New Houses for Old

-^ni y recently have architects attempted to solve the problems of domestic architecture in terms of the present age. Our best architects of the last generation were trained primarily on the basis of the monumental prob­lem, the big building. The study they have given to dwellings has been from the viewpoint of the expensive home, the mansion, the estate. They have dealt with the house problem as miniature buildings patterned after big ones. Hence, houses have become miniature state capitols in the Georgian style. When they ignored the classical periods, they achieved such results as are typified by the Victorian-Eastlake style.”

Owing to the fact that many American architects have been educated abroad, especially in France, we have had the influence of the chateau and other European styles. Tucked away in their original settings, the charm of these houses is undeniable. So, back they have come to the United States. The more closely the architect kept to the proportions and characteristics of the originals, the better job he believed he had done. But the world has pro­gressed since the day when the originals of these houses were built. They were

abreast of the civilization up to their time in terms of domestic conveniences. Masonry was then the material offering the greatest possibilities. But ma­sonry has limitations which are eliminated by to-day’s methods based upon the steel frame. In the masonry house, the lower walls have to be heavy and strong enough to support the upper walls, the floors, the roof and everything else, including the live load.100 To-day, a comparatively light steel framework can do this, so that the walls become part of the weight that the framework carries.

Houses have actually changed very little since the Elizabethan period. Methods of construction and materials used have remained primarily the same. Modern conveniences, such as plumbing, electricity and central heat­ing, have been added. Increased building costs have resulted і n skimping on materials and workmanship. Mechanical knickknacks and decorative what­nots have been introduced to hide the deterioration of essential parts.

The outstanding limitations of houses to-day may briefly be summarized as follows: Costs are excessive, due to waste space in planning. Useless rooms such as attic and large cellar add to the expense of construction and upkeep. Little-used rooms such as the dining room and sleeping porches are uneco­nomical.101 There is frequently the additional expense of exterior and interior ornament of old styles, Colonial, Tudor, Norman or Spanish, applied over modern construction. Houses are too often planned from the exterior. Rooms are fitted into a Cotswold cottage or a French chateau, with cramming and inconvenience in consequence. Porches cut off light from adjacent rooms. Heating and ventilation facilities are not thorough. Valuable garden space is given over to the unsightly garage.

As is the case with any other problem of design, the starting point for the house is the organism of its various purposes, the plan. A house is where we spend the greater part of our time. Here we must rest, eat, play. In order to

rest, we must sleep. In order to sleep, we should have the most comfortable beds possible and all the fresh air we can get. In the daytime that same sleep­ing room must be thoroughly aired and sunned. In terms of to-day the most antiquated sleeping room is one with only two average-size windows. As far as health is concerned, the sleeping porch completely open on two or three sides is the ideal. Every sleeping room should be a sleeping porch and a com­fortable room at the same time.

To eat we must have a place to cook, and the facil­ities for cooking must be thoroughly organized so as to minimize the amount of foot work on the part of the worker. There are many phases to the cook­ing job, from ordering to receiving the materials and storing them in an organ­ized and quickly accessible way; having the many utensils instantly available for use; serving the food in the most appetizing manner at its correct temperature; cleaning the dishes, pots and pans after the meal. All of this is an involved problem and until quite recently has been handled in a hit-or – miss fashion. A kitchen should be as well organized as the most efficient fac­tory. It should work with the ease of a machine. As much of the work as possible should, of course, be done by machines.

For play, no matter what form it takes, no matter how small the house,

cial building for various forms of play and amusement is designed from the viewpoint of unbroken space. A house should be designed with similar principles in mind, though on a greatly reduced scale.

The living room should be what the term im­plies. It should not only be thoroughly satisfac – 99-suburban house designer unknown isee

tory for after-dinner conversation; it should be possible easily and instantly to transform it for any kind of party or gathering. It should be easily cleared for dancing. It should be easily* thrown open on a delightful summer afternoon in such a manner that it is doubled in size by the terrace outside.

To fulfill its social requirements, a house should have ample space for six times the number of people it is intended to house normally. Furthermore,


there should be nooks and corners where two or more persons can be by themselves, for reading and talking quietly, regardless of anything else that is going on in the house. The children must have their quarters separate from the older people. It is as bad for children to have to be in the continual presence of older people as it is for the older people always to have them around.

A library is essential. Though it may be no larger than a bathroom, it should be a room by itself. Every member of the household should have a place where he can be by himself when he desires, and this place should be invit­ing. One trouble with the improperly organized house is that there is not enough opportunity for people to see less of each other. They are thrown together constantly, which results in an incentive to get out of the house.

In all its essentials, a house should be as organized as a factory is. For it is a factory of a kind; and it is the most difficult kind of factory to run because

the business of living has to continue, regardless of world upheavals and gen­eral conditions, regardless of personal troubles and complications.

Persons of taste are frequently disposed to object to the so-called new style of things, and particularly when this new style is applied to the house. If they would bear one thought in mind, they would be helped immeasur­ably. We become accustomed to changes that are real improvements after living with them for a very short time. Habit is a tremendous factor in our lives. A workman would rather continue using an old and awkward tool than accustom himself to a new one, and this is merely because he is accus­tomed to the old. Once he has become accustomed to the new, however, he would not return to the old. When we look at photographs of examples of these new houses, we say that they do not look homey, or livable, but like operating rooms. This is due merely to the directness with which the purpose is expressed in the design.

Had we been in houses of this kind for any length of time, had we known people who lived in them, had we dined, slept, loafed in them, we would feel differently. In addition, we would find that they are at least twice as easy to take care of as any house we had ever been in. In terms of honest comfort, they have all the advantages, because the whole purpose back of the change

in style is not a thing of appearance but a thing of use. Many people forget that the great majority of examples of contemporary design are extremely poor. They have not been around long enough yet to be discarded, as is the case with many of the older examples of bad design. Time is a great discrim­inator and time has not yet eliminated the poor examples of contemporary work.

The aim of the house should be to reduce to a minimum the burdensome features of living and to enable the family to have an economical and re­laxing home life. The ultimate criterion of the house is the ratio of expense to living value, not a show of superficial decoration. When the job of plan­ning a house according to its purposes and uses is complete, then the indi­vidual characteristics of the people living in the house can express themselves and there is no reason to assume that this expression cannot be as complete in a house so organized as in one that is put up helter-skelter.

The ground plot is the starting point for the designing of any house.102 It should emphasize privacy, time saving, light and sunshine. Scientific plan­ning of the house location requires that the garden and playground should be treated as functions of the house; that every room in the house should be exposed to direct sunlight; that a maximum of green vegetation should be provided. These principles can and should be utilized, not only in connec­tion with the individual house, but in group building plans. Park spaces should be given primary importance; factory and residential sections should be divided by parks, while they remain accessible to each other by modern means of transportation. Community plans may involve the creation of superblocks, containing a series of dead-end streets. These streets should be immune to through traffic, connected internally by a continuous park, and belted around with traffic avenues. To return to the private house — it should be as private as possible. To begin with, in its ground plot if the house is

situated near the street, the private " back yard ” increases in usability.101

The well-planned house requires a group arrangement of the rooms. Pas­sages of communication should be short and time-saving. Living, sleeping, and housekeeping parts of the house should be clearly separated, giving privacy to each group. Proper location of the house on its ground plot gives morning sun to bedrooms, south or western exposures to living rooms and kitchens, while staircases and bathrooms

In house Number 3, the living quar­ters are at the rear, overlooking the gar­den.101 The dining room is an alcove off the living room and separated from it by a change in floor level.105 The study or library is a separate room, not directly accessible to any other room and con­sequently additionally private. Sleeping quarters are on the second floor.104 The owner’s bedroom has two dressing rooms, bath and sun terrace overlooking the garden. It is separated from other rooms by a small hall.

The child’s room, terrace and bath are a complete unit and capable of complete isolation in case of contagious diseases.104 Guest room, bath and small terraces are on the ground floor in a separate ying, so that the guest will not interfere with or be disturbed by the regular household routine.105 A two-car garage with turntable eliminates the space of a turning place in the drive.101 The passageway between garage and stairway is a roofed and walled part of the whole structure.

Kitchen, pantry, maid’s room and bath, and the service entrance, are or-

ganized as one unit.105 The pantry opens directly into the dining alcove, and it is of sufficient width to permit the dining-room table to be rolled into the pantry, where dishes are set and removed before and after meals. The maid’s room is directly under the child’s room, so that she can hear the cries of the child when the family is away. A combined sewing room and linen closet is on the second floor.104 Here, built-in cupboards are fitted for towels, sheets and other supplies. Cedar-lined storage space, sewing machine, ironing board, and cutting counter are all provided for. Communicating passages are short and compact and arranged to give a maximum amount of privacy to each room of the house. The entrance hall is small and connects directly with the stair hall, living, and servants’ quarters, though none are visible from it.105 The stair hall, the center of family activity, is not visible from any room in the house.

In the elements of its structure, the modern house may differ, consider­ably, if not radically, from the wall-bearing structure to which we have been accustomed. If it has a steel frame, the interior and exterior walls, par – HOUSE NUMBER 3 DESIGNED BY NORMAN BEL GEDDES 1930 titions, floors and roof are

all carried by this skeleton structure. Skeleton con­struction has two major economies to recommend it. The frame itself can be made of relatively few shapes that require little handling and small space. In addition, the old-fash­ioned heavy bearing wall is replaced by thin, stiff,


lightweight and inexpensive curtain walls that are more easily assembled. In a house so constructed, the partitions have no structural relation to floor or fagade; they serve only to limit various usable spaces. Partitions on the second floor need not be over those on the first floor. These partitions should be thin membranes of sufficient stiffness and acoustical insulation, light in weight and with an appropriate surface.

The structural function of a bearing wall is of paramount importance, inasmuch as the walls support not only their own weight but the floor and roof loads as well.’[2] They must be thick, strong, and may be pierced for windows or doors only when additional provision is made to support the loads over such openings. A curtain wall system is characterized by a struc­tural frame which carries all floor and wall loads directly to the foundation. It is enclosed in a relatively thin envelope of masonry metal, glass or other material suitable for keeping out the weather, heat or cold, through which openings may be pierced at random. In house Number 3 the curtain walls are either of precast or poured concrete.

With curtain wall construction, the window area can be greatly increased. Windows may extend from floor to ceiling and from partition to parti-


Living Room Guest Room Bath

Entrance Porch Entrance Hall Lavatory Library Stair Hall


Children’s Terrace 2 S.

Children’s Room 26,

Closet 27.


Stair Hall 28.

Sewing Room Bedroom 29,

Bath JO,


tion.107 Isolated windows give a harsh light and opaque walls between win­dows prevent an increase of light where needed. Bands or continuous window sheets reflect a diffused light to the farthest corner of a room;10* shades and curtains are used to control the intensity of light in the same manner as the lens of a camera. In this house, the windows are sealed; they are used solely to admit light and the beneficial sun rays.

With modern construction methods, the pitched roof100 becomes unneces­sary.100 An insulating medium can take the place of the space-wasting attic with its wooden frames and trusses. The steel framework is easily able to support the weight of accumulated snow. Flat roofs can be utilized as ter­races, increasing the livable area of the house.101 The roof terraces of house Number 3 are an integral part of the plan. The child’s terrace is over the garage.100 Its high parapet, concrete umbrella, and sand box make it an ideal and safe playground in summer and winter. The terrace off the owner’s bed­room,100 with its vine-covered trellis, can be used for sun baths and as a private retreat.

The design of house Number 3 specifies that all wiring shall be placed in­side non-corrosive conduits in the floors, walls, and between the steel chan­nels of the metal lath partitions and accessible throughout. Built-in, indirect lighting is used throughout. Correct lighting of a room demands a general diffused light for illuminating the entire room and a localized light in par­ticular places for such activities as working, reading and eating. Despite their simplicity, the old-fashioned methods of lighting a room, regardless of their picturesqueness, were never successful. The chandelier so commonly used provided a disconcerting illumination that necessitated shades being attached to it so that the glare might be softened. This measure defeated its own purpose, for the result was a number of spotlights which poured their illumination straight down and thereby failed to light up the room as a whole.


For example, place the sources of light in the cornice structure, where walls and ceiling meet, and the result is an indirect diffused light of ample strength. Or set banks of bulbs into the ceiling itself, with reflectors back­ing them and translucent plates covering the recess. Properly designed, this arrangement is both a source of light by night and a simple ceiling scheme by day. Translucent plates set in the ceiling can emphasize the shape and proportions of a room. The plates give added interest in the daytime, if they are edged with black vitrolite, especially when this edging contrasts with a pale gray ceiling and pearly white glass.

I carried over an idea from the theater that has met with approval in the architectural field. A light intensity control, built into the wiring circuit, permits the use of any intensity of light that may be desired under varying conditions. By merely pressing a button, the light can be brightened or soft­ened imperceptibly, or hold any particular intensity as long as desired. This variable-intensity feature is a decided addition to lighting comfort and may be made fully automatic by the use of the phoftrelectric cell. This type of lighting was first installed in the Conference Hall of the J. Walter Thomp­son Company offices.”1

In house Number 3, radiators, hidden in the walls, are placed directly under the windows, extending their full width, insuring a more even distribution of warm air. Artificial or forced ventilation, with hermetically sealed win­dows, eliminates dust and germs. The outside air is filtered, humidified or dried, heated or cooled, to keep the house at the desired temperature and humidity.

Better workmanship and lower costs for the modern house will presently be achieved through factory fabrication of standardized story heights, beam spans, walls, partitions, floor sections and equipment units. Mass fabrica­tion of sections will permit rapid assembly and ease of finishing, thus reduc­ing cost of labor. The importance of this in to-morrow’s life is beyond com­prehension at the moment but can readily be appreciated in view of the fact that the cost of labor for finishing alone is usually estimated as twelve per cent of the construction cost. Eventually, it will be possible to purchase from the factory mechanized rooms, such as bathroom and unit kitchen, already set up. My own staff has been working for some time on kitchen units so standardized that the sink, stove and cabinet are component parts of a single standardized unit.- Such unit kitchens will have the advantage of simplicity and attractiveness as well as 109 ■ house number з- pantry


economy in cost and better organiza­tion.

The kitchen of the modern house de­mands well-planned lighting in addi­tion to step-saving arrangements and labor-saving, mechanical devices. An oblong kitchen, when designed to order, should have windows on both long sides to afford plenty of light.10’ The color scheme used in a kitchen can enhance or hinder its serviceability. Neutral tones are not only restful to the eyes but also re­flect light most effectively. Because such tones are used, the kitchen and pantry need not be dull and uninteresting.109

Cheerfulness is easily obtained by cheerfully colored curtains and equip­ment. Walls with a dull finish are preferable because they do not cause glare. Material used should of course be impervious to moisture, with a hard sur­face that can be easily cleaned, such as metal, matt tile, or hard plaster finished with oil paint or lacquer. The floor for the kitchen and pantry should be chosen with particular care because no other floor surface has to stand half so much wear. Floors of cork or rubber composition not only wear re­markably well but are easily washed.

Built-in furniture and other built-in equipment give the house added spaciousness. Built-in bathroom, kitchen, nursery equipment, cupboards, cabinets, bookshelves, desks and sofas should be an integral part of the original plan of the modern home. The library of house Number 3 exempli­fies the advantages of built-in furniture.10′ Built-in bookshelves occupy two walls from floor to ceiling. A built-in desk under the window in one corner and running along another wall gives space for typewriter, drawers for paper, table area for writing, and magazines. Built-in furniture strikingly reveals some of the beneficial results of properly coordinating the architecture and decoration of a house. For convenience, some pieces of furniture should be movable, but cupboards, sofas, and similar unwieldly pieces are readily fixed in places individually designed for them. One advantage gained is their unity with the other fixed features of the house and the elimination of dust- catching spaces behind and under them.

The beauty of the modern dwelling house is the logical result of emphasis upon its functional values. Open walls let in an abundance of sunshine and light which are both physical and spiritual assets. The successful structure typifies the buoyancy of life. Its clearly defined, simple forms are devoid of imitation and false show, and there is a harmony of proportion between all the parts. This is in keeping with the aim of the modern house — to assure

complete satisfaction of every material and psychic need of the owner.

Architectural design is becoming more and more an expression of integrity. This is exemplified by built-in furniture. Not long ago the architect did not consider furnishings as an integral part of his design. He left the furnishings to the client or a " decorator ” and the result in the majority of cases looked like it. Interior decoration in its general expression is applied rather than or­ganic – a matter of whims rather than necessity.

Updated: September 27, 2015 — 9:22 am