Monday, August 30, 2010

My favorite architecture books

I am frequently asked about my favorite reference books for architecture, however when I started my blog over three years ago, I didn’t own a single architecture reference book.  Writing this blog has increased my interest in architecture, and has also exposed me to some excellent books that are written for the non-architect who wants to know more about the design of houses and architectural styles.  Over the past few years, three books have emerged as essential references that I go to again and again when researching blog posts and learning about interesting architectural elements in the houses that I love.  These books have also been quite interesting and helpful to me as I have worked with my architect on the design of the house I am building.

About a month after I started blogging, a reader recommended a book that has become a frequent reference and a constant source of inspiration for me:  A Field Guide to American Houses, by Virginia and Lee McAlester.


Whenever I see an interesting house on my daily dog walks, this book is the first I go to in order to determine the style of the house, and the characteristics of the architectural style.  Each chapter (arranged chronologically) goes through architectural styles that have been popular in America for the past 300 years; the characteristics and identifying features of each architectural style is reviewed in detail, and illustrations of the common forms of the style are included.  Also included are pictures of actual houses that typify each architectural style.

I have found this book to be a fantastic reference for the details that really capture my eye – the roof styles, materials commonly used, door and window styles.  The book is also a valuable reference for the architectural terms that are used to describe the elements of a house.  The first chapter is particularly valuable as it establishes the foundation of the architectural elements of a house, and the lingo that is used to describe these elements.  My copy of this book is now dog eared as I have referred to it so often! 
Click here to see A Field Guide to American Houses in my Amazon.com store (all prices represent Amazon’s best price).  (Postscript: a reader just notified me that there is a paperback version - click here for the paperback version)

I am not sure how or where I heard about this book, but I have owned it for years and find it to be a great reference for understanding classical architecture.   I find it to be particularly helpful when I see house that is supposed to be traditional, and built in the classical tradition, yet somehow doesn’t work. 


Get Your House Right clearly illustrates what is right in classical architectural design, from a scale, proportion, and design perspective – and what is wrong (or, more accurately, when classical elements are used in an entirely wrong way).  All of this is illustrated with simple, clear drawings (clearly marked AVOID and USE!).  It is also extremely useful as a reference for the vocabulary of architecture – I always refer to it when writing a post about architectural elements (such as my last post on stone door surrounds and porticos).  I often lack the basic vocabulary to describe what I am seeing, but this book helps tremendously by defining the architectural elements in clear terms.  It is a book designed for the non-architect house enthusiast in mind, and it a great reference. 

Click here to see Get Your House Right in my Amazon.com store (all prices represent Amazon’s best price).  You will see houses in a whole different way after reading this book!

Last year, when I was looking for a house (and beginning to think about building a house), Terry from Architecture Tourist told me about the book a A Pattern Language – and I can truly say that reading this book had a profound effect on the way that I look at houses.   Alexander wrote this book to express ways (broken down into patterns) that humans can design homes and communities to be more comfortable places to live, based on natural considerations that make a house work in its environment and for the comfort of its inhabitants (such as family size, the lot itself, natural light, to name a few).  At over 1000 pages, it is full of interesting ideas, and covers the gamut from what works in a community, what works in an office setting, to what works in landscape and residential building.  Although not all of the patterns are practical to implement, this book really made me think about the design of a house in a whole new way.


One of my favorite patterns from A Pattern Language is ”Light on Two Sides” (and I wrote a blog post on this which is one of my all time favorite posts).  As Alexander states:
When they have a choice, people will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are lit only from one side unused and empty.
When I read this, I immediately thought about many of the houses I had seen in my real estate search, and rejected, because they seemed too closed in, too dark.  Without exception, the majority of the rooms in these houses had windows on only one side of the room. 

The new editor of House Beautiful, Newell Turner, seems to be as smitten with A Pattern Language as I am; in his personal blog chronicling the experience of building a 1200 square foot house in the New York’s Catskills Mountains, he cites A Pattern Language as “an indispensable reference book for anyone building or renovating a house. It's the second volume of a three book series that gives readers new/old ways for looking at design. Alexander and his colleagues take a common sense, human approach to design issues (or patterns) and follow each with concise, useful advice. While they start in the larger realm of community and neighborhood planning and work their way down through the most intimate experiences of a house, it's all presented in an easy to dive-in-and-out of format that will leave you thinking and planning a more inspired and natural home. I found a lot of inspiration in this book”.  I also spied A Pattern Language in one of the first issues of House Beautiful with Turner at the helm; check out page 97 of the September 2010 House Beautiful and you will see A Pattern Language featured. (Note: in the comments, Architecture Tourist recommends looking at A Pattern Language in person before purchasing - because it is not one of your typical coffee table books filled with glossy pictures - quite the opposite. It has the feel of a textbook.)

To see other design, architecture, art, and decorative books that I recommend, please visit the Things That Inspire Amazon store.

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Disclosure: a small commission in the form of an Amazon gift card is made for each purchase made through the Things That Inspire Amazon store.  The store is powered by Amazon and the prices are the same as Amazon prices.  To see my other favorite design, architecture, decorative, and art books, please visithttp://astore.amazon.com/thithains-20.


  1. Thanks for sharing these helpful references. Have a great weekend.
    Teresa (Splendid Sass)

  2. so interesting, love these kind of books!!! I need to dress up my front door to my Victorian farmhouse. I should look into how to....


  3. I have 'A Pattern Language' - good stuff, but don't expect a a glossy, read it in one sitting book. The first half is kind of boring, relates to towns, but the second half is great - it's architecture and design ideas that makes sense.

  4. I love seeing books like this especially in my area where houses are well over a hundred years old.

  5. Field Guide to American Houses is a treasure.

  6. I have the Field Guide - but am glad to know about the others. Looks like interesting reading. Thanks!

  7. A field guide to American Houses has been my architecture bible for many years. i purchase it years ago while living in boston and renovating an early 17th century saltbox house...it still is on my library shelves

  8. A Pattern Language is not like the others, not like any others as far as I know. Find it in the bookstore and read a short chapter that interests you. It's not about style or fashion. About ceiling heights:

    "In some fashion, low ceilings make for intimacy, high ceilings for formality. In older buildings which allowed the ceiling heights to vary, this was almost taken for granted. However, in buildings which are governed by standard components, it is very hard to make the ceiling height vary from room to room, so it tends to be forgotten. And people are willing to let it go, because they have forgotten what an important psychological reason there is for making the heights vary."

  9. I agree, Terry - it is hard to convey what A Pattern Language is like, and it is too expensive to purchase without getting a feel for it first.

    It really resonated with me, but it is not full of pretty pictures, but rather great concepts.

  10. I just added a postscript to the Pattern Language section of this post. I think that this book has more of a feel of a text book - and indeed, it is often used as such.

  11. Had to read your post and make sure it included, A Pattern Language.

    Not only Architecture it addresses landscapes fabulously too.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  12. I already have the first two, and love them. Will have to add the third one to my wish list!

  13. That's why I love your blog - I always learn something!

  14. This is another quote from "A Pattern Language." We've all seen these:

    "The courtyards built in modern buildings are very often dead. They are intended to be private open spaces for people to use - but they end up unused, full of gravel and abstract sculptures.

    "Therefore ..."

  15. Field Guid to American Houses is absolutely a MUST in any design library. This wonderful book has dawned the shelves of my book case in design school as well as in my design studio today. It remains the "go to guide" for identifying the style of a home as well as the architectural elements that compose a home.

    Thank you for sharing!


  16. What a coincidence. I was just in the Buckhead B&N Friday making my regular rounds through the architecture section. I came across the Elements of Style book and picked it up. I also saw the Field Guide book which I have flipped threw a few times. I think I'm going to order it soon. I also have the Pattern Language book, but haven't finished reading it. I find it a slow read, but its content is excellent.

  17. O.K Terry and Holly, I am intrigued..I'm getting The Pattern Language Book!


  18. Im a huge fan of the Pattern Language. I am designing my own home and it has been extremely helpful in every decision so far!

  19. I have a couple of these and always reference "The American Field Guide to Houses". It's an excellent book!

  20. I'm hogging the comments but one more, a pattern called "Windows Overlooking Life." It's in part about how much window area you need so a room feels good.

    A Shutze house on the Buckhead in Bloom tour was gargantuan, the setting and everything else impressive. It's not a house I'd expect to make a connection with but Shutze is more than a clever detailer.

    I walked into the huge living room and felt like I'd entered architecture paradise. I still "feel" that room. It wasn't detail or decoration; it could have been empty. If I get another chance in that house, I'll take my tape measure.

    From A Pattern Language:
    "... We suggest, therefore, that you go round the town where you live, and choose half a dozen rooms in which you really like the light. In each case, measure the window area as a percentage of the floor area; then take the average of the different percentages."

  21. Here is a pattern I like:

    131: Flow Through Rooms
    As Far As Possible, Avoid The Use Of Corridors And Passages. Instead, Use Public Rooms And Common Rooms As Rooms For Movement And For Gathering. To Do This, Place The Common Rooms To Form A Chain, Or Loop, So That It Becomes Possible To Walk From Room To Room - And So That Private Rooms Open Directly Off These Public Rooms. In Every Case, Give This Indoor Circulation From Room To Room A Feeling Of Great Generosity, Passing In A Wide And Ample Loop Around The House, With Views Of Fires And Great Windows.

    Sounds like an enfilade house, doesn't it?

  22. What great books I am enjoying the snippets and certainly want to read more!!

    Art by Karena

  23. hi Holly - those books sound really interesting - on a more structural engineering level you should check out if you have not already - Why Buildings Stand Up and then Why Buildings Fall Down by Mario Salvadori and another. Very very interesting but readable analysis of the strength of the dome, and why they do those bizarre span bridges etc. Available on Amazon I think . xoxo

  24. Hi Holly! How are you? So glad to be back to the world of blog. I took a little summer break. Hope you are well. Love your book suggestions. Have some of these myself.

  25. Thanks for the recommendations. Just in time!

  26. Get Your House Right sounds invaluable...I need this one, thanks!

  27. Thanks Holly for the recommendations! I can't wait to purchase these books.

  28. Great Books. I remember when I started design school one of our required books for the 1st semester was "A Pattern Language". I looked at it and thought what the heck, then after reading it cover to cover I am a fan for life!!!
    Another one I use almost everyday is "Interior Graphic and Design Standards" by Reznikoff. It was my bible in school and continues to be a great resource.

  29. I see I have a few more books to add to my ever growing book list! Thanks for the recommendations! I just discovered your blog and added you to my blogroll...hope you don't mind?!?!? Come by and see me soon :o)

  30. I think I will be doing some shopping on Amazon! I totally agree about "light on two sides" of a room too. Fun post!


  31. Thank you for bringing these books to our attention. I am going to have to get A Patterned Language after all of the things said here about it. It sound like a must have for anyone in the design world.

  32. I am so at the bottom of these comments, and think I'm late to this party, but in High Point, N.C. is the largest interior design library in the world--absolutely true! Here it is, one of my favorite, wintery day visits: http://www.furniturelibrary.com/

  33. Holly - I'm a residential Architect and the books you've mentioned are a couple of the essential books in my library! "Pattern Language" is the "root" book, one that many of us have used for 30+ years.

    "Get Your House Right" is a wonderful recent addition, and one that I recommend to many of my clients as a way to get us speaking the same language.

    Like you, I've just about worn out my copy of the McAlester book (I call it my bible!).

    And although I'm sure you've heard of it, might I also suggest Sarah Susanka's "The Not So Big House" as an essential read? Ms. Susanka (whom I was lucky enough to have met once) writes for the homeowner, and like Ms. Cusasto, helps clients and Architects communicate with each other.

    Enjoy your blog immensely, keep pounding those keys!


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