BOXY, BUT GOOD!
Renaissance Principles for Today’s Home Designs
By John Henry Architect, 407/
Architect's own design for a
Contemporary plan at left, Palazzo Farnese at right
costs are rising due to complicated rooflines, costly flashing, and irregular
foundation geometries due to seemingly whimsical floor plan angles and curves.
Have you wondered how we came to accept a status quo that is characterized by
difficult to build and manage spec or custom plans that spell headache as a
result of framing nightmares and delays? It seems only a soft market can
curtail the current extravagance and waste (design-wise) in much of the existing
stock of move up and custom plans resulting in out of budget numbers. To
ward off the high costs of new home construction (and narrowing profitability
for the builder/ developer) let’s look for a minute at exactly what we are
building, and act sensibly now by examining precedence. For wisdom in
construction principles let us go back for the future.
Recall that our current
‘contemporary’ designs are really based on the thinking of late 19th century
American Craft movement architects like McKim, Mead, and White, at times
building for clients who did not have the resources of the Vanderbilts, in a
free-form vernacular. There was a backlash against the Greco-Roman model
(on which was based our colonial style) by Americans of modest means, as it
tended to be contrived and difficult to ‘fill out’, especially for starter
and midsize homes. The resulting ‘organic’ development of the plan
(with no consideration for economy), thinking championed by FLWright and others,
has led to many of today’s excesses resulting in much higher building costs
per area enclosed.
Volvo’s catchy ad a few years
back – ‘boxy but good’ -- was exactly the mentality of 15th-19th century
architects and builders. And there was a very good reason why. While
ancient Greek and Roman settlements tended towards houses being built on the
principle of accretion, that is, one started a single room or two and then added
as time and resources permitted, the great villas and palaces of subsequent
years, through much of the 19th century, adopted a simple perimeter plan.
It was the great humanist revelation of the Italian Renaissance that prodded
inquisitive builders to excavate the great Roman ruins beneath years of rubble.
What they found were temples and
basilicas, palaces, etc. several of which they attempted to restore. The
great building programs of the Vatican resulted in churches, nobles’ palaces,
and municipal assembly halls built upon the principles of ancient Roman
grandeur. The Romans developed the arch and concrete in which to mimic and
exceed the great marble temples of their Greek brethren. But they were
What was the physical result of
the new building program? The
footprints of the new construction were almost always rectangular; the walls
grew two to six stories straight up. The
entire structure received a simple hip roof, sometimes with gable ends.
Rectangles and square plans with little or no perimeter wall undulation
and simple roofs meant two things: ease of construction, efficiency of
materials, less room for error, and --- lower costs!
What they didn’t care much about at the time due to the great stone
mass– energy efficiency – is now found to be related to building envelope
geometry, among other factors.
When rich urban merchants wished
to leave their palace digs to build their villas in the countryside (our example
of luxury homes in suburbia and high-end ‘gated communities’) they too
adopted similar principles of design and construction.
A Vizentine architect named Palladio popularized the country villa by
modeling several modestly constructed plans on the Greek and Roman temple form.
His contemporary architects and builders looked at the urban palaces
(that omitted the column and pediment) to build a variety of exciting ‘luxury
homes’. No bay windows or
octagons until the Gothic revival in this country.
‘H’ and ‘L’ plans, all symmetrically disposed, was the overriding
The interesting observation
about Renaissance design is that the exterior can be simple, a mark of
propriety, while the interiors are open to the most lavish decorative effects.
Yes, there were temples in the round and Roman Caesars had some amazingly
complex floor plans, such as Hadrian’s villa several miles out of Rome.
But expansive palaces are not our prototype here.
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The influence of Italian and
French designers, who continued the plans for Monarch and merchant,
extends into our Gilded Age culminating in this country’s artistic zenith.
Like the builders several generations ago, effort was put into quality
construction and finishes, not extravagant and arbitrary plan manipulation.
They were concerned about leaks, and cost of construction. Their architects then could persuade them to put icing on the
cake. Our colonial forefathers
built exactly in this way, and while too much of the salt box can be extremely
monotonous, architects should be more careful of their client’s budgets,
looking back at precedent occasionally to realize that a pleasing, interesting
and beautiful overall aesthetic effect does not necessary demand wild plans and
violent roof lines.
Wildly irregular plan by a contemporary designer (left)
Recall the imperative of
yesteryear’s modular construction principles.
Based on a regular grid and simple plan, construction components
(plumbing, foundation, wall and roof design) yielded extreme efficiencies.
Construction costs were minimized and trades/ material suppliers
recognized the savings and passed them onto the builder.
When was the last time a contractor could go to a framer or roofer and
negotiate a better deal due to efficient design/ planning?
It is rare in a boom mentality to receive any discount it seems, and so
the floor planning continues to get wilder.
Remember the modern movement: less is more (see photo below: Philip
Johnson's glass and steel concoction).
Demand rational plans from your architect!
Yes, go back and study
precedent to build a new future of efficiently constructed (for builders: more
profitable) and elegant designs based on unerring tradition. Not a bad
idea. The Neo-traditional movement is moving ahead at full steam.
Catch the train.
'BOXY BUT GOOD' APPLIED TO CURRENT CONTEMPORARY DESIGN!
NEW designs based on this theory: Villa America Rotonda @ 4-5,000 SF and below,
Contemporary Deconstruction design @ 4,300 SF. Bottom 2 designs are
extended/simplified versions of the basic layout.
These two elevations, top and
bottom, are from a new series to be published soon. They are
derived from the same plan @ approx. 3-4,000 SF. Notice how
period designs can be applied to the same base plan, one French, one
description and design in Austin, Texas
Can be customized in many ways: size, style,
Cost to purchase most existing
plan designs is $4.90/ SF typ. for
Permit Set drawings, $3.30/SF for Schematic Design only (see each description for
NOTE: We do not
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under contract. Please
contact us to receive typical contract form, or set an
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American Luxury Home Available now on CD- rom. (click below left)
This is a history of the luxury home with sections on working with an architect
and builder, style, modern and traditional approaches, etc. Also, companion
volume: Dream Home Design Questionnaire and Planning
Kit (click right below, available as PDF file via email)
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