H. Vandervoort (Harold Vandervoort) Walsh.

The construction of the small house; a simple and useful source of information of the methods of building small American homes, for anyone planning to build online

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Online LibraryH. Vandervoort (Harold Vandervoort) WalshThe construction of the small house; a simple and useful source of information of the methods of building small American homes, for anyone planning to build → online text (page 13 of 16)
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Variations in the proportions and the details of these motifs is
about all that the designer can hope for, and yet this is one of
the hardest problems to solve. The correct designing of dor-
mer-windows is a very rare thing to be seen. How many houses
of modern Colonial style have ugly dormers ! They are usually
made too large and too wide and fat. The dormer-windows



used in the old Colonial houses were narrow and high, and in
those proportions were their charming appeals. To-day a
double-hung window with weight-boxes is used in these dor-
mers, and the whole width made too wide because of these
additions to the sides. This is a warning that the designer
should be careful in adapting old motifs to modern require-
ments. This particular problem has been correctly solved with
the use of the weight-box, but
how many times it has not been
solved is evident on all sides.
Another unfortunate use of the
dormer-window motif is the ex-
tension of the second floor up
through the lower slope of the
gambrel roof. This cuts away
any legitimate lower section of
the gambrel roof, and in order
to preserve it, the designer pro-
jects it outward from the ends of

the house, and has it skirt by the side of the second floor like
an added toboggan-slide with no earthly reason for its exist-
ence. Then, too, the prairie-schooner dormer, the semicircle
one, and the eyebrow dormer are certainly types to be used with
great care, for they can become eyesores without effort, and
they cost a good deal to construct. Where the dormer is to be
made inconspicuous the flat-roof type has been successfully em-
ployed, but the roofing material on it should be tin or copper.
In some of the trap-door types of dormers where the pitch is
very slight, the roofing material ought to be of sheet metal.
The sides of dormers are made less conspicuous by covering


them with the same material as used on the roof, but this is not
always desirable. However, all vertical joints of dormers with
the roof should be carefully flashed to prevent leaks.

The treatment of the gable ends of dormers is practically the
same as that required for the treatment of the gable ends of the
main roof. Here again, although on the face of it there seem
to be innumerable ways of treating the gable ends of roofs, yet


there are comparatively few methods. The drawings show
about all the possible ways, and any types which appear to dif-
fer from these can be shown to be merely variations. The sim-
plest method of treatment is to place a small moulding under
the ends of the shingles. A variation of this can be made by
adding a wide board below the moulding or a course of shingles
running parallel with the edge. The classic cornice can be used,
but great taste is needed in handling this motif, for any pitch
which is not of the traditional classic pediment form is apt to
look badly. The verge-board motif comes from half-timber
traditions, and is generally used in a very careless fashion. In
general, it usually looks best when some visible means of sup-
port is made a part of the design.

The shingle imitation of the thatched-roof gable is one of








those amusing architectural fads which do not have very deep
roots, and sooner or later are forgotten.

The wall-gable treatment is very dignified, but is usually
associated with larger houses, but when simplified it has a charm
which none of the other motifs can offer.

Other than these few, there are no common motifs to use in



adorning the gable end of a roof. This and the previous state-
ments only go to prove that the originality of design in the
small house is limited within a narrow scope, and that the real
beauty is not obtained in trying to find different forms, but in
trying to use the traditional structural forms in the best pro-
portions and giving careful attention to the details. In fact, it
has been said that house designing is largely an assembling, into
pleasing general proportions, of carefully designed traditional



Importance of Tradition

The art of building has grown by evolution, like other things
in this world. The carpenter who builds in wood to-day builds
according to certain customs which come down to him from
centuries of carpenters. Modern methods of constructing the
small house have all human history for their background. When
we speak of modern methods, we merely refer to those which
are used at this time, as they have evolved from past experience
and been considered satisfactory. To hear some architects and
builders talk, one would think that modern America had the
monopoly on good construction, and that our system of build-
ing was newly invented. How often have we heard remarks
like the following from the self-styled practical man: "The
genius of the present age is eminently practical and constructive.
Improvements of every kind and ingenious contrivances for
easily effecting results, which in past ages were only accom-
plished by slow, laborious effort, . . . etc."

But they were saying this kind of thing in 1858, for the
above is quoted from a book of this date, so that even the prac-
tical man is traditional in his remarks about building.

There are also too many young men to-day wasting their

time discovering what they think are new ways of building, but



which have been known for centuries and discarded as unsat-
isfactory. If they would only study what had already been
done, they would save themselves a lot of trouble.

Styles of Design Change, but Construction the Same

The styles in designing houses may change from year to
year, or more likely from generation to generation, but the
methods of building and the traditions in back of them continue
on, with only slight changes which mark the evolution of the
art. In as brief a period as we have had in this country to pro-
duce domestic architecture, we can notice very distinct styles of
design, but running through them all are similar ways of build-
ing. Our earliest Colonial houses were built according to tra-
ditions brought over from England. These traditions in turn
had deep roots in Europe, back to primitive days, when houses
were not much more than temporary, movable shacks.

There is, however, one general trend through which build-
ing methods seem to pass. First, we have rather heavy, clumsy
ways of building; this is followed by a long period of experimen-
tal cutting down of the materials of construction and standard-
ization of parts; following this comes the stage of extreme light-
ness of construction, when the builders go as near the limit of
safety as possible, and then accidents occur which tend to dis-
credit the system.

The early English houses were built of heavy oak-trees.
Later half-timber houses used smaller structural members and
more standard sizes. These traditions were brought to this
country, but it was soon found that heavy oak was not neces-
sary for their stability, but that some of the native soft woods


would answer the purpose. The thinning-down process con-
tinued, until we developed the frame dwelling of balloon con-
struction which is practically built of 2 by 4 pieces throughout.

We are now having a building code formulated by the
United States Department of Commerce, which is intended to
establish the minimum requirements for small-house construc-
tion, so that greatest economy of material can be secured, but
also a precedent set for the minimum cutting down of material
in building. In the compilation of this code this tendency to
reduce the quantity of material used was very evident in the
discussions which centred around the problem of whether the
brick walls for small houses should be 12 or 8 inches thick. In
Colonial days they thought nothing of building them 2 feet
thick. To-day we hesitate at building them as thick as 12
inches. In fact, our building codes show no uniformity of
opinion on the matter, and our experts disagree. The prelimi-
nary form of the above-mentioned code has settled upon an 8-
inch thickness for walls not exceeding 30 feet, and made addi-
tional allowance for an extra 5 feet in height on the gable end
of the building.

The process of thinning down is still going on, as this indi-

The illustrations representing briefly the historical progress of
styles in domestic architecture in the United States are given to
show how these styles have varied, and impress the reader with
the rather constant undercurrent of construction methods
throughout these changes.

In the early Colonial houses the wooden frames were built
of heavy oak timbers which were hewn into shape and dressed
down with the adz. Sometimes rafters and joists were sawn,





1785 -





and the further along we progress in time the more we find the
saw being used.

If we now jump to the period between 1865 and 1889, we
find that the awful atrocities of architecture were being built in
the East with similar heavy frames, although slightly less mas-
sive. Where tradition was less strong in the West, the balloon
frame had grown up, but during the same period houses of
equally bad design were built with one or the other systems,
showing that the system of construction had very little to do
with the style of architecture. Even consider the variety of
styles used in modern domestic work, and then one can realize
that all of these different types of buildings are built much in
the same way. Good design has apparently little relation to
good construction, although good design is improved when it
expresses the construction. We often see very beautiful houses
set up for moving-picture plays, but these are built of flimsy
stage scenery. We have also seen very ugly houses which make
us curse the builder for having built them so well.

Fundamental Building Traditions Inherited from England
It is from England that we have inherited most of our build-
ing traditions of domestic work. The earliest methods of con-
structing a home were much the same for all European coun-
tries. Woven brushwood of the crudest sort was undoubtedly
the first beginnings of domestic construction. The next step in
advance was, according to a German theory, invented by a
woman. It consisted of erecting leaning poles and stakes and
filling the space between with inwoven wattlework. The shapes
were conical, like the Indian tents, but later the gable-roof shape
was adopted because of the greater interior space allowed.


In building the gable-shaped houses the early builders used
very heavy and massive construction for the ridge-pole and its
support, for they believed that this upheld the rafters. This
tradition was kept alive until quite recent times, but now we
know that when rafters are supported at their base, the ridge-



pole practically takes none of the weight and need only be used
for ease of erection.

But to our ancestors the important problem in first erecting
the house was to secure the substantial support of the ridge-
pole. Obviously the erection of two forked trees at either end
of the ridge-pole made an excellent solution, but when the room
was long this meant that the interior had to be cluttered up
with interior posts. We find then that one of the primitive
methods in England of eliminating the interior posts was the
adoption of the cruck system of construction which is shown in
Fig. 2. By selecting two bent trees and placing them together
in a shape like a wish-bone, the ridge-pole could be well sup-
ported without interior columns. By placing cross-tie beams
on these bent trees and extending them outward, the plates for
supporting the lower ends of the rafters could be held in posi-



tion. This permitted the carpenters to erect the exterior walls
independently of the roof, a thing which they seem to have de-

There is another variation of the above method of support-
ing the ridge-pole, and that is shown in Fig. 3. Instead of

POST fc-

selecting a bent tree, one was secured which was upright for a
certain height, and then which bent to one side with a branch.
By placing two of these trees together, a perfect end was formed
for the house. However, this was not a very good type, since
it meant the selecting of very unusual-shaped trees.

For this reason the system of post-and-truss construction,
which is shown in Fig. 4, was the natural outcome of the above.
Diagonal bracing at the corners evidently was found to be use-
ful in resisting high wind-storms, and it was usually employed.

There apparently remained a distrust of masonry walls
among the carpenters, for they continued to support the roofs
entirely upon heavy timber framing, and records show that the
exterior walls were built up after the roof-framing had been
completed. There are evidences that the early types of walls,


after the primitive woven brushwood walls proved insecure,
were made like a barricade of trees; that is, they were merely a
continuous line of vertically placed tree-trunks. This, of course,
was a ruinously expensive type of wall when timber became
scarce, and it is no wonder that it grew to a system of construc-
tion like that shown in Fig. 5. Even this required a good deal

WC.PEN -WA1.1.

of wood, so that the filling of the space between the timbers
rather logically became masonry or plaster on lath. However,
the method of building shown in Fig. 5 has all of the elements
of the system of construction used in framing modern exterior
walls. The most important difference is in the size of the tim-
bers used.

The half-timber construction of the Middle Ages was only
the artistic treatment of this crude system of building. In
drawing number 6 is a very simple half-timber house which
shows practically no attempt at all to decorate. The construc-
tion is perfectly evident, and there are no curves and carving
used to ornament the building, as can be seen on some of the
more elaborate houses of the cities. This simple building sys-



tern was the traditional background of the English carpenter,
and it is not at all extraordinary that he brought his methods of
building over to this country.

Even the custom of calling in the neighbors and feasting
them when a house-raising was celebrated came directly from
English traditions. The old post-and-truss construction of the


early English houses required framing on the ground and then
lifting into position afterward. Records show that the people
from the surrounding countryside were called in to help, and
their wages of hire were paid by the house owner with a huge
feast. In early Colonial days the nearest neighbors were like-


wise called in to help raise the frame, and the host was sup-
posed to feed the gathering, after the work was finished, and
make a jolly party of eating and drinking a sort of social debt,
but not looked upon as wages, as in older days.

The hard climate which the earliest American colonists had
to face and also the abundant supply of wood which lay at their
very doors were factors which slightly altered the traditions of
building. After the house had been framed and the spaces be-
tween the timbers filled with plaster or masonry, the exterior
was covered over with clapboards or shingles as an extra cover-
ing against the weather. The use of clapboards or shingles as
an exterior covering of course was not new, for many English
farmhouses show that it was used in that country. But with
this difference in exterior appearance, the framing underneath
was the same as shown in Fig. 7.

Revolt against New England Traditions

It was only a matter of time when the thinning-down proc-
ess began to make itself evident in the traditions of Colonial
carpentry, and from its clumsy beginnings it evolved into the
more or less standard form of construction which we call the

The difficulty of securing good labor in the West, and also
the increasing use of the power sawmill, made it possible and
necessary to standardize a quick and easy method of building
which would meet the great demand for houses in rapidly grow-
ing communities.

Quoting from the New York Tribune of January 18, 1855,
we have a very interesting account of the conditions which were
then prevalent that brought about this later variation of the


wooden-frame structure. The conditions there described seem
almost like our modern difficulties with labor and materials.

"Mr. Robinson said: ... I would saw all my timbers for a
frame house, or ordinary frame outbuilding, of the following
dimensions: 2x8 inches; 2 x 4; 2 x I. I have, however, built
them, when I lived on the Grand Prairie of Indiana, many miles
from sawmills, nearly all of split and hewed stuff, making use of
rails or round poles, reduced to straight lines and even thick-
ness on two sides, for studs and rafters. But sawed stuff is
much the easiest, though in a timber country the other is far
the cheapest. First, level your foundation, and lay down two
of the 2x8 pieces, flatwise, for side-walls. Upon these set the
floor-sleepers, on edge, 32 inches apart. Fasten one at each
end, and perhaps one or two in the middle, if the building is
large, with a wooden pin. These end-sleepers are the end-sills.
Now lay the floor, unless you design to have one that would be
likely to be injured by the weather before you get on the roof.
It is a great saving, though, of labor to begin at the bottom of
a house and build up. In laying the floor first, you have no
studs to cut and fit around, and can let your boards run out
over the ends, just as it happens, and afterward saw them off
smooth by the sill. Now set up a corner-post, which is nothing
but one of the 2x4 studs, fastening the bottom by four nails;
make it plumb, and stay it each way. Set another at the other
corner, and then mark off your door and window places and set
up the side-studs and put in the frames. Fill up with studs
between, 16 inches apart, supporting the top by a line or strip
of board from corner to corner, or stayed studs between. Now
cover that side with rough sheeting boards, unless you intend to
side-up with clapboards on the studs, which I never would do,


except for a small, common building. Make no calculation
about the top of your studs; wait till you get up that high. You
may use them of any length, with broken or stub-shot ends, no
matter. When you have got this side boarded as high as you
can reach, proceed to set up another. In the meantime other
workmen can be lathing the first side. When you have got the
sides all up, fix upon the height of your upper floor, and strike a
line upon the studs for the under side of the joist. Cut out a
joist 4 inches wide, half inch deep, and nail on firmly one of the
inch strips. Upon these strips rest the chamber floor joist.
Cut out a joist i inch deep, in the lower edge, and lock it on the
strip, and nail each joist to each stud. Now lay this floor, and
go on to build the upper story, as you did the lower one; splic-
ing on and lengthening out studs wherever needed, until you
get high enough for the plate. Splice studs or joists by simply
butting the ends together, and nailing strips on each side.
Strike a line and saw off the top of the studs even upon each
side not the ends and nail on one of the inch strips. That is
the plate. Cut the ends of the upper joist the bevel of the
pitch of the roof, and nail them fast to the plate, placing the
end ones inside the studs, which you will let run up promiscu-
ously, to be cut off by the rafter. Now lay the garret floor by
all means before you put on the roof, and you will find that you
have saved 50 per cent of hard labor. The rafters, if supported
so as not to be over 10 feet long, will be strong enough of the
2x4 stuff. Bevel the ends and nail fast to the joist. Then
there is no strain upon the sides by the weight of the roof, which
may be covered with shingles or other materials the cheapest
being composition or cement roofs. To make one of this kind,
take soft, spongy, thick paper, and tack it upon the boards in


courses like shingles. Commence at the top with hot tar and
saturate the paper, upon which sift evenly fine gravel, pressing
it in while hot that is, while tar and gravel are both hot.
One coat will make a tight roof; two coats will make it more
durable. Put up your partitions of stuff 1x4, unless where
you want to support the upper joist then use stuff 2x4, with
strips nailed on top, for the joist to rest upon, fastening all to-
gether by nails, wherever timbers touch. Thus you will have a
frame without a tenon or mortise, or brace, and yet it is far
cheaper, and incalculably stronger when finished, than though
it were composed of timbers 10 inches square, with a thousand
auger holes and a hundred days' work with the chisel and adze,
making holes and pins to fill them.

"To lay out and frame a building so that all its parts will
come together requires the skill of a master mechanic, and a
host of men and a deal of hard work to lift the great sticks of
timber into position. To erect a balloon building requires about
as much mechanical skill as it does to build a board fence.
Any farmer who is handy with the saw, iron square, and ham-
mer, with one of his boys or a common laborer to assist him,
can go to work and put up a frame for an outbuilding, and
finish it off with his own labor, just as well as to hire a carpen-
ter to score and hew great oak sticks and fill them full of mor-
tises, all by the science of the ' square rule/ It is a waste of
labor that we should all lend our aid to put a stop to. Besides,
it will enable many a farmer to improve his place with new
buildings, who, though he has long needed them, has shuddered
at the thought of cutting down half of the best trees in his
wood-lot, and then giving half a year's work to hauling it home
and paying for what I do know is the wholly useless labor of


framing. If it had not been for the knowledge of balloon
frames, Chicago and San Francisco could never have arisen, as
they did, from little villages to great cities in a single year. It
is not alone city buildings, which are supported by one another,
that may be thus erected, but those upon the open prairie,
where the wind has a sweep from Mackinaw to the Mississippi,
for there they are built, and stand as firm as any of the old
frames of New England, with posts and beams 16 inches square."

The above address, which was delivered before the American
Institute Farmers' Club, has been quoted in detail because of
the interesting point of view of the days of 1855 which it reveals.
When Mr. Robinson had finished there were other comments,
especially one by Mr. Youmans, in which he described early
conditions of building in San Francisco. He also said that he
had adopted this plan of building on his farm in Saratoga
County, where he found great difficulty in getting carpenters
that would do as he wished. They could not give up tenons
and mortises, and braces and big timbers, for the light ribs,
2 by 4 inches, of a balloon frame. Does this not remind the
modern reader of comments he has heard upon all sides these
days concerning labor which will not do what is wanted but
insists on doing things in the old way ?

Some pertinent remarks were also made by a Mr. Stillman,
who testified that he had seen whole blocks of houses built in
two weeks at San Francisco, and better frames he never saw.
He said they were put up a story at a time, the first two floors
often being framed and sided in and lived in before the upper
part of the house was up. Have we any such housing crisis as
this, in these days, or did we do any quicker building of war vil-
lages than that described above ?

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Online LibraryH. Vandervoort (Harold Vandervoort) WalshThe construction of the small house; a simple and useful source of information of the methods of building small American homes, for anyone planning to build → online text (page 13 of 16)