Friday, February 24, 2012

Wing for a Georgian Federal farm house

This renovated and new wing belongs to the house for which I recreated a new entrance.
See my posts about the 1795 Federal entrance for pictures of the main house which so beautifully uses the Golden Section for its elevations.

Before I was hired to fix the front door, the family asked me to design garage and storage space and to facilitate repair to the shed/family room.

From the left: existing kitchen with slider, renovated shed, new storage and garage, seen from the east.

The views of the shed are from the west.

The shed, a workshop, c. 1830, had been moved against the house
in the 1950's. It had been an awkward, inadequate garage before it became the family room.
The shed was not square or level. Every piece of the new wing which connected to it needed to be scribed. There had to be 'wiggle room' in the new wing's plans, elevations and framing so it could fit against the shed, be water tight, structurally sound and meet code.

The work could not have been done successfully without an excellent restoration contractor who liked working with me. He had to interpret and refine my drawings. Obviously, he did so beautifully.
Thanks, John.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

1810-1840 - Death of the apprentice system

2 articles in Vermont History, The Journal of the Vermont Historical Society, Vol. 79, No.1, Winter/Spring 2011, reinforce my understanding that the apprenticeship system was falling apart in the early 1800’s.

Russ Fox in Julius Barnard (1769-after 1820) as Peripatetic Yankee Cabinetmaker, writes about how design ideas travel as craftsmen migrate. He traces Julius Barnard from apprenticeship in Connecticut, to a short stay in New York City, 9 years a cabinet maker in Northampton, MA, another 9 in Windsor, VT, with a sojourn in Hanover, NH. Then he moves to Montreal for 4 years; Pittsfield, MA, for about 7. In both cities he tries other ways to make a living.

I saw that Barnard stayed in Northampton and Windsor (1792-1809) long enough to train apprentices and hire journeymen. After that, although he takes on apprentices, he isn’t engaged as a cabinet maker long enough to provide real training.

Russ Fox adds an appendix which identifies 6 other Vermont furniture makers who were in and out of Montreal for short periods of time. He says there were too many skilled craftsmen in rural New England for the work available, especially as families migrated west.

Ruth Burt Ekstrom, in The Lure of the West and the Voices of Home: Excerpts from the Correspondence of William Spaulding Burt, shares with us letters written from 1833 to 1839 between parents in Vermont and their son who has ‘gone west’. The parents want him home; they tell him that good work is to be had in town. He works in various places in New York and Ohio as a carpenter. He is not apprenticed. His father writes that the son should come home for more schooling but there is no mention of any systematic training in a craft that compares to the roles of apprentice, journey man and master craftsman.

I saw that by 1815, the traditional paths for passing on skills - as I outlined in my post 'Regulating Lines #3" - could not be maintained. The road to knowledge was now a trail with potholes and broken bridges. By the 1830’s, those paths appear abandoned, forgotten. However, my post on story poles show how some parts of traditional design and construction knowledge continued to travel forward some other route.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

story poles - Part 1 & 2

Part 1
I think of the world before 1840 as a place where dimensions were not constant, where people didn't expect a foot or an acre to always be the same size. There was machinery, but all hand made. No mass production, no interchangeable parts. (On the other hand, everything could be fixed! No obsolescence!)

So when I think about using geometry to design, layout, and build before 1840 I am thinking about how to transfer information and keep it 'true'.

So here is an hypothesis:
Modern renovation contractors know to "measure 3 times, cut once". The same could be said about the houses built before standard dimensions. So what were the house wrights, masons, and joiners using as the 'measure'? The regulating lines could all be laid out by a length of rope and a piece of charcoal - and a point held tight. But that could be unwieldy: that taunt string got in the way. Or it had to be hung with a weight - not so easy for measuring the height of a unbuilt wall.
Story poles are the answer, I think. A story (or 'storey') pole as currently used is a 2x or a piece of strapping 'marked': the window and door openings noted by a mark, not a number. The length of the pole is the height of whatever is being recorded, a room, an exterior wall, etc. It is set against the place to be laid out and the important points are noted.
Today story poles are used for house framing, for clapboard and brick coursing, for constant dimensions for windows and doors, paneling. That is probably how they have been used for centuries.
Historic restoration carpenters told me they have found story poles in the attics of houses they are working on. That makes sense: What to do with a story pole when the house is finished? Leave it for the next guy!

Part 2
Thinking of this I went to Wikipedia - which did describe 'storey poles' used in the past, and said they were not used today. However, I know about them because I've seen contractors use them.

Considering that my knowledge is concentrated in one particular geographic area and a certain group of contractors, I posed the question of the use of story poles to a contractors' group to which I belong, on-line: "Do you use story poles? If so, how?" 10 contractors, working from the Atlantic seaboard to Kansas, replied that they did. They use story poles for siding, stair layout, shelving, cabinetry, tile work, paneling, windows, chairs, clapboard and brick coursing. In Kentucky they are also called 'preacher boards'.

So, I will add that information to the entry on Wikipedia. The on-line encyclopedia needs a 'source', a footnote that refers to documentation of the idea, to show that it wasn't just one person's opinion. This post, documenting my research and the information provided by the contractors, is that source.
One contractor suggested I check out Lee Valley Precision Story Tapes. With permission from Lee Valley and Veritas Tools I will post them as a source as well.

Note to John Leeke, David M. Lyons, Mark Ratte, as well as the other contractors: Thank you!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Folk Victorian, in a great neighborhood

The family of 5 who lived here liked their house, their yard, their neighborhood. They just wanted one big space for all of them and their friends instead of two skinny ones almost too narrow for furniture. And how nice a fireplace would be!
The solution was to removed the wall, making those two little rooms one, and bump out a bay for a gas fireplace with window seats on both sides. The fireplace is direct vent, so no chimney.

the house before the bay - above
the house with bay - below
While the wall between the rooms was not structural, the outside wall which was removed to add the bay, was. Rather than carry the part of the house above that bay on one beam that spanned the entire opening - an expensive option - we placed a column on either side of the fireplace. The spans then became like those of a window or door, easy to frame conventionally.

Now, instead of a too little space in the living room to place a chair across from that couch and a dining room almost too small for a table, there is space for both. Invisible here is the library space between the couch and the front wall with the family's antique desk. As the house had a simple c. 1905, Late Victorian/Colonial Revival interior, we added just enough molding to let the posts read as columns and pilasters.

The photograph shows the room before the painting is complete. I do like those sunny window seats!
Every client has a budget. Providing a solution within that budget is the challenge, a good challenge that required creativity and communication to make sure the solution answers the client's problem. This design was possible because the family agreed they did not need a separate dining room.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Regulating Lines - at least 3 geometries

This fall and winter I read David Leviatin's articles in Timber Framing, The Journal of the Timber Framers Guild. He beautifully describes a 'regulating line technique' he has documented in England in East Anglia. I got out my atlas to be sure of the location of East Anglia where Leviatin worked with the line technique. No more than 100 miles away across the North Sea are the Netherlands. Did the men who used these lines share their knowledge with the joiners in Holland and vice versa? Did those ideas influence the men who built the Van Alen house in 1737 in Kinderhook, NY?

Today I know of 3 regulating systems:

1) The Daisy Wheel, circle geometry researched by Laurie Smith in Wales and England.
2) The use of the Golden Section as used in New England pre-1850 and later advocated by Jay Hamlin and Le Corbusier
3) The 'regulating line technique' described by David Leviatin in Timber Framing.

However, here is Asher Benjamin in his 1797 pattern book, The Country Builder's Assistant, containing A Collection of New Designs of Carpentry and Architecture Which Will Be Particularly Useful to Country Workmen in General. (his spelling and punctuation)

"To proportion Architraves to doors, Windows, &c. divide the width of your Door or Window, into seven or eight parts, and give one to the width of the Architrave : Divide that into the same number of parts, as are contained in the Architrave you make use of, if a Frieze or Cornice to the Door, give the Frieze equal to the width of the Architrave ; or it may be one forth or one third wider, the Cornice four fifths or five sixths of the Architrave."

An architrave is the header above the door supported by the posts on each side. It supports the frieze. The frieze is underneath the cornice. My post: "Regulating Lines, Asher Benjamin" includes a picture of Benjamin's Plate XVIII. It shows a fireplace with the architrave and cornice and the division into parts.

I find that the systems we know of were fluid, changing not only by new challenges and inventive master craftsmen, but by cross fertilization of ideas that came inevitably as people all over Europe met each other and worked together.

David Leviatin, "The Lordship Barn and Regulating Line Technique", Timber Framing, The Journal of the Timber Framers Guild, p. 4-7, Number 101, September 2011, and
"Topics, Scribe Rule, Square Rule, Democracy and CNC", p. 2-7, Number 102, December 2011.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Luykas Van Alen House, Part 3 of 4

Here are the end elevations of the Van Alen House, c.1737. The left view is of the end of the original house, the right of the renovated barn which is newer. If you refer to the foundation drawing in the last post you will note that the original house has jamless -Dutch - fireplaces, while the remodeled space has an English fireplace in the basement with jams. That would date it about 20 years later.

Here the circles define the finished dimensions of the brick wall, the point where the roof begins, the height of the ridge and the width of the chimney. The use of geometry appears to determine the design of the new wing, not its framing - a change possibly brought on by contact with the builder's English neighbors.

The circles laid over the south elevation of the original house determine where the roof sits on the walls, the height at which the ridge is located - information needed for construction.

These are interesting pictures. But how would these circles have been actually used for construction and design?

Here are some preliminary thoughts.
The circle can easily be scribed on the ground, for layout as in the foundation.
Wood bents - posts and beams - would have been cut and assembled on the ground, marked -'scribed' - and then taken apart, moved to the site and reassembled.
The original house has a wood frame enclosed by a brick skin. The wing appears to have corner posts. The rest of the wood frame is not clear. Most likely the brick walls cover a wood frame. Perhaps one house-wright/mason framed the house and another, the wing.

Brick walls are laid only once. Handmade brick probably was not always true to size in 1737. The mortar would even out the discrepancies in the coursing if the mason knew how much to apply. If a dimension were constant - as in the distance from one point to the next on a circle array - a pole that length could be used as a template. The distance from the center of the foundation to the edge of the first floor (one length of the hexagon inscribed in the circle) would be easy to establish with a rope, chain, or pole. That pole could then be used much as is a story pole today. If the pole were mislaid, the dimension could easily be re-determined.

Drawings:1934, HABS, Adam Van Alen House, Kinderhook, NY, E. J. Potter, delineator

Thursday, February 9, 2012

North Bennington Walking Tour, an Introduction

Note to the reader:

These posts are intended to be working documents. I hope you will add to them.

There are 3 parts:

1) The 1856 map of North Bennington,

2) The map of the red, green and blue walking tours,

3) Descriptions of the village and the houses which existed in 1856,

You are encouraged to comment.

If you prefer, pages for your notes are available at the John G. McCullough Free Library, North Bennington. Each building has its page with lots of blank space for you to add your information.

The walking tour emphasizes the architecture and technology of North Bennington in 1856. Of course, that’s only one way to understand our past.

North Bennington's historic record and this walk will be much richer when we know more about who lived here and what they did.

Please add your information, your perspective. Please give dates whenever possible.

Thank you for your help.

Luykas Van Alen House, Part 2 of 4

In the summer, when this house is open to the public I will check all this in person and take a good picture to post here. However, in the meantime, has an excellent photograph of the main house and the wing.
The Van Alen House is a simple home, built on the Hudson River by Dutch immigrants in 1737. Its character is not applied; it comes from its material - brick. The brick pattern, Dutch cross bond, ties the brick courses together. The voussoirs are the traditional way to bridge an opening. The saw tooth brick pattern - tumblings - at the edge of the gable allowed the bricks to be turned for a smooth edge.
Its grace comes from its shape and the rhythm created by the doors and windows. I think it is possible that both were a byproduct of how the house was built. Not that the builder and owners didn't see and enjoy what they built, but:
I think the builders here used geometry for construction, not for design parameters.

The circle defines the rectangle. It can be used without dimensions to confirm that the angles laid out are true. So: here is the foundation, laid out within the circle.
It is the inside of the foundation that needs to be true. The stone would have been set with a plumb line on the inner side of the wall. The outer side would have been a buttress wall – sloping down into the ground – wider at the bottom than the top. It would have been covered with fill taken from the foundation hole.
The circle does not seem to fit when the outside dimensions are used. The right wing which was originally a barn does not fit the geometry.
I've done some work on the elevations which also use circles to determine structural dimensions. I will post that next. I am well aware that when I have recorded and studied 20 more, 40 more, houses I may see this in new light.

1934, HABS, Adam Van Alen House, Kinderhook, NY, E. J. Potter, delineator

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Edward Shaw - uses the tools

This picture of a 1854 construction site had me hoping, even if it was idealized.

The architect - wearing the stove pipe hat - holds dividers as he measures something on the drawing for the observant and expectant carpenters. In the foreground on the grass is a carpenter square, a hammer, and a large compass.

Maybe Edward Shaw's pattern book, The Modern Architect, published in 1854, would mention geometry! Maybe I'd find mention of proportions in a paragraph about something else!

Well, he does say that a main floor window's height should not be more than double its width. Room length, breadth and height and height are mentioned in relationship to each other. But then he states that 10 ft is the desired height... There is great advice for the carpenter and homeowner about foundations, lath and plaster, and 'warming'. Fun, but not what I hoped for.

Shaw's life (1783-1859) spans the change from custom to repetitive parts in construction. The picture shows a building being balloon framed with 2x's , not posts and beams. The drawing in the illustration is being measured and scaled up by dividers, an ancient tool, not a modern architect's scale with regular increments. Almost anyone can draw circles with a compass. In the time Shaw practiced master carpenters and architects knew how to use compasses for design, layout and framing of rectangular buildings.
The book includes extensive explanation of how to lay out columns, scrolls for hand rails, and molding details that would require a hand held compass. The large compass shown would have been for stepping off foundations and wall locations based on the drawing made by the small compass. Or it is possible that the 'compass' is  perhaps a level, folded up.

The picture is the cover of the Dover Publications reprint of Shaw's book. Inside is a reprint of the etching in black and white. It is too dark to reproduce well. For a look at the original print try: . It is part of a good article on a mid-19th century Maine builder in the SPNEA journal, 1967. SPNEA (Society for Preservation of New England Antiquities) is now Historic New England.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

what to do with a post

Clients want their posts 'out of there'. That requires adding new beams and posts someplace else to adequately carry the weight of the house to the ground. But sometimes that reframing is too complicated, too expensive.

In the kitchen remodel shown here, the post was the outside corner of the original house. The second floor, attic, and roof were held up in this corner, especially after we cantilevered the kitchen 2' out and added a new beam where the outside kitchen wall used to be. The new beam is in the ceiling just to the right of the down lights, toward the window in the photograph.

So the post became part of the design: we added molding to create a plinth block below and a column above. The 'we' in this case was me designing and the excellent finish carpenter executing.

While the kitchen and the eating area needed to be connected visually, those eating did not need to see the dirty dishes in the sink. So the back splash was wrapped around the end of the counter and tied in, visually, to the post by molding. That extra 6" keeps the sink hidden from those sitting at the table. That 6" also ties the column into the design, it isn't hanging out there alone at the end of the counter.
The kitchen table (out of sight under the wrought iron chandelier) is visible from the kitchen. So is the door to the back yard and the stair to the play room above the garage. A Good Thing for mothers and families.

A note about that window over the kitchen sink: The house sits on a hill. The view from the sink is wonderful, into the trees. The client wanted the window to come down to the counter.
The contractor - who had years of experience and much skill - did it, but it is not a good idea. Wood, glass and granite move at a different rates. Yes, houses move. Not allowing room for expansion and contraction, expecting the window frame to meet up precisely with the granite counter top is asking for problems.