American domestic architecture is on the mend. The more expensive houses are usually designed by architects who specialize in that kind of work, and are acknowledged to be the best in the world. More operative builders appreciate the importance of good architectural service and employ architects on their staff or as consultants. By means of deed restrictions and other forms of control or influence, they obtain architectural harmony in neighborhoods. The Architects' Small House Service Bureau, with its regional divisions, an off shot of the American Institute of Architects, has done a great deal to set higher standards in the small house field. Its work, together with that of material manufacturers and some of the commercial plan services, has interested more architects in the design of small houses, a specialty in itself, and this has all been encouraged by the wider publication and use of stock plans. Building trade papers, and home-building periodicals, which have had a striking increase in circulation during the past few years, and the home-building pages of newspapers, have done much splendid work in encouraging interest in good design, and in cultivating public taste. Fine work has been done also by various local groups such as the Community Arts Association in Santa Barbara, and the bodies which encourage adherence to historic traditions in some eastern towns.
Particular styles come, and have their vogue, and give way to others, in the construction of new houses in various cities. English and pseudo-English houses, and steeper roof slopes than formerly are now popular in many parts of the country, but many southern and western cities favor Spanish and Italian types.
1 Adapted from "New Trends in Home Design" (address before Homebuilders' and Subdividers' Section, National Association of Real Estate Boards, June 26, 1929).
Probably more small houses of good architecture are being put up now than for a century past. In a desire to please prospective owners, efforts to present something out of the ordinary have been directed more towards adaptations of historic and provincial styles than to the pure exercise of the imagination which produced the so-called gingerbread ornamentation and other features of our lamented architectural dark ages, which still cast their shadows among us.
The small builder's organization is likely to be weak on the matter of design. We asked a prominent subdivider whose developments are noted for their good appearance how he got around this.1 He pointed out that "control of the color, general type of the house, and its height above the grade line of the property and its relation to the adjoining houses is almost as important as good design. The effect of the treatment of the kitchen door on adjoining properties; the effect of the height of side terrace and lawn on adjoining homes, and the effect of some particular design upon the already-established design of other houses in the block all should be given consideration. We have had considerable difficulty in the hideous combinations of colors and particularly roof colors of various types of manufactured materials. There are a lot of fundamental things such as trying to group together homes of fairly comparative costs, keeping bungalows out of two-story house districts and two-story houses out of bungalow districts which all has an effect on the general appearance of the neighborhood. Also even if the houses are well designed there are always certain types that are more adaptable to certain topography than other types. Also frontages of houses on corner lots may seriously injure adjoining houses. We always try on corner lots to require the house to present a good front on both streets and give particular consideration to the effect of any design or arrangement of the house as to entrances, kitchen door, garage doors, etc., on the surrounding lots or houses."
Some of these things are matters that can be covered by rules laid down in writing in deed restrictions. The same developer also tries to set a good example. "In our own property," he states, "we have endeavored to encourage good design by building houses of all sizes ourselves as a standard, hoping in this way to force the other builders into good design in order to compete with us. I must admit that the public as a whole is generally not very discriminating as to design and the builder of houses that are bad architecturally frequently finds he can sell his homes as rapidly as well-designed houses. This enters into the whole question of improvement in public taste in general, which is a long slow process."
Beyond that he states: "I think the main difficulty in small houses is due to the fact that many builders do not employ an architect but simply build from their own plans or from sketches prepared by their boss carpenters. We have greatly improved the situation by encouraging the use of architects and have been able as a rule to show builders in our district that a good architect will not increase their cost but will get a better looking house, frequently eliminating unnecessary ornamentation, depending more on good lines. In some instances with such builders we had to volunteer them architectural services with their first few houses in order to convince them of this. We retain the approval of the plans of all houses, large or small, and really go to considerable expense, having our own architectural department check these plans and make suggestions. I realize that such a method is not very practical for developers of subdivisions who do not have their own architectural staff. Many of these subdividers would not be competent to pass on plans and would probably not want to go to the expense of having an architect pass on them. The whole matter is largely an educational one."
Other outstanding subdividers use the same method, or employ outside architects to pass upon all plans for homes in their subdivisions. In other places architectural juries are set up. In some cases, the men on them are merely residents whose architectural judgment is not likely to be of high caliber, and in others there is sometimes complaint that the suggestions of the architects who are members are too costly to carry out. The whole situation is gradually working toward a point where more and more architects are becoming qualified to render consulting architectural service in connection with small houses, whether as full time members of a staff, or on a free basis.....