Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use & Avoid

By Marianne Cusato and Ben Pentreath with Richard Sammons and Leon Krier

Sterling Publishing, 2008, 272 pp., $29.95 hardcover

In 2000 — five years before she created the Katrina Cottage for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast — Marianne Cusato received a fax in which the European architect and theorist Leon Krier suggested cataloging all the things that go wrong in design. Cusato had graduated from the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, and had the benefit of that school’s strong emphasis on Classical architecture and the Orders, but as a young designer, she frequently puzzled over how to apply that knowledge to stick-built American structures.

Her response (encouraged by Andres Duany) is Get Your House Right, a large-format book that critiques the proportions, detailing, and materials of traditional-style American houses. Co-authored by the English designer Ben Pentreath, with assistance from Krier and the New York and Palm Beach architect Richard Sammons, Get Your House Right is the best guide I’ve seen since McGraw-Hill and the New Urban Guild published Stephen Mouzon’s Traditional Construction Patterns a little over three years ago (see Dec. 2004 New Urban News).

This elegant volume, containing a foreword by Prince Charles, will help homebuyers, builders, and architects produce traditional houses that look and feel right. Cusato and Pentreath examine elements that make up a house — doors, windows, roofs, eaves, porches, and so on — and explain the rules that bring these components into a pleasing unity. The objective is to instruct readers in “how to speak this language” of traditional architecture, how to tell the difference between effective and flawed ways of doing things.

For a wide audience
The book is intended for a wide range of readers — including homebuyers, renovators, builders, and architects — and should help to create houses with lasting, environmentally sound materials as well as with forms and profiles that enhance the street and surroundings. Grounded in Classicism, it devotes close attention to columns, entablatures, pediments, divided-light windows, and other elements associated with Classical tradition.

Get Your House Right unfolds very logically, starting with schematic design and then proceeding to the Classical Orders; arches and pediments; windows; exterior doors; entrances; porches; roofs; cornices and eaves; chimneys; interiors; and materials. Its main arguments are straightforward: “Make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Keep it simple: less is more.” Aware of builders’ penchant for piling a glut of gables, arches, and other supposedly enriching elements onto subdivision houses, Cusato and Pentreath try to calm the architecture down — in part by establishing a clear hierarchy among the house’s dominant and subsidiary features.

“Beauty in building,” the authors argue, “comes from five elements: Order, Proportion, Hierarchy, Balance and Scale.” To explain what they mean by this, the book presents hundreds of drawings that show right and wrong ways of organizing a roof, siting a garage, establishing the entrance, positioning windows, and making other decisions. The drawings — labeled “Avoid” when they show bad examples, and “Use” when they show recommended solutions — make it easy for readers to understand the points made in the text. As the pages go by, a certain amount of repetition recurs in the illustrations, but this is mostly beneficial: When an explanation about balance, symmetry, or hierarchy is made several times, involving different parts of the house, the lessons sink in. The publisher has been generous with illustrations, especially considering the book’s bargain price of $29.95 (hardcover).

Devote sufficient time and you’ll learn Classical terminology (cyma, corona, bedmold, taenea, abacus, echinus, astragal, architrave) and apply those words to the elements they describe. Each chapter comes with one or more checklists, which remind readers of crucial questions to ask when confronting building decisions. For comic relief, interspersed throughout the text are cartoon-like Krier illustrations that contrast architectural absurdity and architectural good sense.

The book is dedicated overwhelmingly to exteriors. Only one nine-page chapter looks at interiors, and its topics are limited: crowns, baseboards, casings, chair rails, and fire surrounds. There is little or no discussion of living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms, let alone family rooms, closets, and other modern interior features. In that sense, this is not a complete book of house design. But there’s something to be said for the authors’ concentrating on ideas and elements that have not been explained adequately by many other books in general circulation.

Some statements surprised me. In a section on how to make the porch a proper extension of the house, the New York-based Cusato and London-based Pentreath advise: “always use a pilaster or an engaged column, which throws enough shadow to visually provide support.” An engaged half-column, they caution, is “too insubstantial” and “will look as though it is being swallowed” by the wall. This was news to me. They also advise against giving a gabled house a 45-degree roof pitch. A gable roof will look better if it is either steeper or gentler than 45 degrees, they say. This, too, was news to me. Get Your House Right is not just about major blunders; it is also about subtle matters, about fine distinctions. Readers of this book can educate their taste by studying many possible variations.

“Use this book as a point of departure,” Cusato and Pentreath urge. “Don’t take it too seriously or too literally.” This is good advice, but in some ways it underestimates just how astute the great majority of the authors’ judgments are. Get Your House Right, packed with information that is not common knowledge, is a book the construction industry has long needed, whether it realizes it or not.