If you trace the word “architect” back to its roots in the mid-16th century, it means “chief builder,” and that’s what it means. People used to expect a builder to be good at both the manual parts of the job and the design parts of the job. This is why Asher Benjamin, a master builder and author who lived from 1773 to 1845, is one of my favorite people in the world. When I think about what a good craftsman should do, I think of him. He is known for being the first American-born author of pattern books. His books teach craftsmen how to do things like build things that look good. Today, many builders are more focused on their jobs than they were in the past, and architects have become more focused on design. Isn’t this bad? It doesn’t have to be this way! In order to get a better education, we need to do some self-motivated studying. This way, we can learn more about all of the things that affect what we make on a daily basis.
Builders know how to do things, but they don’t know why they’re building what they’re building. We know how to build a house, but we don’t know as much about which style is best or how to keep that style the same. This is what we’ve lost: We used to be able to see more subtleties in building style, house design, and construction methods, which makes the difference between a good project and one that is truly great. Benjamin thinks that the lost arts of building can be found in old books, many of them. I think that every good builder should have at least 100 books in their library. To help, I’ve put together this list. Many of the titles that follow are out of print and can only be bought from second-hand sellers; a quick search will show some of them that can be viewed on the internet. You can pick the titles that are most interesting to you, but what comes after is organized into a kind of guided curriculum.
The first step is to learn about how housing has changed over the last 100 or so years. From there, look more into the different styles of architecture by looking at examples from the past. How else can builders be sure they aren’t just muddying the waters? Next, I’d like you to look at historical construction details, which can help you with remodeling and reproduction work as well as new construction. There’s always a good reason to learn more about how to do things. I’d bet that the previous generation of carpenters forgot more about how to build things than most of today’s carpenters even bothered to learn in the first place. The affiliate links in this article may make Fine Homebuilding a little money if you buy things through them.
A History of How We Got Here
People who drive through old neighborhoods and wonder why new neighborhoods don’t look the same have found the problem with new-home design: They don’t look as charming. It’s no longer the same. After World War II, there was a lot of construction going on, and I think that led to this. A lot of that construction still goes on today, though. People are becoming more interested in old-fashioned neighborhoods thanks to the New Urbanism movement, and history can be a great teacher to help us learn how to live in them better.
The Old Way of Seeing By Jonathan Hale
In 15 years, this book was very important to me. I had been looking at old houses, but I didn’t understand the idea of regulating lines in architecture. Hale tries to figure out why old houses look and feel better than new ones, and what we can do to bring the “magic” back to modern designs.
Suburban Nation By Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck
This book talks about how our neighborhoods have changed since the 1950s, and not in a good way. It talks about old neighborhoods from the 1920s, with a focus on how they were able to combine homes, schools, and shops into a single community. Unlike old cities, new cities are divided into four parts: housing in gated communities, factories and schools, and shopping malls, which are all in the same area. They need a car to get from one place to another, which means more parking lots and bigger roads, which makes them look bad. When the book talks about how our neighborhoods work and why they are built the way they are, it’s very interesting.
Houses From Books By Daniel D. Reiff
I’ve talked about the pattern books and design treatises that have been used for house design and construction for a long time, many of which were written by Asher Benjamin. Reiff’s book is a history of design publications in the United States from 1738 to 1950, and it focuses on how they changed the landscape of design in the country. He talks about not only the historical titles, but also how trade magazines and others looked at home design at different times in history.
Analyses of Architectural Styles
When it comes to learning about design, the first step is to get a basic understanding of the main types of homes and how to tell them apart. One of the books on this list is more modern than the rest, but the rest of this category is full of older books about houses from the late 1890s to the late 1930s, which I think is the time period with the most resources.
Colonial Interiors By Leigh French Jr.
Many architectural books from the early 1920s focus on the outside of a home, but it’s important not to forget about the insides, which show things like the difference between a Georgian-style and a Federal-style stair. This three-volume set is, in my opinion, the best way to learn about these old interiors. The first volume is about colonial and early Federal architecture, mostly in New England. The second covers more of the southern states, and the third is about Federal and Greek-revival architecture. With all three books, you can look at how rooms were set up, fireplace mantels, and other things about historical interiors.
Great Georgian Houses of America By Architects’ Emergency Committee
In the 1930s, the Architects’ Emergency Relief Fund hired architects to detail and study important historic American homes. This two-volume set was written as part of the fund, which was meant to help architects in need. It’s important to think about how your work will be influenced by these books. They focus on individual homes and go into the architecture of each. When you look at the collection, you can see the Hammond-Harwood house in Annapolis, Maryland, built by William Buckland and praised by Thomas Jefferson as having the most beautiful front door in the United States!
A Field Guide to American Houses By Virginia Savage McAlester
In order to work on and fix old houses, you need to know what they are made of. Otherwise, you might take out or damage the wrong thing. You should start your library with this detailed guide to the different types of homes and how they work. As a student at North Bennet Street School, I used this book as one of my textbooks to learn about preservation carpentry. It was published in 1984. In 2013, a second, much-improved edition with a new section on neighborhoods came out, making it even better. I recommend it to all of my employees because it’s a great way to learn about the different types of house styles in the United States.
White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs Edited by Russell F. Whitehead
This series began as an advertising supplement for the White Pine Bureau, which wanted to show off early American buildings made of white pine. It is now a detailed collection and study of period houses and buildings. Series began in 1914 and ran through the 1930s. You can buy individual copies or bound collections, or check out the Northeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association (NELMA) website to see them.
Others to Consider
This book is about early architecture, but there are other books in this genre that focus on a certain area, like Early Architecture of Western Pennsylvania by Charles Morse Stotz and Early Architecture of Connecticut by John Frederick Kelly. I also like specialty-focus books, which give more in-depth looks at specific architectural topics. An example is Early American Doors by I.T. Frary. It gives a detailed look at how old doorways were made and how they were put together.
I like to look at old house plans, especially those from 1900 to 1930. Dover has reprinted a lot of books, but I think one of the best is The Books of a Thousand Homes, which was put together by a well-known architect. This book, which is called volume I, might be hard to find, but it’s worth looking for it in used book stores and on the internet. In this collection, you’ll find beautiful house plans and ideas. Each one starts with a floor plan and a picture of a home. A wide range of house styles are shown, all of which are of the right size and have a lot of charm. Because some of the exterior details are still the same, even though the floor plans may not work today.
Details in Danger of Being Forgotten
To build on the foundation of architectural design and style books, a craftsman must also learn about how things are built. Modern building methods are important, but there are also ways to build that were used a century ago that we haven’t used in a long time and that are still useful today. In fact, some of our best ideas for building came from these old books.
Get Your House Right By Marianne Cusato
This is a newer book than some of the others on this list, but it fits in because Cusato talks about old and traditional building patterns that were once common knowledge. From start to finish, this book lays out the right things to put on the outside of a home and explains why they work. Many examples of what to do and what not to do are shown in the way Mouzon’s book (below) does. This makes it easy to see how good and bad design looks next to each other. For explaining classical elements in simple terms, this book is the best. It covers everything from the orders of architecture to styles of windows and doors to the specifics of brick arches and keystones.
Radford’s Portfolio of Details of Building Construction By William A. Radford
Details of Building Construction and Architectural Details for Every Type of Building are two of my favorite books by Radford. They were both published in 1911 and 1925. Many important house parts and interesting ways to build are in both books. One thing, the shelf stays shown in his cabinet construction, we used for a job and then used as a guide for how to mount shelves in cabinets. Another priceless find is the way porches were built in the past. If there is one thing that builders often get wrong, it is how to place the porch beam on a column. In this video, Radford shows us how everything should work together with clear construction plans and blueprints.
Traditional Construction Patterns By Stephen A. Mouzon
I think Mouzon is one of the best architects in the world right now. He was trained as a modernist architect, but he also learned about the beauty and logic of traditional design. Since then, he has become a well-known author and speaker on the subject. I like this book because on each page, he talks about a different design element, like eaves, stucco, dormers, chimneys, and even the size and proportion of the dentils. He uses pictures to show what works and what doesn’t.