Signs of progress? Recent article about beauty for building.

As a builder I’m an optimist, I think, in fact, it is a required trait to qualify as a builder. A recent article in Builder magazine gives me hope that design and quality are improving and getting better. Or, maybe I’m just being optimistic. . .

As I have given talks around the country on my book; The Timeless House, it seems that at the end of each talk the same question is asked; when will things start to change? When will we stop building McMansions and disposable, ugly houses. The truth is I think things are already changing, but unfortunately change is slow and we live in an instant age.

I was in fact stunned and excited recently to see Vitruvius mentioned in a Builder Magazine article. Vitruvius, was the Roman engineer who wrote the only known book on ancient architecture from Greece or Rome.  Further, I must applaud John McManus, the author, for suggesting beauty as the single most important trait that will cause people to buy a home. You can read the article here.

Overlooking the fact that the article misses the essences of beauty, there are 2 reasons to be optimistic about this article. First, beauty was used and is being considered as a solution for building. WOW!! Stop the presses. This is big news.  Second, Vitruvius was mentioned in an article by Builder magazine. Here’s why this is big news.

In 1926, the Audel’s carpentry guide illustrated the classical orders along with their proportions that every carpenter should know and understand. I use this picture in my talks as an illustration of what we once knew but have forgotten today. There was a knowledge of building and design that existed before WWII and everyone shared this knowledge, from builder, to craftsmen and even the homeowner. After WWII with the rise of modernism and production housing this, Art of Building, was lost.

Greek and Roman Orders

The article is an encouraging sign that the building industry is searching for what makes a house appealing. They are beginning to realize that sales are not based on a formula of appliance quantity over countertop quality. Instead, beauty is an elusive yet worthwhile pursuit. This search in builder magazine is a positive sign.

To the question of how long it will take until we stop building ugly houses? It will take at least another 20-30 years. Yet, even despite this long return to quality and beauty, there are encouraging signs. Considering that the 1970′s were arguably the worst time in American homebuilding design; we are getting better. Here are a few milestones:

In 1981 Seaside Florida, the new urban planned community was born. You can read the history here.  This development has transformed the Florida coast and made it more beautiful with better construction. The New Urban ideals are spreading across the country,  and it birthed the TND- Traditional Neighborhood Development, movement which looks back to the past for design inspiration, think porches, sidewalks and walk-ability as key features.


In the early 1990′s the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art was formed. The ICAA, of which I’m a proud member, now has 16 chapters around the country and is training and teaching classicism and traditional building methods year around. To learn more about the ICAA go here.

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, 1770, Colonial Revival style

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, A great Classical building.


Design is getting better, change is improving and yes I am optimistic when Builder magazine considers beauty and Vitruvius as possible answers for better homes. It will take more time, but we are going in a good direction. Cheers.

The Master Builder’s top 10 bucket list. #10 Hampton Court- England

As I was researching historic French Iron work for a project, I ran across a great book, WROUGHT IRON IN ARCHITECTURE by Gerald K. Geerlings. It was published in 1929 (yes this is one for your library) and it describes and compares historical architectural ironwork. He contrasts periods, regions and also rates skill level and craft. For instance, French Iron work in 1700 vs. Italian artisans in the same period. It is a great resource and it sparked an idea that I will hopefully expand in the coming months; The master builder’s bucket list, places every craftsman/builder should visit before he or she, kicks the proverbial bucket.

The goal is to see the worlds finest surviving craft. This bucket list is meant to be a guide to the ”holy” sites of fine craftsmanship. If a religious person makes a spiritual pilgrimage, where would a devotee of fine craft travel? Where are the places around the world that represent the pinnacles of craft and design. Hopefully over the comings months, I’ll share my top 10.

For today’s post, I start with #10, Hampton Court and the carvings of Grinling Gibbons.

Hampton Crt. Aerial

Place: Hampton Court 12 miles outside of London.
Building Trade of most interest: WOODWORKER - CARVER:
Other areas of interest: Tudor design, Classical design, Classical gardens, Amazing gun/armory room.

History: Hampton Court was built and started in the 1500′s with an addition in the early 1700′s during the Baroque era. It is a unique combination of Tudor and Baroque building styles. Note in the aerial picture above, the Tudor palace is in front and the Baroque addition by Christopher Wren in the back.

This is the Tudor Front entry dating to the early 1500′s.

HMP Crt FRont small










This is the Baroque face dating to the early 1700′s.

HC rear small


Where the two styles and eras join there is an interesting contrast. Note the classical entry by Wren and the strong Tudor elements behind. I find it kind of interesting and fun.












Artisan: Grinling Gibbons- carver

Grinling Gibbons

Importance and significance: Arguably one of the greatest carvers who ever lived was a man named Grinling Gibbons. He was a Dutch craftsman/carver who moved to England looking for work in the early 1700′s. He was “discovered” by an influential man who recommended Gibbons to his wealthy friends. His carvings are revered for their light, fragile and intricate form. He carved in lime wood which has a very even grain allowing a great deal of undercutting and back carving which isn’t possible in other woods. Gibbons carving and this special wood allowed his carvings to appear paper thin and in turn define his style.

I’m only going to share one room in the Baroque palace, you need to visit yourself to discover the rest. Gibbons carvings festoon the painting of the king over the fireplace.
















GG contrastNote the contrast between Gibbons carvings which spring from the wall and look near life-like, to the more traditional (though still great) carvings on the mantel shelf and picture frame. It is an astounding difference.







Note too in these pictures the delicacy of the leaves, drapes, flower petals and how fragile they appear. The physical execution and display of skill is mind-boggling today.

GG Sheaves

















Other highlights to see while your there.
The armory: WOW! Remember king’s built palaces to show off. This armory with the pistols and swords was a show of force and power as well as wealth. It was intended to intimidate visiting dignitaries. Although not intimidated, I was deeply impressed.

HC Arm small


We are building a gun room for a client. This is certainly a different spin on the traditional gun case.

HC close small 2


HC close small 1












The Classical Gardens: No visit to Hampton Court, Versailles, or any grand home or building of this period is complete without a view of the formal gardens. My favorite part at Hampton Court is this arbor/trellis, note the great details in the surround. It is all oak by the way. Yes, those cuties are my daughters.














The Tudor section: I love Tudor architecture. The paneled walls, linen fold carvings, etc. The Tudor portion of Hampton court has many many wonderful charms. Note in this picture that many of the details and ideas we use in our Tudor architecture are found here; Fancy chimney details, windows with stone surrounds, the Tudor/gothic arches. etc.

Tudor details small











I also love the craftsmanship. Note this oak door which on the front side is ornamented with linen fold panels, yet on the back is put together with stout and complex joinery. Fun stuff!!

Tudor door smallTudor door back small









Significance- Why is this on the bucket list? We live in an age of high-technology and low-craft. Grinling Gibbons represents a pinnacle in carving mastery. The  opportunity for us today is to find inspiration and take lessons from Grinling’s achievements that ideally will lead us to better design and finer craftsmanship.

Hand carving is a lost art today. Yes, I know people still carve wood but not to the level of mastery we find in the past. We are fooled into believing that with our  improved technology that carving is easy. All you do is scan a picture into a computer and the machine cuts it out. If you compare the carvings made today vs. historic carvings it like comparing a wedding cake to a Twinkie. One is beautiful and hand-made, the other is mass produced and can kill you.  What Grinling does is take carvings farther than most people have since or before. He makes them seem truly lifelike and achieves something with wood that few thought were possible.

Inspiration and encouragement: I want to encourage those who are passionate for craft like me to continue to work hard and practice your trade. Proverbs 22:29: “See a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings.” Good skill and talent will be found out. I implore you to dedicate your life to craft and better design. Gibbons was “by legend” discovered working at his bench. He was buried in his craft, toiling away. He didn’t have an awesome website, but rather was dedicated to fine craft.  Today, where there is so little craft, there is no wasted time in practice. If you truly put in the 10,000+ hours it takes to be skilled in a trade/craft you will be rewarded.

Finally to learn more about Gibbons and this period, I urge you to read David Esterly’s great book Grinling Gibbons and The Art of Carving. Cheers.

Timeless Building in Salem, Mass

I was invited to speak at the Danver’s Historical Society last weekend and was fortunate to have time to explore a few historic streets in Salem, Mass. If you have read my book, you’ll know that Salem, in the early 1800′s, was one of the richest cities in America. My building hero, Samuel McIntire, lived and worked in Salem. His most famous client was a wealthy merchant named Derby. Salem for a brief time was a bustling harbor and many fine Federal style homes were built here.  If you have a chance to visit Salem, skip the witch tours and walk down Charleston and Essex streets and enjoy these amazing homes.

The Federal style is most popular in America from 1790-1820. Charles Bullfinch, Asher Benjamin and others were inspired by the English architect Robert Adam. The Federal style is different from the Georgian style before it. Moldings are light and dainty and you’ll see in these pictures a great deal of fine and wonderful detail.

This is the George Nichols House, built in 1816. This typifies the centrally focused simple and clean lined Federal style.

Salem 1

Here is the Front door. I love the proportions of the door. This wide 3 panel configuration is common on Chestnut street. This is a detail I will definitely have to steal for future project.

salem 2












When these homes were not clad in Brick they were clad with wood. Typically wood lap siding but also wood that was made to look like stone. This is the Phillips house, note the quoining on the corners. This is made from wood and meant to mimic stone quoins. This was a fairly common technique, they did the same thing at Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home. At Mount Vernon, they painted the wood and then threw sand on the wet paint so that it would have texture like stone.

salem 3








On these high style wood homes, you’ll find great detail and fine enrichment. The windows on the Phillips home have a full entablature with a decorated frieze and cornice. Wow, great stuff!

salem 4a











Not all the houses are Federal on Chestnut street. This is a Greek Revival home that looks stately and rich. Note, on the entry porch, the fluted columns have no base, a common feature on Greek Revival homes. The lines of this house are much more plain and stark compared to the ornate Phillips house above. Inspired by the Greek temples, the effort was to make the home appear to be made from stone.

salem 8


On the next street over, Essex St, you will find earlier Georgian homes and even rich Victorian homes like this one. There is easily 200 years of building styles all in a small 3 block area.

salem 13









Of course no trip to Salem is complete without going to the Peabody Essex museum and seeing McIntire’s great work. Note the beauty of this entrance. It is elegant and formal with impeccable proportions.

Salem 17












A closer look shows the painted door with faux mahogany graining and then the decorative lead caming that is apparently gilded. As with the Federal style the detail is restrained. You can’t really see the detail until you get up close.

salem 18











Traveling should be inspirational. Hopefully you will see and find great new details and ideas for building. This trip was no different for me. On the house below I found a fun ball or bead detail at the cornice that I had never seen before. It is a string of balls/beads that replace the bed mold. I saw this detail on at least 10 houses.

salem 9salem 11























I especially love the wood fences. This is very refined exterior millwork, it is furniture quality millwork! Amazing. It is beautiful and ornate and yet needs to last for generations. That is quite the task to aspire to. Enjoy.

salem 5













salem 16










salem 15salem 14