don’t judge a house by its cover

Over twenty years ago I set out on a personal theoretical study to design small houses. I’ll explain that study at sometime in the future. However one psychological aspect that I began to consider was what does a house look like? This was intrinsic to my study, but I never set out to design a house that met the stereotypical profile. In fact, the more I heard people comment on what they pictured as a house, the more I set out to challenge it. Once we built our house, I began to see that play out. A few people along the way were honest enough to admit that despite it being “cool”, our house didn’t look like a house in their imagination. In fact during one of my son’s birthday parties, a mother passed by our house because although she saw the correct house number, she didn’t believe this could be our house because it didn’t “look” like a house.

I know, you’re saying there is no single visual that answers this question, but there are some basics that most people would agree make a house look like a house, especially when they are in combination. Now you don’t believe I subscribe to this limited perspective. I’d like to think that anything can look like a house and nothing looks like a house. I’m not trying to persuade you to change your opinion. I just want to know why.

So what is it that makes us believe upon first glance that one building is a house and another isn’t? In fact, we don’t just have these stereotypes about houses but also about schools, churches, office buildings and most other building types. Is this ok? Or shouldn’t we prejudge a book by its cover? Why do we judge what it is rather than what it does?

Let’s look at the basic elements that I’ve heard many tell me that are integral to their notion of a house.

Is it a sloping roof? (or maybe the swimming pool)

What about a gable roof?

Or this one?

Is it the number or scale of the windows?

How about the materials? Is it brick that makes a house?

Should the front door be visible from the street?

What if it has glass doors leading onto the backyard?

Or a garage, is that it?

Porches, all houses have porches right? Is this a house?

Perhaps it is outdoor patios or other domestic exterior space?

Have any of these looked like houses?

I said before, anything can look like a house and nothing does too. So tell me, what is the answer to my question?

don’t judge a house by its cover

34 thoughts on “don’t judge a house by its cover

  1. Edward J. Shannon says:

    12 objects, zero neighborhoods. To most people, a house is something that looks & feels familiar. Yes, the examples above are all beautifully crafted, well proportioned, and elegantly detailed. Although we don’t get glimpses of the interiors, I suspect most are probably very livable. But, don’t be surprized if the vast majority of non-architects think something like this: “It’s neat, but I wouldn’t want to live there – and I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live next door to one of these!”

    Architects love modernism. We are taught the language of modernism very eraly in our schooling. We love avant-garde objects, and we are often times frustrated when the gerneal public doesn’t “get it”. Most people want their house to be like a nice pop song – pleasant and familiar. But we (architects) keep pushing something akin to Thelonius Monk, Tom Waits, Kraftwork, Slipnot, etc. There will be a few that appreciate this, but most won’t. I love these objects too, But, the more i grow as an architect, the more I feel the space between the buildings is more important than the buildings themselves.

    Meanwhile, the AIA president’s perspective in Architect Mag talks about “Place-making”. He tells of architects encouraging the media to discuss “design” as noun rather than a verb, as a beauty contest rather than a way of thinking that heals fracturing of human experience. He asserts that this has to change! And claims the AIA will be leading the change. REALLY?!?

    1. My intent was simply to explore the concept of what does the public view as characteristics that make their initial impression think “house” as opposed to church, office or school.

      We can go on discussing what actually makes a house if you like, but that’s not my intent. I was more interested in what is the engrained notion in people’s minds about what a house looks like at first glance as you drive by. I’m also interested in why the generaly public would probably not see any of my examples as “house”. Is it style? Or is it the arrangement, scale or presence of certain features?

      Obviously my examples were chosen merely for hyperbole.

    2. I’ve looked at these photos again, and in my mind, there are several examples that evoke a sense of place that I find very positive. I admit many of them are one-off houses set far from any neighbors or neighborhood. I think it would take a real visit to actually decide either way.

  2. Whilst i agree with all of the above views, these are just from a functional perspective. It is also a place of refuge, love, dreams. A place we call our home. Where we decorate it, adorn it with our history and ideas. We identify it make it our own, Even though transitory, it is still more than bricks and mortar.

  3. William says:

    To me what makes a “house” a “house”, is if it is a structure where people can dwell. We design what people want (or what we think they may want to purchase), I guess “place-making” may also define a “house”…To me Mr. Potter’s term may be a good generic term..

    1. But what makes it “look” like a place that people can dwell? People don’t generally dwell in cars or tool sheds. So there is something in their psyche that tells them “house” or “car” or “tool shed” when they see it. I’d like to break that down to allow for more freedom of expression whether for ego purposes or sustainability features or any other reason. It is necessary to move architecture forward.

  4. Ted Rusnak says:

    Architecture is Art. Art is Architecture. Both create physical “objects” from the creative skills of the person wielding the brush or pencil.
    And we’ve all been in the position of creating a Norman Rockwell or the opportunity to design a Calder.

    If one were to apply the “old sweater” concept to a home design they all go to the client and their comfort level.

    If I may so bold I would add another question to your list. Were one Architect to design a house for another, would there be any restrictions / requirements / limitations?

    1. I don’t believe a house has to be an “object d’art” but it is certainly fun to do that. I’m fascinated with why the public views certain structures at first glance as “house”. It has to do largely with what is familiar to them. They see a car, they think ‘car’. They see other things familiar and think the same way. Is that good? If they weren’t so narrow in their thought, would it allow for more expression in house design for whatever reason.

      1. Ted Rusnak says:

        The more I consider your posted question the more perplexed I become.
        A bank building should present an psychological image of security or safety. A church an uplifting, spritual place, A school a pleasant environment purposed for instruction. A sports stadium, well, that’s too obvious.
        A home, upon first glance…hmmmm, What does that glance convey? What does it present that tells you its a home? Does the location have a part in that? Home design really has no restrictions but, as you queried, what elements convey the fact that its a home?
        In a discussion on zero energy homes a few years ago the biggest expressed concern was how to make it look like a home. Excuse me? All very doable of course but my question was the same as yours, what does a home look like.

        Now that you’ve got my brain cells churning I have to take much more than a few moments to consider any answer….and on a Friday no less!
        I need a cup of coffee, no, several. Fascinating question which will no doubt be pondered for quite some time. I look forward to your and others thoughts.

  5. Lee, awesome post, as always. You raise an interesting question, and one that I imagine most architects have asked themselves most of their careers. I asked this question of my team in a design competition for Habitat for Humanity a few years ago. Our local YAF group was asked to host a design competition to design a new prototype home that they could build in a new upcoming neighborhood. The goal was to build a small neighborhood of modern affordable houses.
    It was an interesting and eye opening experience to sit in on their focus group meetings and to see “average” Jane’s and Joe’s talk about “what is a home”…It was maddening. At multiple occasions I wanted to jump through the two-way glass and strangle them all. I wanted to “educate” them in extreme ways. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll have to do my own blog post on this very question. Otherwise I could be here all day filling up your comment que.
    Edward makes an interesting point that “the general public doesn’t get it”. And that perhaps they do not appreciate, or do not want, modern architectural homes. I disagree. I think the problem is more related to what is available. If you see your options limited to one bland suburb after another what other choice do you think you have? But then there are those like my 13 y/o daughter who said to me one day “daddy, can you build me a house one day?” I said, “sure. what do you want it to look like?” She replied “It has to have a flat roof. I don’t want a sloped roof.” I was so happy I almost cried. 🙂

    1. Part of me is fascinated with notions that are ingrained in our minds early in life (grade school draw your house thing), but I’m also concerned. If we are going to move residential architecture forward, we need to let go of preconceived ideas. We can still introduce the familiar and comfort, but if always believe a house has to “look” a certain way, we’re doomed.

  6. “I don’t have preconceived ideas, but the public does.”

    This is true. Very, very true. But the question is “why”. Why do so many of the “public”, i.e. those not architecturally developed enough to think beyond residential suburbia, have such an iconic view of what a house should look like? Is it cultural? I doubt it. America is a melting pot and I doubt that any two cultures would define a home the same way. So is it decidedly American, this image of a “home”? Perhaps, but what drove that image? What has burned it into our minds and made it so hard to detract from the “typical” in favor of something different?

    Personally I think it is an American iconic tradition. If you look at European residential “icons” they are wide spread, following more functional than iconic frameworks. This has made it much easier to adopt more modern styles, forms and even ways of living.

    In America, the idea of the “home” began after the second world war when all our GIs came home and started families. This started the great suburban boom that we’re still dealing with today. The interesting thing is, if you look at homes built during this time and compare them to modern suburban homes, little has changed. The forms and even plan organization hasn’t really changed, though materials, colors and styles have. The “home” is still what it was 80 years ago. This has had a generational impact on how we view homes, neighborhoods and even urban centers. Proof is easy enough – just take a drive in any city in America and you’ll see the same forms and styles repeated over and over again.

    There is hope though. Our generation, and our children’s generation are waking up out of the revery and seeing the mistakes of the past and looking forward to something different, something perhaps better and something more in keeping with modern life.

    Ok, that’s enough. Back to work. :-\

  7. Edward J. Shannon says:

    To Jeremiah – I think developers are very market driven. If there was a market for modern homes, they would be delivering modern homes. If you look at post WW2 housing, there were some very modern developments in California. Indeed, I know many felt that traditional styled homes would soon be a thing of the past. But, they’re back, now more than ever. Modernism had its chance. It didn’t catch on – in terms of housing for the masses.

    This was true in commercial architecture too, yet way before the WW2. The Chicago school architects, in particular, Louis Sullivan, developed a modern language for a tall building. Take a look at The Wainwright – my favorite Chicago building that happens to be in St. Louis. Sullivan discovered how to express verticality without resorting traditional styles. His buildings contained ornamentation, but it was an organic, American language free from Greco-Roman motifs. So, what happens with the Word’s fair in 1893? Burnham gets some Beaux Arts trained East Coast boys involved and they agree to adopt a common language – Beaux Arts Classicism. Sullivan was enraged! He claimed they had set modern architecture back 150 years! Now, do we architects of the 20th century look to the Beaux Arts era with disdain? Do criticize the Flat Iron or Chicago’s Wrigley Tower because they were not progressive, but stylistically revival?

    Lee, Did you see the Wrigley lit up at night when you visited Chicago? Would you have told your students that as architecture it did not express the era of its time and that the architects were resorting to copying historic styles and applying it in a way that had no business doing so? Oh, I hope not! Forget what Sullivan said….we have come to accept – rather adore – these buildings , architects and the general public alike.

    So, why do we now think that everything has to be modern? Why do we expect people to embrace our stylistic preferences? Mies van der Rohe said, “I’d rather be good than original” We need to strive to be good. Our real problem is not that architect’s preferred language of modernism is not accepted in domestic building, but the suburban sprawl and lack of place that is a result of market driven, auto-dependent development. We could have the same sprawl with well detailed, architect designed modern homes and it would still lack a sense of place.

    1. I didn’t get to see Wrigley Building at night, just during the day. We do tell the history of these structures and let the students make up their own minds.

      However Chicago was hugely influenced by Mies. His mark is everywhere. The Farnsworth house may not capture you in pictures, but in person, it moves you.

      1. Edward J. Shannon says:

        Interesting you mentioned Farnesworth. When I was 15 I picked up a book on Mies in my high school, Oak Park-River Forest, and was blown away by the Farnesworth. I went home and tried to build it out of Legos! I was able to learn the modernist language early. When I was a senior in high school I was already making trips down town to Prairie Ave bookstore and had books on Mies, Gropius, Richard Meier, Gwathmey (whom I got to see lecture at UIC my senior year and was my favorite architect of the time) During those same years I would walk past the FLW home and studio on the way to school and walk past Unity Temple on the way home. At the time they did nothing for me. I was a staunch modernist at age 16! I remember being so excited when our drafting class took a field trip to IIT during my junior year. I didn’t get to see the Farnesworth til years later and it is much more impressive in person. My mother gave me the lego set for my birthday. How cool is that?!

        My grandfather built his modern home two away from the Winslow house in 1951. He was friends with the architect/developer who subdivided the Winslow estate. I don’t know if you made it out to OPRF to see it, but you’ll notice some nifty-fifty California ranches now surrounding the house. My grammar school was right across the street from William Drummond’s River Forest Woman’s Club. I was intrigued with it’s austerity and jutting roof planes when I was 6 years old. In college I began to understand the concept of urbanism mainly from walking the streets of Oak Park on my way from the EL station every day. one summer I read H. Allen Brooks Prairie School and developed a love for the FLW disciples that still intrigues me today. Now I live 90 minutes from mason City, Iowa which has the 2nnd highest concentration of Prairie school buildings. .But then when I got into college my world was turned upside down with PoMo! I had to learn something new, And, I still appreciate the movement in many ways.

        My point (ah yes, my point) Modernism is in my bones. I somehow developed a liking for it at a very early age. I had read your blog after sitting in bed reading Architect Mag. (I couldn’t sleep) I think architects will always love avant-garde. but, I don’t think the general public will ever embrace modernism – or neo-modernism as we are practicing today. The vast majority will probably always gravitate toward a pop song, when it comes to houses. Architects have expected the public to “get it” and because the public doesn’t, let the building of our communities be driven by developers. We don’t even have licensing laws to regulate single family. so, I read architect Mag where there is rarely a fabric building celebrated, and I think of Record Homes (I have almost every edition dating back to 1979), and the architecture media’s idea of a home. The I read the AIA Pres’s message about “placemaking” and my blood’s starting to boil! I get up out of bed and go to my computer and see your blog. More beautiful neo-modern homes! No surprise! It makes me realize the academy’s and media’s avant-garde agenda. It makes me realize that if we really want to change the built environment (in terms of housing) we are fighting a losing battle. There will always be a minority of people who appreciate modern homes, but most won’t. If architecture is frozen music, they want to listen to a pop song. If you can build a practice designing modern homes. Kudos! I know it’s not easy. But, I think we – the profession – should have a parallel agenda of making humane places for everybody. I think stylistic convictions are more something we “like” than really believe in. At least I’ll admit that for myself. We need to realize this; speak to people in their language and repair the built environment. Make places that are humane!

      2. Edward, great story and what a great place to grow up. You make a great point about “place” and I think we all agree on it. However, I think what makes a great place is not style, so it could be within stark modern architecture as much as neo-classical. It doesn’t rely on style. What I find as great when I travel is being amongst really old buildings adjacent to new construction.

        As for the public not getting it, I tend to agree and coach myself about that to avoid frustration. However, I don’t think it’s all a ‘like or don’t like’ thing. I think its rooted in exposure and familiarity. We don’t have extensive history in the U.S. as they do in Europe for instance. Also, so much of our architectural history has been torn down, especially in smaller cities. If you live in a suburban or rural area, all you see is pretty poor buildings and are not inclined to educate yourself about architecture. So the “modern” (however you define that) comes off a bit harsh at first. It’s a bit like all white communities years ago seeing people from other races for the first time. In diverse communities, nobody “sees” differences in people’s appearances. They’re used to all types of people. I’d like to think with people and with buildings we don’t “see” these differences as harsh but can welcome everyone to the party.

        Thanks for a great conversation.

  8. Edward,
    As someone who has had developer clients, and having actually sat in on these so called “focus group” meetings, I can tell you that developers don’t care much for market tastes. They are concerned with their bottom lines. So they look around, find the most common, i.e. easiest to build quickly, style of home and bang out 10k of those suckers quicker than you can say “yippy skippy”.
    Now, on the flip side of that coin, in conversations that I’ve had with countless private clients and even Joe Schmoe in my local bar, the conversation almost always turns to modern design, sustainability, affordability, and above all QUALITY. I like your quote of Mies, “I’d rather be good than original.” But, I firmly believe we can be both. And we should be.

    1. To all, my intent isn’t to debate styles, that’s futile. However it’s hard to avoid it. I’d like to think we can avoid style and still have people think house if we want them to see it in our designs, that is if they will open their minds too.

  9. Edward J. Shannon says:

    Lee, my commentary really rambles and I realize I’m not articulating very clearly what I am trying to say. I’ll just say that modernism is a language most people do not understand, yet it is the agenda of our media and architecture schools, with the exception of those that go to the other extreme, such as Notre Dame. I love modern buildings. RM Schindler is my favorite. Other heroes include Harry Weese, O’Neil Ford, Michael Hopkins, Edward Cullinan. I’m equally drawn to William Rawn and Michael Potayek – whom I would say are more “pop” architects. No, it not a matter of style. But, how often – as in the case of Record Homes – do we see modern homes as objects in a remote place? This is what architects think housing should be. And now we have this thing called LEED. And while it does recognize infill and brownfields, the public’s new perception is more of high performing, applied greed gizmo’s. We need to bring people to realize that there is NOTHING sustainable about high performing “green” buildings set in remote, suburban, auto-dependent contexts. We need to find a way to get back to basics about what makes places where people can relate to each other and not spend their days sitting in traffic. Yes, it is happening in major cities, but I see decaying neighborhoods while new sprawling development is happening all around me.

    1. Edward, one last thought. I am reading the book “The Nature of Place” by Avi Friedman. It’s a great book that addresses many of your comments about “place”. I will use it to write future articles. I think it’s an important topic that is style-blind and all can relate to regardless of whether one is an architect or not.

      1. Edward J. Shannon says:

        Lee – I think I got us off topic a bit. I was just peeved after reading the article in Arch Mag about place making. And when I see those homes, most extremely well executed, I see objects in a landscape. there is nothing wrong with designing on an open site. Not everone wants to live in a neighborhood, dense or suburban. I just long for the day when there are “architectural” solutions to middle class housing, And I long for the day when the media presents architects as doing a variety of housing solutions, not just one-offs for the 1%.

        I also long for the day when architecture media/academia respects the “pops” for what they are,and realizes that architectural solutions need not be avant-guarde or strict classicism.

        This is a great discussion. I hope you get some more honest answers, espeically from non-architects.

  10. Keith says:

    I’m not an architect, just a member of the general public. Maybe my perspective will add to this discussion (maybe not).

    When I look at the photos above, I see structures that are deliberately designed to confuse me. A couple of them go so far as to feel offensive. I’m not sure quite how to pin down these thoughts.

    Yes, they are unfamiliar. But I feel it is less my fault for desiring the familiar than it is these buildings’ drastic attempts at being different, unintelligible even. When did it become a goal of architecture to disrupt and confuse me?

    The author asks what makes a building look like a house, a school, or an office building? Well I always thought it was the patterns and conventions of architecture that achieve this, as evolved over time by designers and builders. And rather than being a bad thing, don’t fixed patterns help to inform us where we are and what we are looking at?

    Now we have the architects throwing all of this away and calling me ignorant for expecting to see those patterns. The poster above designs his house to look like an industrial storage facility, or the shield generator on Endor (photo 4), and blames me for not recognizing it as a house. But if your friends are driving past in confusion, isn’t it mostly the fault of the house?

    Shouldn’t it be part of the building’s job to announce “this is a house?”

    1. Keith, thank you for responding. I really want to hear from non-architects. Your viewpoint is important even if we don’t agree. It’s good for architects to hear honest reactions. My goal is not to persuade, but simply have a conversation. I believe it’s healthy an fun especially with diverse opinions.

      It is never intentional to confuse nor is it the fault of the architect or the building. However, we as architects are intrinsically as well as trained to ask questions and seek alternative ways to solve problems. We are fascinated with questions such as “why not” rather than answers. The examples I used in this article are obviously extreme examples to make a point, but I have always wondered why we are conditioned to think certain things as opposed to having open minds about things such as how a house should look. It is not any different with clothing, food or anything else. If things were always the same as we know them now, then we would have never progressed as a race of people. Innovation often seems radical at the time of introduction, but as we look back we can see progress. No one is impressed with an automobile, but they surely look different today than Mr. Ford’s Model T.

      Houses have changed radically over time and through different cultures. Even if you look at American history, the house has changed radically, but I will agree with you that certain features, such as knowing where the front door is, has remained largely the same.

      When one sees a custom home (as in my blog and my own house) there is more license to alter the conventional and the known. Those features can be altered to meet the desires of the user. Often the ones you see in magazines are for people of “means” so they are usually unconventional.

      My overall point is simple, if we can only see a house as a certain fixed image, it can’t evolve to catch up with the culture and technology of the time.

      Thank you so much for sharing. Please keep reading and keep sharing.

      1. Keith says:

        You bet. I hope my comment didn’t come across as too abrasive. Your blog has been on my regular reading list for a while, and much admired. I forget that I can also be part of the conversation.

        Sure. The auto has evolved since Model T, but suppose I argue for the arbitrary patterns that have caught on. Its wheelbase, for instance, is surprisingly similar to that of today’s midsize car, which is surprisingly similar to that of two horses asses. And when I stare at the lines and form of a Model T, I see something not unlike a Jeep Wrangler or even a Hummer–vehicles that sell today at a premium because people love their look and feel. Of course, not every car today is a Jeep Wrangler. But the form has been kept, and can still impress.

        When I view the third photo above, something in me screams OFFICE BUILDING! To continue our car analogy, it feels like a car painted yellow with checkers on it. There is no compelling reason why I couldn’t paint my car this way, except that arbitrary meaning has already been assigned to that pattern. Strangers will wave me down and expect to be picked up.

        I’m trying to pin down exactly what it is that makes me assign meaning to that building. Perhaps the sterile-looking white panels? Perhaps the glass with metal trim? The landscaped, office-parkish lawn? Perhaps none of these would offend in isolation, but their sum is just too much without some other giveaway such as a porch with chairs or toys in the yard.

      2. What a great story about Model T and interesting analogy about a taxi. I’d like to think if any of these houses was in a neighborhood, they’d be different. So we must keep that in context. However, it seems like Americans, especially those who did not grow up in an urban area are the ones that have limited their assignment of house cues. This is merely based on discussions with a few people from urban areas.

        I’m not bothered so much with your comments of what you think when you see something as much as I’m interested in why. This is an interesting discussion with me because besides discussing it here, I’m also discussing it on two LinkedIn groups.

  11. jay bolsega says:

    Great discussion. Architecture is continually evolving. Our society is one where tastes and fads come and go in a seeming blur. The iconic house form, gable, porch are the features that the public recognize readily and have been surprisingly consistent thru recent history.. Those elements represent the tradition of utility (keep water out), function (comfort), economy (readily available materials). The creative architect will have a vision for forms and understands that the public harbors preconceptions
    about what is a house is. Crushing those preconceptions is healthy for a continually evolving creative society. It represents a sort of higher form or glance at the future. It open people’s awareness of what could be.

    1. Thanks Jay. Read my comments to Keith. You’ve said it well. I don’t fault people for what they like, that’s personal. I just don’t like when people’s minds are closed to something new.

  12. Clifford Hampton says:

    Lee, you have hit one of my hot buttons. I am an avid observer of houses and the alterations people make. I think these alterations are a window on the answer of your question.
    I live in Southern California, in a suburban development designed by A Quincy Jones in 1953 before his work with Eichler. This is a modest (low price) neighborhood. It was not intended to be one.
    The development sits in the corner of an “L” created by a private golf course. It is has four streets, one being a circle the other three inside the circle resemble the symbol for pi. The houses have CMU perimter walls and core containing the fireplace, all have the same interior arrangement of spaces with varing arrangements of the fenestration (steel framed windows, an 8ft slider), there are two styles of roofs a low pitch gable or shed, the location of the garage varies and the houses are rotated on the lots to vary the distance from and relation to the curb. I recognized this as an extraordinary neighborhood of small homes (3 bedrooms 1.5 baths, 1175 sf) with great potential for renovation.
    They called them forever homes in the original advertising. How do people alter these sturdy littlebhouses to make them fit their concept of a house?
    Front doors, oak with leaded glass incorporating a very “traditional motif are popular. Replacement windows with multiple lights and paneled garage doors with arched windows across the top are installed in waves. A number of owners have plastered over the CMU. They like to attach ornamental sills if they can afford them.
    Half the neighborhood could be hauled away and incarcerated if design police existed.
    And, they all admire the aluminum storefront windows I used to replace the steel frame units. But, I am often asked “is this a house?”
    I want to respect individuals efforts to order their world, but am mystified at the shallowness of their efforts. Why, if they found these houses so unacceptable aesthetically did they make them the the biggest purchase of their lives? Price! These modern homes are so disliked the market makes them affordable.

    1. Clifford, thanks for sharing. It sounds like fodder for future articles if I could see them. I’m with you, I’m not interested in disrespecting people’s choices, but at the same time, I don’t believe they make informed choices. They also don’t understand the impact their choices leave on the neighborhood and its future.

      Please keep reading and sharing your thoughts.

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