Friday, October 30, 2015

Video Book Review: Greater Medieval Houses of England & Wales - Vol. 1

Here is the first of our video book reviews - or as I like to call them: New Reviews of Old Books. As regards my reasoning for this, please refer to this recent post. As you will see, while I have nothing but praise for the book's content, the quality of the printing and publication (not the design) leaves something to be desired.

To make things a little clearer, I am including here a couple of photos of the interior of the book. The overall layout and design is fine, but the printing process used (I assume digital, since I feel this was a short-run book) was perhaps not up to the task, as the photographs do not have the requisite contrast and detail one would prefer. Even the stock paper is a little thin; you may be able to see bleed-through text from the other side of the pages.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Book Review - Simple Rules: What the Old Time Builders Knew

Tudor cottage renovation - Shannon Taylor Scarlett, Architect 
Those of us who study, restore or would like to live in an Olde English Home may already have some grasp of their essential design elements. This has not stopped us from often wondering why so many modern homes lack the charm, proportions or design quality of the real thing—or even of well-designed revival houses.

For those who are still wondering, or who may be considering a building or remodeling project, I would recommend architect Shannon Taylor Scarlett’s Simple Rules: What the Old Time Builders Knew, a compact volume of observations, quotes and drawings that help put these design issues in perspective. I was fortunate to download the Kindle version some time ago (it is just $4.99) and was happily rewarded when I recently rediscovered it during a few idle moments on my iPhone.

This brief review of design principles—it is just a little over 100 pages—provides a helpful foundation for those who are interested in traditional approaches to design, or who would simply like to unlock the mystery of “why so many older buildings look better.” Scarlett’s book makes it clear that it’s not just a matter of appropriating a classical door surround, throwing some half-timbers onto an exterior wall, or tarting up a builder tract house with some Victorian trim work.

The book is highly recommended as a handy reference and a helpful guide to understanding some of the basic elements of “curb appeal.” It’s also available in print from Barnes & Noble.


Friday, October 16, 2015

Delightful Self-Built Remodel in Shropshire

Normally, planning authorities don’t look favorably upon building plans when they include significantly remodeling an older structure in order to vastly change its appearance or character. However, if the existing house is unattractive, impractical, or where it does not warrant extensive protection, then allowances can be made.

Such is the example I recently came across on Homebuilding and Renovating—a Tudor Revival remodel in Shropshire that really combines a number of clever tricks and some original thinking to deliver a very convincing and attractive home. Yes, there is some sleight-of-hand going on here; steel beams have been covered in plaster, then grained and finished to look like wood. Stone-like door surrounds are actually made from cast-moulded concrete, and then weathered to look like stone.

Purists may wish for “the real thing” but I cannot argue with the end result. Such is my own experience that the budget of most people—especially where new building projects are concerned—cannot always sustain the use of traditional materials, though they would clearly be our first choice. Creative and available substitutes can often be employed, and this home is a fine example of such an approach.

Looking at the end result, the original, nondescript Georgian home has been flanked with half-timbered Tudor side wings, embellished with a jettied porch over the center section, and topped with a high-pitched timber frame roof. As a self-build project, it is quite impressive; the owners, Mark and Julia Swannell, clearly have an excellent eye—as the proportions and architectural detail are very authentic looking. From a distance (other than the fact that the home’s lines are straight and level) one might briefly mistake it for an original. Well done!


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Book Reviews on Old Architecture Books? Yes, of Course.

Why would you want to review a book that’s been out of print for thirty years? Or fifty? Or eighty, for that matter?

Well, if I was reviewing fiction or computer programming, I agree, it would make no sense at all. The former is a slave to contemporary taste and fashion, which changes almost daily; the latter is subject to the inevitable march of technology—making today’s technical information soon obsolete.

For those of us who are interested in architecture—and specifically—old houses, there is an entirely different set of issues to consider when reading, collecting and referring to older books:

First, old houses are still old. Where they exist, they generally do so undisturbed over the course of many years, and that is the way people like it. For example, observations made about an old house like Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire in 1920 are generally valid unto this day. While new analyses continue to be made and today’s technology may reveal some new understanding, the scholars of the past continue to provide keen insights on the character, history and appreciation of old houses.

Likewise, many of the photographic and illustrative examples provided in old books offer an unsurpassed visual record of many old houses, some of which no longer exist. Whether it is the beautiful black & white photographs we see in old Country Life books, or the seductive drawings of Sidney R. Jones, there is a unique character and perspective in these old illustrations that even the sharpest digital image cannot provide. In the very oldest examples, they may offer details that cannot even be seen today.

Other old books on architecture, through their sheer depth of observation, provide an in-depth illustrative record of measured construction details like doors, chimneys, windows, mouldings and their profiles, stonework, ironwork and more. Few modern books provide these richly detailed and carefully recorded illustrations—which can be so helpful to both the student and the practicing residential architect who may turn to them for inspiration.

Another consideration on the value of old architecture books for the modern user is their essential value as books, and in many cases, great examples of what I refer to as The Book Arts. As an example, I often point to is the two-volume study from Thomas Garner and Arthur Stratton, entitled The Domestic Architecture of England During the Tudor Period. I own a second edition set from 1929; they are huge books—measuring 12” x 16”—wonderful to hold in one’s lap and beautifully illustrated with both photographs and exquisite drawings. A much more recent example of this type might be Mark Girouard’s beautiful Elizabethan Architecture, published by Yale in 2009. It is another substantial, finely illustrated book which does great justice to its subject.

To the casual observer, it may seem strange to provide a review of a book that is no longer in print, and which may not even be easily obtainable. But in doing so, we would point out that:

a) Many books, being highlighted as “essentials” on the subject of our chosen historical period of architecture, are well-recommended for their enduring high value, technical competence and even inspirational content.

b) While no longer in print, most of these books may still be obtained without undue effort from used bookstores, online sources such as, or even Ebay—often at a reasonable price.

c) Some books that have been recently scanned and made available through Print-on-Demand, while helpful and more easily purchased, are actually poor facsimiles of the original version. In some cases, the scanned illustrations are of extremely bad quality, in the worst cases, almost useless as a reference. While the text has value, to be sure, the student would be better satisfied in finding an original edition, which may often be found at a price that is little more than the reprint.

So, seeing some value in offering these types of reviews, we will begin to provide them, since we have no shortage of books on our chosen subject that we would like to share.

Seeing the newer phenomenon of video book reviews making an impact, and noting the advantages of physically describing and talking about a book that I am holding in my hand, this may be the method employed as we move forward.

Our dedication to old books being noted, we would nevertheless invite publishers of new books on period architecture to make review copies available, should they so desire. This would include  - Architecture (particularly residential) from Medieval through the Early Renaissance (Jacobean) – and Revival Styles (Gothic, Medieval, Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean) from the early 18th Century through the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and up to 1930.