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What Makes a Historic Home Beautiful?

October 2021

Ever walk down the street of a historic neighborhood only to be captured by the beauty and grandeur of the architecture?

Maybe it was Jones Street in Savannah or the North End in Boston or the Garden District in New Orleans; it doesn't matter which neighborhood. The feeling is the same: awe and wonder.

What is the undeniable charm that historic homes seem to have on all of us? The answer may surprise you. Hint: it has little to do with who lived there.

Three design concepts lay the foundation of America's love affair with classical architecture. 

Some of the terms sound like medical jargon, but I promise to make them easier to understand by the end of this blog--even if you still can't pronounce them. Here they are.

  1. Architectural massing: the three-dimensional form of a home. Typically, a home has many massing volumes carefully arranged to craft a balanced composition. 

  2. Fenestration: the arrangement of windows and doors in the mass that creates a relationship of solid to void on an elevation. Confused? I know. Just hang in there.

  3. Architectural detail: the articulation (styling of the joints) of the mass through ornament, overhangs, moldings, columns, shutters, etc. 

You might think the most important of the three elements is Architectural Detail. While that may be the fun stuff, the factors that cause those euphoric feelings when you see a beautiful home most often come from massing and fenestration. In this blog, I'm going to try to explain massing and fenestration in detail.

Let me try to explain the concepts to you.

Get Your Mass In Line

When it comes to massing, the fundamental rule is to keep it simple. 

Some people think what makes a home attractive is having dormers over bays, multiple turrets, balconies upon balconies, porches, and peaks, all colliding into one confusing composition.

In my opinion, that type of architecture is all treble and no bass. 

When you take in the view of a historic home, do you see a confused mish-mash of elements piled on top of each other? Nope. You see a simple arrangement of forms that are ordered and pleasing to the eyes.

To say it another way, you get a perfect harmony of treble and bass that grooves.

Another important concept when it comes to massing is to create a hierarchy between each volume. Builder homes tend to be a massive square box. In contrast, a classical home typically has a larger stabilizing mass to ground the composition, allowing for smaller secondary side or back volumes to be expressed.

From here, you can express the program of the home (living space, garage, kitchen, bedroom, etc.) through different massing elements, all while keeping a "simple" massing scale. 

Fenestration (it's not as painful as it sounds!)

Once massing is complete, fenestration becomes the focus. I know it sounds harsh (and maybe a little offensive), but it's critical. So, what is fenestration?

Fenestration is the relationship of solid (wall space) to void (windows and doors). Let's cover a few basics when it comes to fenestration and delivering classical architecture.

Windows, Windows, Windows!

Some developers will try to convince you that adding a stone wallpaper to the front of your house is more important than adding windows to the side of your home. 

If they try to do that, scream fenestration in their face. 

You'll sound like you know what you're talking about, and they'll probably take a lunch break to give you time to cool off. It's a win-win.

Seriously, getting natural light into your home is one of the most critical factors for the overall quality of life. Having plenty of windows is an absolute must.

30% Of the Time Works Most Every Time

Now that you know you need windows, you need to find the correct ratio of solid to void (walls to windows). Generally speaking, about 30% of the wall space should be windows or doors with the goal being to avoid a vast expanse of solid wall space.

When openings are too small, too few, or even too large, the composition will feel off, and the lack of articulation will de-energize the design. When it comes to nailing this down, trust your eye. 

Open Relationships? Sure. As Long as They're Orderly

When it comes to the openings relationships to themselves, they have to be ordered.

  • Align openings vertically and horizontally

  • The first floor openings should be wider, taller, or wider and taller than second-floor openings to create a hierarchy between them and add balanced interest to the elevation.

  • Avoid placing openings too close to each other or too far away from each other. Either mistake creates an expanse of wall space that will cause the form to feel weighted improperly.

Follow these rules and you'll be well on your way to creating a home that has the character and charm that has captured America's heart for centuries.

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