While this post has little (or maybe nothing) to do with green building as most of us understand what it means, I find myself seeing some terrible residential design work in my travels, and I feel it deserves to be addressed.
Where design quality can intersect with green building is the subjective concept of “beauty.” The Living Building Challenge has a Beauty Petal as part of the program requirements. According to the website:
The intent of the Beauty Petal is to recognize the need for beauty as a precursor to caring enough to preserve, conserve, and serve the greater good. As a society, we are often surrounded by ugly and inhumane physical environments. If we do not care for our homes, streets, offices, and neighborhoods, then why should we extend care outward to our farms, forests, and fields? When we accept billboards, parking lots, freeways, and strip malls as being aesthetically acceptable, in the same breath we accept clear-cuts, factory farms, and strip mines.
While the Living Building Challenge recognizes that “mandating beauty is, by definition, an impossible task,” it is worthwhile to look at buildings and their details, and to seek out thoughtful, attractive designs.
Inspired by what I believe to be objectively hideous details in a townhome development I drive by periodically, I searched for common finish details that are too often poorly conceived and, in my opinion, unattractive. While most of these don’t affect a building’s performance, some have a negative effect on durability, and they definitely have a negative effect on my mind when I have to look at them.
Up until about 60 years ago, most residential architecture was traditional, and followed common rules and proportions. There were plenty of miscalculations that led to the occasional odd detail, but in most cases, those were honest mistakes that made little difference to the overall design, and sometimes added a bit of charm.
Starting after World War II, the need for housing expanded rapidly and the industry transformed from a mostly craft-based business to a production-product, with design often the first thing sacrificed in the process. Although there are some production and custom builders who create carefully designed homes, the vast majority of single-family construction lacks much in the way of quality design and detailing.
Some of my biggest pet peeves these days include badly designed arched and round-top windows, bird box soffit returns, poorly proportioned columns, pointless (and ugly) pseudo-Craftsman brackets, poorly proportioned window lites, brick ledges that stick out around foundations, “shakes” that look nothing like shakes, and shoddy interior stair trim.
Green Curmudgeon’s architectural pet peeves
The photos below show some poorly designed architectural details, and some better alternatives. Sure, some are a matter of aesthetics alone. Others may actually fail. Also, I’m sure some readers will disagree with my opinions. I’m OK with that. That’s what the comments following the article are for.
Yes, it often comes down to taste
These are just a few examples of what I see happening in new homes, as well as renovations, and additions. With a little extra thought, details like these could be different—better looking and more durable. In some cases there might be a slight extra costs, while in others, costs could be lower by installing appropriate designs which are often simpler.
It does come down to taste, and I suppose some people either prefer inaccurate details on faux historic designs or aren’t knowledgeable enough to understand the difference. Maybe I shouldn’t cast aspersions on other people’s taste, but in the case of details such as some of these columns and brackets, owners may not be bothered by the design, but when they need to repair work on details that have deteriorated prematurely, that is an unnecessary waste of time, money, and resources.
-Carl Seville is a green builder, educator, and consultant on sustainability to the residential construction industry. After a 25-year career in the remodeling industry, he and a partner founded a company, SK Collaborative. Photos courtesy of the author.