The happy combinations of house and site, examples of which we all can recall, are very seldom just "happen so's." They are the result of someone's careful analysis and study. The designer received an inspiration that has gloriously materialized. He studied his plot, knowing that all other elements were subject to it and could, within certain limits, assume many positions or shapes. Thus, with the plot as his definite beginning, he based his whole design upon it. And rightly! One must start with something. What can be more definite than the plot of ground upon which the structure will stand? Further, it is individual in every case. It is rarely a misfit and is expensive to radically change.
1 Adapted from "Fitting a House to Its Site," American Architect, May 5, 1928.
So economics, too, arrays itself on the side of the man who says, "I'll leave the plot alone as much as possible." The alteration of levels is expensive. When one tears down the existing site and builds a new one to fit a preconceived design for the house, he is confronted with the problem of making the new site harmonize with the neighborhood. This is not always an easy task. Further, it is costly, and, unless there is some defect in the site as it exists, it is not advisable, however often demanded.
Even in this day a very large per cent of our house sites are forced to receive preconceived ideas of plan and form, ideas that were decided upon before the site was purchased. That this practice is harmful needs no jury decision.
The problem of fitting the house to site, like most other "problems," tends to solve itself, if we can bring our thought to bear upon it free of unbiased opinion and thus study and analyze it. By such careful study we recognize the various elements that tend to push the lines of the design this way or that; we learn to be swayed and guided by those existing elements and let the building grow into the plot, shaped by them. This is, after all, much the same process that the tree undergoes during its growth.
The trees of a western Kansas prairie are few; those that grow are low. They stay close to the ground. There are many natural reasons why this is so. Wouldn't it be wise to listen to the argument of the trees in this case? Its logic is forceful, there must be something back of it. Suppose we change to another climate where the trees grow tall and broad. The forces of Nature, judging by the tree growth, will not destroy that which stands up from the ground. It may be well to make use of this hint in any house we build in such a location.
We find a tree on a hillside. In the example in mind, it is broad and fairly tall. Its neighbor is tall and thin. The ground contour at their feet, however, is similar. Their roots on the lower side are partially exposed and in both cases these roots hold together a sort of terrace that is fairly level on top. Clearly the tree has adapted itself to the environment and judging by the appearance it would take much to move it. This should hold a suggestion to be considered in connection with other elements that present themselves in a hillside problem. Observation will present much information in regard to any plot encountered that will not only be interesting but very helpful.
Simple intelligence can and will solve the problems of site. But intelligence cannot operate without that which it operates on; namely, the numerous facts about any given problem.
The above does not mean that there is one and only one solution to any site problem. There are usually several, any of which, if properly worked out, may be excellent. The possibilities of variety in houses and in sites is unlimited and makes for a happy condition. It forces many of us to think, whether we will or no.
There is no known law by which one may solve all site problems. A site may belong to a type, but to say that a hillside house is thus and so is wholly impossible, because hills have a happy characteristic of varying in pitch; they may be wooded or bare, rough or smooth, with no two alike in every respect. We may classify any plot to a general type and gain thereby, but after that we must look to these individualities and peculiarities for any special character that we may wish to give the house.
Probably the profile of a house for any given location is the most important single factor because, after careful study, it will be seen that the other elements, such as materials, fenestration and plan, may be changed to a marked degree and not materially derange the effect of a harmonious profile. To be sure, the proper and pleasing arrangement of materials, plan and fenestration add much to the house and cannot by any means be forgotten. Yet it is possible to have all these in a well-built house, and because the profile is wrong, the house will be a total misfit for a particular site.
As previously stated, it may be possible to reduce any plot of ground to the same general classification of many others, but each problem has, nevertheless, some peculiarity which, if recognized, will lift a design at once out of the ordinary. It is in this manner that careful observation contributes to the house by giving it and its site a feeling of unity and individuality.
It is well to remember, when trying to fit peculiar situations, that certain types of houses have already been developed to conform to the general characteristics of many different environments. There are types for the heavy foliage background with irregular outline and plan. There are prairie types with strong horizontal lines. There are hillside types which recall the lines of the site and at the same time appear to be firmly rooted into position. There are hilltop types with irregular skyline where the house becomes a fitting climax for the site. There are orchard background types where the ground may or may not be sloping. If the designer will recognize to which of these classifications the site in question belongs, he has limited it to a certain species. This will help materially in shaping the lesser details in such a manner as to bring about the "house individual."
In any example of the heavy foliage background, the skyline will be irregular in outline. The contour of the ground may be steeply sloping or vary in degree to that which is practically flat. Perhaps the sharp irregularities of the plot itself will call for sudden steep slopes or a drop in the roof level. In any given case, the profile of the building should recall in some manner the profile of the background, accentuating it, possibly contrasting with it, but nevertheless bringing about harmony.
There are many English houses that have been developed for sites similar to those suggested. The Spanish, too, has been used in similar locations. The Pennsylvania Dutch type of rambling Colonial work also does well under such conditions when carefully shaped to the requirements.
In the matter of materials, half timber is excellent, as are also stone, brick and wood siding. Just how these should be used in each case should be determined from the design in question.
If, from the above site, we should suddenly change our location to flat prairie land, almost bare of trees with the horizon as a background, we have changed our environment radically. Here there is practically no suggestion of the vertical. All is horizontal. The trees such as exist will be short and most of them will have been carefully fostered by man. From the far distance to the foreground will appear a series of low, slightly curving, rolling lines, except in such instances where they have been usurped by man.
It is not difficult to imagine a client desiring a house with strong vertical lines on such a plot. Neither is it difficult to see why such a combination would ordinarily be out of place. If we bend our profile to the demands of the site, we must in some manner recall the background. Of necessity, there will be some vertical lines if the house is of any size, but these should be minimized as much as possible by the use of transitional members in the form of garden walls, banks of shrubs and clipped gables. In the matter of materials, half timber is seldom appropriate. Stone work does well. Stucco is at its best in such surroundings, because it is plastic and can be flowing in line. Wide siding accentuates the horizontal lines. Steep roofs are rarely usable There are Spanish types that can be used in such places very appropriately, as can also certain types of the English, Colonial and French, the limiting feature in each case being the profile.
In trying to limit the hillside type to any particular outline, we are confronted by the great variety of hillsides, some of which have been suggested under the discussion of the heavy foliage background. The main characteristics, however, are fairly definite. The line of hill, be it steep or gentle in slope, is definite. A house built upon it must not appear to be restless. Battered walls help to obtain the desired effect. Shrubs properly placed are fine. Proper terracing, however, is in the majority of instances the most effective and is the method most often seen in Nature. The profile for the hillside will be influenced greatly by immediate surroundings. On a wooded plot it might conform but little to the line of the hill, while on a bare plot it would necessarily give much attention to it. Here, too, the materials used would be determined by existing conditions. For the wooded area, half timber used with shingles and siding would fit admirably, as would brick and stone. For the bare hillside, stone, brick and in some cases stucco could be made to look well. 1 he material in every case should be determined by the existing conditions and should, of course, be secondary to profile.
Fig. 5. - A successful hillside placement. This English style house is particularly suited to its hillside location. (Courtesy of H. E. Wichers, Kansas State Agricultural College.)
The hilltop site presents still other problems together with suggestions for their solution. Very little difficulty is encountered in making a house in such a place appear solidly placed. Neither should the size of the house bother greatly. The profile, again, is the thing. It is important because a house in such a location is seen most often in outline.
Here, again, the degree of slope in the sides of the hill, the extent of the area on top of the hill, together with the nature of the foliage, can and will alter conditions in most every instance. It is possible to say that this or that house is a hilltop type; but even ten or a dozen such designs would not fit every new hilltop site. They might, however, help one to hit upon a scheme that will fit exceedingly well.
The author has encountered still another distinct site type. Reducing them to types does help to isolate characteristics. In the language of the mathematician, it reduces the number of unknown factors, leaving, the mind clear to solve for those that remain.
There is a very common type of site which is most often found in fairly flat country. The ground may be gently sloping or flat; the trees are not very high, perhaps about twenty or thirty feet. They have been planted. They didn't just grow and are usually in rows or in regular order. The horizon appears a long way off and may be disregarded. This site type is common in our suburbs and farmsteads the country over. Such a site seems made to order for our own Colonial architecture, especially the irregular Pennsylvania Dutch Colonial and the squat and contented Dutch Colonial. The Spanish, too, can be made to fit into such surroundings as can the English, but these need careful adjustment, while the Colonial types mentioned have already been acclimatized. The materials most often seen are siding and stone, but stucco and brick, too, are not out of place.
Perhaps the latter type of site is the best understood of all house sites, for in it we find the greatest number of really well-designed houses. Perhaps, too, almost any design, if not too vertical in line, can be made to fit into such a background. Then, too, the Colonial is our heritage. We build our Colonial house and then build the landscape to suit because in the majority of instances we choose the level fertile site. So, building the landscape means planting trees and shrubs and building fences.
The unusual site, however, is fast finding favor and needs careful study. One cannot place Colonial houses on every site that exists, and in such places we must remember that the lines Nature accentuated are "large type" signs that it would be well to heed. For, by following Nature's lead, we not only get valuable suggestions for the profile and mass, but economic plan suggestions as well.