of the northeast and mid-Atlantic.
Scale: As with its inspiration from the European arts and crafts movement there is a desire to look handmade and small-scale elements such as brackets and trim work are emphasized. Often the eave line comes down to the first-floor level further emphasizing the human scale.
Proportion: Again, as with the Prairie Style, Craftsman can tend to be low slung in scale however, like the gable features in the Shingle style the massing has a vertical aspect. Whereas the Prairie often creates a visual that makes the roof disappear, the Craftsman makes a sloped roof a defining part of its massing, but tends toward straight and angled lines as opposed to curves.
Pattern: The Craftsman Style is often dominated by a single roof, and secondary patterns are developed in the detailing through the use of brackets in gables, porch columns and windows with grilles only in the upper sash. Patterns are used to reduce the scale of larger elements. A typical Craftsman example would be the use of five or more brackets in a deep overhang to break up the mass of a large reverse gable at the front of the house. Each bracket in turn would have more intricate detailing, adding further depth to an otherwise overbearing physical structure.
This is not a Style unto itself. After World War II mass production, the GI bill and new means of financing combined to revolutionize housing in America, arguably at the expense of style. As urban flight and the automobile took hold starting in the late 1940’s, suburbs such as Levittown arose with a mass-produced cookie cutter version of inexpensive but often durable housing. These houses were viewed more as a commodity and produced with efficiency in mind. Standardization and production of building materials on a massive scale and the ability to transport these materials such as plywood and drywall started to de-emphasize regionalism on a large scale.
There are a multitude of styles of this Post War American housing but for brevity lets focus on three primary house types.
Typically, a one-story house with a partial second story under a simple roof. Often these houses had a modest kitchen, eating area, and living room which doubles as an entry foyer. They may have one or two bedrooms on the main level and possibly an additional bedroom or two on the upper level in the roof. Often two or three dormers project out the front broad side of the roof.
This is a one-story rambling plan, sometimes called a Rambler. It typically has an open plan and its origins trace back to California. The open plan lends itself to a less formal lifestyle, and exaggerates the size and feel of the interior spaces. The elevation from the street tends to be long and somewhat non-descript.
The Split level simulates the idea of three story living in a compact manner. It was also somewhat more adaptable to a non-level building lot. The plan can be split either from side to side or from front to back. One typically enters on the main level with kitchen, dining and living. One can either go down half a level to a basement or family room or up half a level to the bedrooms. Sometime there is an additional level below the main level which is effectively a basement.
These post-war houses, especially the Cape Cods and Splits tend to be on the smaller side, though some ramblers grew to be quite large and in short order transformed into a whole new variation we will address under the heading of Contemporary.
Scale: The post-war communities in which these houses were built can be of an enormous scale, and the shear repetition can be overwhelming.
Proportion: The front elevation is typically an afterthought, the result of the floor plan. Proportion and composition were not primary concerns. The addition of garages added another design challenge that was sometimes left unresolved. An average two car garage door is 16’ wide. Many of these houses were built on narrow lots, so the garage door occupied more than 50% of the front elevation. That said, many Cape Cod houses have a basically pleasing proportion and many splits break the two-primary massing into well-proportioned elements
Pattern: Again, this was created as an inexpensive mass-produced type of housing so the idea of developing or using a pattern was not of primary concern. A portico or porch would be flanked by windows but there was seldom any opportunity to develop patterns with either eave lines or details. Over time homeowners might add trim or features such as porches or bay windows to improve curb appeal but this has been done over time and on such an individual basis that these enhancements often defy the ability to be a recognized pattern.
Where are we now? Architecture by its very nature reflects the time and place it in which it was created. Modernism was once contemporary until it became an identifiable style. Style in the past tense is different from Style in the present tense.
Style 6: Contemporary: Contemporary architecture tends to be more about form and composition. As a style it can include a wide variety houses but much of it has its roots in what the Field Guide calls the International Style. It lends itself to expressing broad areas of material, and minimalizing the fussy details of the more historic styles.
Scale: Though the size of the house is not related to the contemporary style, the scale of the elements is often a bit larger. You might have a large two-story area of a siding material surrounded by a slender band of an accent material. The scale is a bit more random than the historic styles, sometimes being intimate, and sometimes being quite massive.
Proportion: As with some of the other styles the Contemporary Homes are often a composition of several forms which in of themselves may highlight either a horizontal of a vertical proportion but typically try to balance the entire composition.
Pattern: Patterns are less repetitive and move compositional. You might have a corner wrapped in siding abutted by a large solid panel. The contrasting patterns of the materials would try to complement one another, so the smoothness of the panel would be accentuated by the texture of abutting stone or wood siding.
What style is your house? Your house invariably has a story to it, and knowing its style will help you understand that story. It may affect how you think about your house and houses in general. It may make you appreciate why things were done a certain way in the past, and help you decide if it makes sense to do those things in a different way in your situation.