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)
Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use & Avoid, by Marianne Cusato & Ben Pentreath, with Richard Sammons & Leon Krier
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.)
Click here to see A Pattern Language in my Amazon.com store (all prices represent Amazon’s best prices).
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