“House About It”

by Nalina


There are those things that they don’t teach you in school, and there are those things that they don’t teach you in architecture school, particularly about architecture.

In my masters degree program we spent a lot of time talking about imploded space and folded surfaces and building models out of foam, cardboard, and wooden coffee stirrers.  There was a required Building Technology class that met at 9:00 on Wednesday and Friday mornings.  Most of us stayed up late agonizing over our design projects, so we attended these lectures with diminished attention and energy.

Our professor was an alumnus of the school who worked at a large local firm and had a deep knowledge of construction.  He was an elegant man, always immaculately dressed, and had a calm, saintly way about him.  He tried very had to teach us about platform framing, pile foundations, brick cavity walls, and roofing systems.  “Only 12% of the work in an architecture office is design,” he warned us, “the bulk of it is working through technical details like this.”  But we weren’t listening.  We were slouched in our seats dreaming about our design projects.

So it was shocking to arrive at my first job and draw real drawings that would be used by real contractors to build real buildings.  The first sheet I drew was for a two-car garage for a family in Westchester.  (Full disclosure:  This was so long ago that I was drawing by hand, with lead, on vellum.)  I can clearly recall rendering the fine patterns used to represent layers of plywood, insulation, concrete, gravel, and the topsoil.  In the middle of this I had an epiphany about what “architecture” really was: it was putting together buildings out of ordinary stuff.

I’ve learned a lot since then seeing projects I’ve designed get built.  But the truth is that I’ve pieced together a lot of what I know about construction by talking with contractors, product representatives, and consultants, by wandering through stores like Home Depot, and by observing construction projects in the city.

So Sheri Koones’ book “House About It” strikes me as a great resource.  This little paperback is like a dictionary for home remodeling and construction, with chapters about different exterior and interior building components, and plenty of photographs, charts and illustrations.

The first chapter, which outlines different architectural styles, has very charming diagrams to help identify “elaborate dormers” on a chateau-style manor, and the tympanum on a Greek Revival house.  This can come in handy when you’re talking to your architect, or when you’re trying to impress someone at a cocktail party.


Other chapters offer information about very basic things, like steel studs and wood studs, and more esoteric things, like timber framing and post-and-beam construction.  I have no doubt that if I locked myself in a room with this book for three days I’d emerge a much better-informed architect.  Look at these diagrams outlining door and window types and components:



Although the book is targeted for someone who’s building a new home for herself, it’s an excellent resource any homeowner or home-dweller.  For instance many homeowners, especially those living in older houses, will face a roof replacement.  The book’s chapter on roofs has a diagram showing all the parts of a hipped roof structures, and tips about selecting roofing materials and a local roofing installer.


I learned a lot just by skimming these pages about light bulbs.  For instance that 90% of an energy transmitted to an incandescent bulb is lost in heat, and that compact fluorescent bulbs last twenty times longer.


No book, especially one this size and this unassuming, could capture all the knowledge that goes into building homes.  But this one goes quite a way.

Sheri Koones, House About It: Dream/Design/Dwell.  New York: Gibbs Smith, 2004.

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