Monday, October 15, 2012

Capes The New England Vernacular

The Cape house started out in the 17th century and before as a single rectangular room(called a hall) with a large fireplace (with perhaps a beehive oven on one side or inside the firebox itself.) at one end of a rectangle.  Early buildings were made by driving the upright posts of the house into the ground and building the rest of the house around it.   There might only be a hole in the roof to let smoke out and rain in.  A fire was kept going on the ground. The clay in the soil would eventually fire into a soft ceramic.  Later a raised hearth of stone or brick would sit on the floor in the middle of the room.  Beyond the fireplace was a narrow hallway or just a door leading in from the wide side of the building at one end.

Later there were two rooms of nearly equal size with a fireplace and a partition between them.  There might be a large cooking fireplace facing one side and a blank brick side facing the other room, or there might be a second smaller fireplace facing the second room.

As time went by, and houses got larger(see note below) the configuration changed again.  The front center of the house would have the door and entry hall.  This would be about as wide as the fireplace mass which was often as big as a small room on its own.
 To each side, left and right, was a room which would be nearly square and extended to the back of the fireplace mass.  The back walls of the two rooms formed a long wall across the length of the house.  A door from each side room would lead into the back room.  This is sometimes referred to as a keeping room. This was basically the other half of the house.
 Along with the front rooms, the footprint of the house was close to a square or a not too elongated rectangle.  28 by 39 was a not too uncommon size. 
Remember that the closer to a square you get, the more efficient you are at conserving heat. 
This last room usually had the narrow end against the wall partitioned off to make a small, perhaps 6 foot deep, room called by many, probably incorrectly, a "borning" room. 
The back corner of the house, behind this room sometimes had a tiny spiral stair with high risers that went to the second story under the roof. 
There was often a staircase in the front hall that had a landing on the right and rose to an upper room from right to left.  It might be exposed, with a newel post and spindled rail or hidden behind paneling with a door leading to the landing from the hall.

Take a look at the Space Saving Partition Walls, posted elsewhere, for simple interpretations of these partitions.

The fireplace would be huge in these back rooms, perhaps a dozen feet or more!  Sometimes they would have a huge beam supporting the front of the firebox opening, an arch of brick or later on even a forged iron bar.  The early fireplaces might have an oven built into the back wall of the firebox.  You would step right inside the fireplace to bake.  When you wanted to rake out the coals from the oven, they just fell onto the hearth.  Often you would sit right inside the firebox on your little stool or chair while working all day.  Later the firebox was a bit smaller, and the oven moved outside the firebox to one side, though the decorative mantle still extended over the oven opening.  The oven often had a wooden door panel just pushed into it to block the heat in(often replaced as you might expect), and later on, they might have an iron door on the front.

There would be a huge panel of cast iron standing at the back of the fireplace if you could afford it, to reflect heat into the room and keep the heat from damaging the brick or stone of the back wall of the firebox over time.  Sometimes they were very simple or they could be great works of folk art with figures and dates cast into them.

One might be surprised at the size of homes of this time period.  These people were only limited by their time set aside for food production and desire to set aside building time.  The lumber was free.  Much of the house was joined using square Black Locust(where available) or Oak wooden pegs, and local people often were able to mine iron and make nails(the only purchase other than window glass if you wanted it).  You could actually build an entire house with just wood.  Only the clapboards had to be nailed on,  If you have plenty of time, even the siding can be pegged on.
Instead of window glass, you could use oiled paper, or nothing.  Often there were wooden bars that kept intruders out and eventually evolved into mutin bars to support glass panes.  Shutters closed at night or on cold days.
Back to the size....there was fuel everywhere early on, and other than inefficiency and drafts, there was no reason at all to be cold.  Fires were small, usually, just because wood was a lot of work, and fires became smaller as towns grew and the forests receded.  Basically, however, if you did not mind the work, you could heat large houses easily.

In Europe, people had depleted the forests centuries before and had to rely on dead, fallen wood for heat. (Forests were often the property of the lord or landlord.)  Coppiced twigs, grape or other woody vines and peat were used in some areas.  You could also burn dung from your animals, though you had to have dry conditions to get it to burnable and low odor condition.  Cold was your constant companion in the winter.

The Cape house was easy to expand into the next big trend, which was simply the Cape plan or an existing Cape that you wanted to alter, with the roof raised up and another floor inserted under it.  You might go without fireplaces upstairs, relying on heat's habit of rising, or smaller fireplaces would be added to the extension of your central chimney.

Thatch was a common roofing material(again requiring no nails), bark could be used in big sheets as roofing, but split shingles were most common.

Siding was sometimes just a matter of filling between the beams with mud and woven twigs plastered over (with true plaster or with a mortar or plaster made from shells) bricks and mortar or mud filling.  both could be seen alone, plastered, or covered over with split oak clapboards.  Later came wood plank sheathing, either vertical, fitting into grooves in the beams, or nailed on horizontally.  Then they were clapboarded over.  Much later came board and batten siding.

Professional house-wrights made pretty regular, cookie cutter houses that were similar except in size, but any good craftsman could build a house.  There were design trends, sometimes published but you could have many variations in houses of the period, that might look very similar outside. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Mental Exercise

I generally try to do the blogs as a service to others.  I would like to give others a chance to make a little house of their own as a result of these pages,,, there is an outdated term with these days of computer books...posts...that is better isn't it.
I would love to fantasize with you about my favorite form of house for my retirement.  I know it will not come to pass, because I do not have the resources to buy what I would want to furnish it with.  I do have some fabulous antiques to work with, but not in a consistent style.  I have a Sheraton chest of drawers, a pair of 17th century candlesticks , early American rocker,French Bergeres...nothing blends well.  that is OK if you have several rooms, but a consistent style is best if you are talking about this particular project.

Even though it is in a palazzo, it is not appreciably larger than the room I am discussing

I have long felt that I would only need a house the size of my living room to be completely content.  Well, I was wrong.  I have been researching my needs and wants and this week I have finally looked at a building that gave me the inspiration I was looking for.  I have settled on a rather opulent Palace room in Italy.  Now, I am actually approaching this subject with the idea of using any one style in this type of house.  I like the Italian Palazzo, but this would be a good thing to do with 18th Century American Furniture, or all American Empire, French Provincial or Craftsman.  You choose for yourself.
My living room is about 16 by 24.  I have a hard time decorating this because we have different takes in my house in how to do it, so as a result, we have all sorts of stuff jammed together in an inharmonious mess.
Ideally this should be thought of as two distinct rooms.  Well, I could get along fine with just that, but it would not include a kitchen and a bath.  So, I thought the best idea would be to increase the length of the building to 32 feet, just twice the width.  A good, compact bath can be put into just under 8 feet, and a kitchen in galley style can as well. 
So I am now thinking of my 16 by 24 room for living(the attic can provide sleeping lofts for guests) and the end of the building would house the bath, closet  and the kitchen.  If more utility space is needed, a lean-to could be put along one side of the house for rough storage, furnace etc.  this could be added later, especially if you use a fireplace, electric heat or woodstove.
In many styles, 2x6x8 would be fine for the wall studs, but in my particular style, I would increase the studs to 10 feet.  More storage room, more height for a feel of space, etc. plus I love chandeliers, and they are best with a high ceiling.

In a small building, wall space is critical.  Since one wall will have the utility rooms, one wall,( the North) with possible access to store rooms and perhaps the fireplace, and the third left fairly un-used for balance, that would mean that the last wall would be all glass!
I love light, but I am not so hooked on light and bright as others are.  I would likely put a loggia or pergola along the glassed wall for vines to provide summer shade.

In the 32 foot room, I would like to put a partition at the 8 foot mark, with a center door.  The center door would lead into an antechamber with a door to each side.  One would be for the bath and one for a compact kitchen.  This would end up being a bit under 8 by 6  The anteroom would house a closet against the outside wall for linens or pantry.

The rest of the room might be all french doors along the south and longest side, or a combination of french doors and floor to ceiling windows.

The opposite long wall would house a classical design fireplace, with a door to each side or a wall of bookcases surrounding the chimney breast made of kitchen cabinets on the bottom and simple shelves to the ceiling.  One end of the room would be for a showy bed, the rest for a living and dining room combination.

Make all finishes from the finest sources possible.  Silk drapes, oriental carpets over hardwood or marble floors, heated from below of course.
Sell everything I own and buy the best antiques possible to fill the space, except for dining room chairs and chairs meant for lounging(we do not want antiques for the items that get the most abuse and use).

Above there should be venetian glass chandeliers or period brass or bronze.  All can be had reasonably if you search carefully.
An added bonus would be a very deep bay window in the middle of the glass wall, to accommodate a relatively small round dining table and chairs.
As impractical as this seems, I guess I am trying to emphasize that a small house can be decorated as a jewel box, and you can have a tiny house that can be a source of pride even when you invite the snobbiest people to your house.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


There are some options that are particularly well suited for a small residence, though they may not be immediately apparent.  Seattle and some other areas of the country have neighborhoods that are moored at docks.

Thank You Wikipedia for this photo.

There are size restrictions in many of these places that would make a large building difficult to find a home for, and expensive as well.  However, a small houseboat, no larger than an average boat would be fairly cheap to keep at a marina, and certainly far cheaper than buying a lot and erecting even the tiniest house.  Many marinas offer water connections, TV, electric connections and sewage disposal.
If you go to the Netherlands, there are whole towns built on canals and sheltered waterways, including in some cities like Amsterdam.  The barges in Amsterdam are much larger than anything we would be discussing here, and in many cases are truly built on boats.  There are barges and arks as well, and these would be much more stable to live in.  Consider a well designed building towed on canals in Europe.
It seems to me that in these days of tough economic conditions, that it would be easier than ever to find someone who was trying to get rid of watercraft.  Construction on a boat would very likely be top heavy, so do not count on taking one of these out sport fishing in the Atlantic.  Most could in reasonably calm weather be towed to new locations seasonally.  It might be possible to tow for long distances, even along the inter-coastal waterway of the Atlantic, as long as reasonable weather and wave action were present.
Contact your local authorities for information on mooring in lakes for say the summer, your local marina may be able to offer advice on requirements in similar facilities.
An ark would be most likely to fit into our tiny house scenario.  In this, a floating dock structure is constructed of treated timbers.  The framework is filled with foam pallets made for floating structures..  Then a deck is constructed on top, of either water and salt(if on sea or brackish water) resistant woods like Teak(no small expense and a very heavy wood), and a house constructed with water resistant, or marine grade materials.  There are plenty of  materials out there that are virtually impervious to weather, which might not be a good idea or even attractive for a standard house, but would be fine for this application.  Extruded PVC comes to mind. 
One thing you have to remember with artificial materials like this is fading.  Color is very hard to maintain in direct sunlight, so stick with white.  Touches of color can be added on trim, outdoor grade fabrics or stained glass panels etc.  You might explore mahogany, cypress and cedar as alternatives.
Think summer house in Cape Cod, downtown marinas in Boston, Miami or somewhere on The Gulf(if you dare).

Thanks to Wikipedia for a picture of an Amsterdam houseboat, though this would really qualify as an ark.

Make sure that you build small.  Do something that can be lifted completely off the foundation so that the "raft" can be replaced periodically.  Also, consider bolting rooms to each other so a larger house can be disassembled and pulled off the barge and reassembled on land or on a replaced or refurbished raft.  No plasterboard!  Wood panels, pickled, if you want light colors would be a better choice.

If salt spray is not a problem, you might consider large planters with flowering vines etc trained over pergolas, made of extruded steel stock, welded into a framework or build a lattice of water resistant woods.  I'll bet a scarlet trumpet vine would do well in this environment, forming a leafy roof.  Use plenty of Pearlite or foam peanuts mixed into the soil to lessen the weight of the soil.

A small ark would easily be dragged onto a flat bed trailer and used in the winter or put into storage as well.

In very tidal locations, one might have posts pounded into the mud.  Several feet of steel pipe would then be placed on the bottom of your ark, and slipped over the posts.  The sleeves and the ark would then ride up like pistons in high tide situations and lower down to rest on the posts when the tide is low.  This would be good in places where you plan to be on stilts for much of the year, but still want to be close to the water level.  You would not be inundated during high tides.