Party Like It's 1799 in Your Colonial Dumb Box

Public Domain. The White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs 1915-1920

Boxy But Beautiful designs have been around for a long time, and there is a real logic to them.

When writing In praise of the dumb box, I quoted architect Mike Eliason who noted that "'dumb boxes' are the least expensive, the least carbon intensive, the most resilient, and have some of the lowest operational costs compared to a more varied and intensive massing." I got into a Twitter discussion with builder Tedd Benson of Unity Homes, in which I mentioned one of his designs as being my favorite because it was so simple and classic.

John Habraken is an important Dutch architect, writer and theorist, so I will pick up on what's going on here.


© Unity Homes

The Värm, like much of the work by GoLogic that we showed recently, is a very simple box with what I called a "forever roof"; if you put a durable material on a roof with that kind of steep slope, it will shed snow and rain and probably last as long as the house will.

Halsey House

The White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs 1915-1920/Public Domain

Most people love it not because it is efficient, but because it is traditional, a classic colonial American design. The Värm is not much different than the Thomas Halsey House, built around 1800.

Mystic house

The White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs 1915-1920/Public Domain

There were good reasons for the colonial designers to build their houses this way: simple boxes enclose more space with less material. Windows are small because they are really expensive compared to wood siding. Shingles were usually wood, so you want a steep roof to shed snow and water quickly. Shutters close to protect those expensive windows in storms and provide security and ventilation in summer, while cutting down the amount of sun that gets inside. It was all very logical.

Knapp Perry

Knapp Perry House/Public Domain

The colonial designers were pretty austere and didn't waste money on anything that didn't serve a purpose. It was not about style as much as it was about efficiency, about economy of means. Even when they got rich and the houses got bigger, they often stayed pretty simple.

Today, many are trying to build to Passivhaus standards of energy efficiency, and windows are very expensive. Every jog and bump is a potential thermal bridge and is certainly going to add to the cost. The simpler and squarer the box, the less surface area, insulation and heat loss there is.

go logic evening

© Trent Bell

I have always been a modernist and am not calling for a Colonial revival here. But there was a true logic to their #BBB, Boxy But Beautiful* designs. Unity Homes and GoLogic demonstrate once again that this can still be done.

*Hat tip to Bronwyn Barry for #BBB


The White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs 1915-1920/Public Domain