By Rick Spitzmiller
After the Second World War, deliberate, well-thought-out detailing just vanished from the residential design stage. Service men, returning from the war, needed houses for their new families, and they needed them fast. Builders began putting up very basic houses by the tens of thousands all over the U.S. The “ranch” was born. With little variation, except for size, the ranch became the new house type in which most people lived. Except in rare instances, the services of residential designers and architects seemed unneeded. Design by fiat with expedients such as sheet rock, stock-sized windows and doors, prefabricated cabinets, and inexpensive overhead light fixtures came to define the American family’s house for most of the ensuing 50 years. This is a great simplification of a complex societal condition, but essentially the pre-war demand for creative architectural detailing all but disappeared in American home building. Architecture schools rapidly began to eliminate residential design—along with the study of classical architecture—from their programs.
Fast-forward several generations to find a very happy circumstance. Design and detailing began to reemerge and to capture the notice of the public. The long-neglected notion of style first reappeared in the fashion industry with labels signifying the hand of an actual designer. Simultaneously, consumers became enamored of British- and European-produced automobiles, which had great style and exciting design, in stark contrast to the uninspired offerings being turned out by the American auto industry. This scene of distinctive clothing and beautifully designed cars made conditions perfect for the tentative yet welcome reappearance of the custom-designed house. The results were not immediate, as there were few properly trained and experienced professionals capable of producing well-detailed and rationally planned houses. What was critical, however, was that people were noticing and being influenced by the appearance of the occasional competently and gracefully designed house. They wanted one as well, but the path to realizing this desire was mysterious and confusing.
The qualities that are innate in houses designed to exhibit character and charm can be elusive. Often people have confused the spending of money with being able to have a satisfying and enjoyably comfortable home. The truth is that a house that “feels good” is not a measure of money spent but is one in which scale, proportion, and detailing have all been given the highest priority. There is no successful house that is not the result of weaving these elements together. Plans created in the absence of a careful study of the relationships of proportion and detail are destined to fail—oftentimes miserably. Going forward with the construction of a house without plans that describe every aspect of that house and how it is to fit on its site is the most expensive mistake a homeowner can make. The reality is that the details are the design.
Most people contemplating building or remodeling a house today have come to appreciate the value that the collaborative involvement of trained design professionals brings to a project. In conjunction with that, a consummately designed and interpreted set of plans is the absolute key to staying within a budget and successfully managing a construction schedule. The reason is simple: All the elements, including costs, are known in advance of construction commencing. The results are not only houses of charm and integrity that can be enjoyed for years, but houses that have the best chance to appreciate in value and the strongest ability to be resold well. And why? It’s all because you, the homeowner, have had the wisdom to trust and be guided by design professionals. The truly informed homeowner realizes that the details are the design.