Front to Back

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA terraced street. Rows of fronts joined together to make, in some cases, a unified facade of repeated elements – like this one. The street becomes a place which is (as well as pretty straight) enclosed by a continuous patterned wall of doors, windows, brick and roofs. This is the smart public face, seen here with some nice ornamental mouldings which link together across the units. Nice.

The back is all different, because the back is a group of adjacent inhabited private spaces. Garden, fence, garden, fence. Even above the ground the architecture breaks out of the formality of the flat facade and steps forward, back, forward, back as the houses reach out into the space to get more rooms and more light into them. The walls go forward the roofs go with them. It makes a nice little pattern, up and down, as you can see here. Enjoy the sunshine people and look around.


A terraced house is a house that is directly joined to another house on each side. Or rather you could say that it shares two of its walls with its neighbours. These walls are the party walls and they form the sides of the house – as if each house owns half the wall on each side. Terraced houses are built in groups – long or short rows of house fronts, with entrance doors and windows, with party walls in between, under a long strip of roof. The terrace is a typology, a pattern. Each dwelling is a part of that pattern and the terraces make streets, which make blocks which make a city of streets.

Just as the house, and the terrace, has a front, facing the street, with or without a garden, each house has a back, with windows and a door and a garden. Sometimes (over in B12) the garden is just a tiny yard, but often you have a long narrow garden. Because the terrace front is a continuous wall, to get into the garden, there is usually a passage door every two houses Behind this door is a narrow alley cutting through the terrace block. The passage is a right of way for both parties and leads to a pair of private gates facing each other at a steep angle which lead into the private gardens. If the passage door is every fourth house, those without gates of their own have a right of way through their neighbour’s garden. The passage is nearly always 3′ wide and because of this width at the ground floor, the parties each get an extra 18″ in the floor above the passage as a result. Sometimes the chimneys are on the passage side, floating above the passage and stepping apart as they go down through the house and into the sitting room below.

These passage doors are, to me at least, pretty interesting. Because they are owned by both sides, they deserve a special status as a communal door, but they only lead into the garden, so they are not as important – as a feature for architectural expression – as the entrance doors to the dwellings. So sometimes they are fancy like a front door, expressing security and status. At other times they are a garden gate, like the door to a shed. As they are shared between the two dwellings, the materials of which the dwellings are made meet at the top of the door. The passage door is a shared door and it’s centre line is a boundary. Half the arch is red, half the arch is white.


Check out this baby! Lots of roof, lots of gable. She steps right forwards and drops down to the entrance. Look at the outside and you can almost see the entrance hall – under the lamp, press on the oak, through the big door frame and you are in the space between the structural wall seen upstairs and the thick wall with the fireplace making up the living room. Your very own baronial hall on a tiny scale. Bet the stairs are nice too. With Arts and Crafts everything needs to have character and be part of a romantic story. Look at the tiny windows below the big eaves to the right. Says hallway to me. Look at the windows on the end gable. That loft room surely has exposed beams like Anne Hathaway’s cottage. What about the diamond in the top of the street front gable. If there’s a room for writing a secret letter you have just found it. Now get on the horse and ride like the wind!


Stanley 10m 33′

Sad to say, but my old tape died on me – it no longer rewinds. I have a new one thanks to Toolman in Yardley – cheaper than the internet by the way. Elevations for my survey drawings, take a look.

Because the building is on an angle we get a three quarter view down the side, plus the feature corner is on a radius, this means that all that Victorian awesomeness is seen in semi profile. Indicating these details, especially the mouldings and keystones, on CAD can be a little misleading. CAD doesn’t follow the eye in drawing, it follows the number. This can mean that the mouldings look deeper or shallower than they are – but wait, when they are drawn face on they are not exact either. Drawing at a scale like 1 to 100 it’s impossible to show what the stone details are exactly, the lines would be too dense to read and they would make the detail areas heavier in tone than the outlines with deeper returns, like the window openings. In fact the precision of the lines – their straightness and even weight, the way the line corners meet – gives a false impression to the reader of accuracy where there is in fact just a summary of what is there in the flesh. In a ruled ink study different pen weights would indicate depth and significance where appropriate and the finest details would call for the lightest lines. In CAD these touches are hard to make because of the mediated nature of the process and the limited choices in pen weight. We draw on the screen, we are surprised by the print. When working on the paper or film directly the work has more of a correct impression, especially working freehand. Plus it’s quicker. But people think it’s less accurate. Less accurate than what? Look again, what do you see? That’s no building, that is white with black lines. There are no materials, no shadows, no rain, no perspective. The drawings are attractive because they are complex and we admire the effort that went into them. But it’s not even a building.

If you ever see the drawing package from an engineer they can be pretty dry. I would like to say that they contain more mistakes than my work, but hey. One thing they are though is correctly elevational. That is they show what is seen truly face on as if we have a section just in front of the elements represented. This means that they are dimensional representations. 8.6 metres is 8.6 metres drawn to scale on the elevation. If the building is like this one, the side that returns (goes around the corner) would not be shown.

I’m sure the Victorians had engineers. And architects too. But what did their drawings look like? Pencil, ink and watercolour wash for the elevations, pastels or oil or watercolour for the perspectives. Plans and sections pencil and ink. Some of the most impressive drawings are the old stone mason drawings, full size or 1/2 or 1/3rd, mixing elevational accuracy and tone work to express the curving profiles. Every drawing should have a reason. This one is for the planners, change of use. Enjoy!

B06 India House Elevation John Bright Street B07 India House Elevations

STANLEY 8m 26′

I’m doing a survey at the moment for a refurb project in central for a friendly client. I love surveys. Partly because I enjoy the maths – and strangely because I like measuring stuff – but mainly because I am a really nosey person. This one is pretty old with some serious brickwork, big old windows and 3.3m ceilings. That’s big. But take another look at the arrangement and the changes of scale – the thick walls, the thin walls, the posts. But also see how compact the stairs are and the routes they take. Nice. Older buildings tend to follow a natural order of light – they look for edges and openings to the sky. This one has a central light well. It lights the stairs but also serves to bring light into the centre of the building. The sound of metal tape extending retracting¬†swish swish.



The Joy of Gables

You have walls, you have a roof. In this town you get a lot of roof, with dark blue Welsh slates that shine black in the rain. At the top of the roof is the ridge, where you might see terracotta ridge tiles with patterned profiles – I like the ones with the little holes. Where it reaches down to the wall you have the eaves. Here you find the gutter, sometimes fixed to a board (fancy) or carried on little iron brackets stuck into the brick joints (not so fancy). The top courses of bricks usually reach out by a few inches at the eaves, if it’s at the front of the house they might be fancy specials with beautiful patterns. Nice details. But if you go to the end of the terrace, or the side of the house, it’s all different. The wall goes up and up into the sky all the way to the ridge – it’s not a squat little wall any more, it’s a super wall, pointing up into heaven. That’s the gable – the triangle of wall that shoots up the side of the building and supports the roof beams.

Sometimes you see gables that are very modest – mouldings or pediments only carry a little way around the corner from the street elevation (you see can see that in Malvern, where they have the brown stone) or one of my favourites, the faded painted trade sign. Paint, hardware, ironmongery. Sometimes they just stand there silently. But these are not the ones I’m here to talk about.

Some buildings have a gable front by nature. These are buildings that have narrow frontages and deep plans. The roof has to span across the narrowest width to reduce the height of the roof, the amount of roofing material and the length and outwards thrust of the rafters. These are the timbers that run from the ridge board down to the eaves and there are lots of them. Churches, Greek temples, Netherlands merchant’s houses all show serious gable. These gables are ¬†a celebration of the building, a place to put your best decoration to the street, they show status, power, money and act out the importance of the building to the community, whether the facades are open or closed.

But it is the sky profile that makes it work. The gable is up there, above the neighbours, seen from further away and cutting up into the sky. In the city of streets houses that don’t need gables take the pattern and add it to the roof to break the sky profile of the terrace. A second ridge board strikes out away from the rafters to create a new little roof – or big roof – and a street front gable springs up to reach it. It marks out the house as an individual in the row, makes it taller on the street front and adds to the status of the house. A row of little triangles makes those houses a bit more special, and when the light is right you get a saw tooth shadow cast onto the street below. I want you to look out for this.

For the big fancy houses, gables are a major feature, with black timbers over white render making V’s or grids, and big boards. If you look carefully these gables start from the ground as the brick line takes a step forward to create a deep or shallow projecting bay. This gives you a return coming back from the sides of the gable so that it casts a shadow back onto the house and so that the valley between the main roof and gable roof is away from the frontage. Surrounded by streets of horizontal volumes, these gables make a feature of tall and vertical. In Moseley village, the gables are very tall and they make the public street space special. Go down the wake green road and you will see some added on gables that are asymmetrical and run nearly down to the ground. The tall side shelters the principal windows, the low side creates the entrance porch. That’s the magic of gables.