✅ Architecture Crash Course

The style of your home is a very personal decision and you probably have a feeling for how you’d like your home to look. You'll work closely with your architect to develop the home's style and they will have ideas and approaches.

It can be helpful in this process to develop a basic understanding of how architects approach a new home's style, what influences their thinking, and what you can expect. For now, our focus is not on working with an architect, but understanding their approach.

Please keep in mind that I am not an architect. My hope is to explain a few big ideas in this very nuanced and complicated field that I feel are important for homeowners like us to understand.

This is a crash course in Architecture-For-Us. Buckle up!

What is Residential Architecture?

The design and construction of homes is one part of a much bigger profession that includes all kinds of buildings, bridges, urban planning, and more. You are likely to work with a residential architect who specializes in the design and construction of homes and is accustomed to working with homeowners like you.

The architect is the one person who is trained to focus on the entire home, from the location and structure that supports it, to the enclosure that protects it, to the finishes that make it beautiful.

At the highest level, the role of the residential architect is to work with you to plan, design, and possibly, oversee the construction of your home. You can think of architects as translators who turn your ideas, aspirations, and needs into a custom home. They do that by creating plans and specifications that builders, engineers, and local governments need to make the home a reality. Architects set the course for the project and help ensure that it reaches the final destination.

Architect vs Architectural Designer

You may see the titles "architect" and "architectural designer". An architect is a licensed professional who has passed a rigorous exam called the ARE (Architect Registration Examination). Many states require a degree in architecture and possibly professional experience to be eligible. Once licensed, architects are eligible for membership in the AIA (American Institute of Architects).

An architectural designer is a professional designer who is unlicensed and has not passed the exam. This may include draftspeople and other professionals. These distinctions do not necessarily relate to the quality of the work or the design capabilities of the professionals. An architectural designer can legally design a house and bring impressive skills to bear.

For simplicity's sake, I'll refer to all these professionals as "architects".

Is Architecture Required?

This is a very old and much-discussed question that I won't attempt to answer fully. The short answer, for most custom homes, is yes. If you are going to take on the expense and effort of building a custom home, an architect is often necessary to ensure the home meets your expectations.

The architect is the one person who is trained to focus on the entire home, from the location and structure that supports it, to the enclosure that protects it, to the finishes that make it beautiful. They are experts in thinking of the whole and ensuring that it looks and works as expected.

Builders and engineers can work with you to create a safe and well-functioning home, but one that is beautiful and designed around your needs and lifestyle will likely need an architect.

In the book, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, Matthew Frederick says this about the role of architects:


An architect knows something about everything. An engineer knows everything about one thing.

An architect is a generalist, not a specialist--the conductor of a symphony, not a virtuoso who plays every instrument perfectly. As a practitioner, an architect coordinates a team of professionals that include structural and mechanical engineers, interior designers, building-code consultants, landscape architects, specification writers, contractors, and specialists from other disciplines. Typically, the interests of some team members will compete with the interests of the others. An architect must know enough about each discipline to negotiate and synthesize competing demands while honoring the needs of the client and the integrity of the entire project.

The Roots of Architecture

Architects work within a field that is full of history and influence. Below, we'll briefly discuss a few of the biggest ideas and then jump to the modern era.

It is often said that the origins of architecture come from nature and specifically trees. Early humans were the first architects and we have been trying to improve our buildings ever since. That's one of the fascinating things about architecture as a field of study: it is very, very old. It has been debated and discussed for millennia.

Michael Pollan, in A Place of My Own, said this about the origins of architecture:


The primitive hut is a myth, really, a story of the origins of architecture in the state of nature. As the story goes, architecture was given to man by the forest, which taught him how to form a shelter out of four trees, one at each corner, crowned by pairs of branches inclining toward one another like rafters. Like many myths this one is fanciful but also in some deep sense true. For architecture as we know it is unimaginable without the tree. Frank Lloyd Wright, speaking of the very first structures built by man, once wrote that “trees must have awakened his sense of form.” It is the tree that gave us the notion of a column and, in the West at least, everything else rests upon that.

And through the long history of architecture, one factor has been present: a building's connection to its location. For most of history, buildings were built according to what materials, like trees and rocks, were nearby. This gave specific locations, like the Cotswolds in England, a consistent look and character that is now prized and protected.

Vernacular Architecture

Over time, home design in a specific area often reflects the needs, materials, know-how, and traditions of that area. This is often referred to as the “vernacular architecture” and it relates to what builders had to work with at the time.

This remains an influence in the design of new homes that seek a connection to the past. A new house might use the same local rocks that were used 100 years ago. This can also apply to home styles, rooflines, window configurations, and more.

National and state parks often use vernacular architecture for buildings that reflect the traditional materials and practices. You can see this in the timber and rock construction below:

Today, the influence of vernacular architecture is clear in a variety of modern settings. For example, the vernacular architecture that developed in the pacific northwest reflects the reality of the climate and abundance of materials. The region is full of trees and nature but lacks consistent sunshine. What is now considered PNW vernacular reflects these realities.

Phil Jacobson, a retired Seattle architect and professor emeritus of UW’s architecture program, was quoted in Washington State Magazine with this observation:


While much of the early building is derivative of architecture from around the country, a Northwest aesthetic emerged in the timber framing, exposed wood beams, open spaces, and large windows designed to capture the Northwest light, he says. The developing style is also reflected in how the buildings fit within their site and landscape.

Here is an example of typical PNW vernacular architecture with exposed beams and large glass openings:

This style can also be seen in new construction and interpretations of the PNW vernacular.

In thinking about your future home, it may help to consider the vernacular architecture of your area and why it developed the way it did. What can you learn from generations of architects and builders who found solutions to local problems?

Psychological Needs: Prospect and Refuge

Architecture is also a product of the human condition and reflects some of our basic needs. A well-known theory is called the Prospect-Refuge theory. The basic idea is that we feel most comfortable in spaces where we can observe the outside (prospect) without being seen (refuge). We need a way to watch for predators or prey (prospect), while being safe and secure (refuge).

Grant Hildebrand applied this theory to architecture in his book, Origins of Architectural of Pleasure. Using the homes of Frank Lloyd Wright, he showed that features such as ceiling heights and the size of windows may work for us at an instinctual level.

Now, let's jump to one of the most influential eras of architecture and consider how it might influence the design of your home.

Home Styles: Modern / Contemporary / Traditional

Architecture is constantly evolving as styles, materials, technologies, and tastes change. In terms of influence, one of the biggest changes in architecture was a move in the 20th century toward modernism.

Why does this matter?

In a nutshell, it meant moving away from the long history of architecture that was based on classical designs that go all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. This also extended to buildings that were full of decorative elements and ornaments. Modernism was a rejection of these older styles and acceptance of new approaches.

Modernists, like French/Swiss architect Le Corbusier, looked back at this long history and decided it was time to move on. As new materials and technologies became available, they saw buildings as "machines for living in", as he put it. These machines could do the job without all the fluff.

Alain de Botton, in The Architecture of Happiness, shared a quote from Le Corbusier that compares a modern home to an airplane.


He observed that the requirements of flight rid aeroplanes of all superfluous decoration and so unwittingly transformed them into successful pieces of architecture. To place a Classical statue atop a house was as absurd as to add one to a plane, he noted, but at least by crashing in response to this addition, the plane had the advantage of rendering its absurdity starkly manifest.

Modern houses, in this way, could be stripped of nearly everything that's not required for living, just as planes only have what is required for flying. Modern houses are often more minimalist, with open floor plans, and the use of glass, steel, and concrete.

A famous example is the Glass House by Philip Johnson, built in 1949.

Modernist style is a big influence today and it’s common to describe a new home as “modern”, even if it’s not modernist.  

Modernism and Your Home

Modernism's impact has been a big one and not without its detractors and critics. As homes moved away from well-worn materials, styles, and practices, they entered a more experimental space that made homes feel more like pieces of art that were not necessarily connected to the lives of the owners.

In fact, some of the most famous architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier were famously dismissive of the owner's needs, like the need to have a roof that didn't leak.

Stewart Brand provided this perspective in How Buildings Learn:


Frank Lloyd Wright was chosen by a poll of the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time.” They know they all knew his damp secret.

Leaks are a given in any Wright house. Indeed the architect has been notorious not only for his leaks before his flippant dismissals of client complaints. He reportedly asserted that, “If a roof doesn't leak, the architect hasn't been creative enough.” His stock response to clients who complained of leaking roofs was, “That's how you can tell it's a roof.”

It's true. It's surprisingly common for high art and high concept homes to lack elements of livability, like a roof that works. A major criticism of this kind of architecture is that it is all for show, and particularly for architectural photography and architecture magazines.

Again, Stewart Brand:


A major culprit is architectural photography, according to a group of Architecture Department faculty I had lunch with at the University of California-Berkeley. Clair Cooper Marcus said it most clearly: “You get work through getting awards and the award system is based on photographs. Not use. Not context. Just purely visual photographs taken before people start using the building. Tales were told of ambitious architects specifically designed their buildings to photograph well at the expense of performing well.

Frank Duffy fumed to me about the curse of architectural photography, which is all about the wonderfully composed shot, the absolutely lifeless picture that takes time out of architecture–the photograph taken the day before move-in. That's what you get awards for that's what you make a career based on. All those lovely but empty stills of uninhabited and uninhabitable spaces have squeezed more life out of architecture than perhaps any other factor.

You've no doubt seen this phenomenon. What we see most in architecture media is perfectly composed images of homes that look beautiful and innovative, and often, lifeless. Why? Because that is what wins awards and attracts new clients.

Modernism in Balance

My motivation in discussing modernism is related to its seductive power. Today, custom homes are often influenced by it and many architects love the opportunity to design a home that could win an award or appear in a magazine. Those factors raise their profiles and potentially, their rates. You can't blame them.

At the same time, owners see the photos in magazines and dream of those homes. It's easy to get seduced by magazine architecture, and in many cases, it can be inspirational.

But it's vital to always keep livability front and center. Unlike you, the architect will not live in the house or have to fix its leaky roof. As the owner, it's important that you find a balance between art, livability, and of course, budget.

Other Styles - Contemporary and Traditional

It's easy to get confused when discussing modern, modernist, and contemporary. Modern and contemporary are often used interchangeably to mean a style that is not as influenced by traditional designs. However, contemporary means something specific.

Contemporary Style

Contemporary style is different from modern in that it’s a reflection of today and the future. It reflects today’s attitudes, styles, and materials and doesn’t necessarily take inspiration from the past. You can think of it in terms of what is in style right now. Many of the new homes you see today are contemporary.

This is a west coast contemporary design (photo by PNWRA)

Traditional Style

Traditional is, well, traditional. These are homes that clearly connect to home styles from the past and don’t often make bold stylistic statements. They blend into older neighborhoods and are often built using materials that are available (or traditionally used) in that area. A house built of local stone, or lumber may be traditional. Traditional homes may also use state-of-the-art materials but be packaged in a traditional style like craftsman, Victorian, or Tudor. 

The house below is a craftsman-style bungalow.

Like nearly every part of this process, sometimes your best friend is the internet. Spend time looking at houses and saving images that are inspiring. 

Popular Styles to Consider:

  • Craftsman
  • Mid-Century Modern
  • Contemporary
  • Victorian
  • Timber/Cabin
  • Ranch
  • Tudor
  • Farmhouse
  • Bungalow
  • Rambler
  • Prairie

Consider what style you envision for your home. Is it a modern or contemporary home, or is it more traditional? If it’s traditional, are there specific styles that you can refer to? 

Influences on Your Home's Style

The style of your home may be influenced by a wide variety of factors, as discussed above. Before we close this chapter, I'd like to cover a few more considerations, in case they can help with your project.

The Built Environment

One of the factors you are likely to discuss is how the home might be able to fit into the local neighborhood. This is especially true if neighborhood homes share a similar aesthetic. Noticing that aesthetic can help you build a home that looks fitting for the neighborhood and reflects a local sense of design and materials.

Our Hilltop House in Seattle was on a street with classic 1920's craftsman architecture. Working with our architect, we made it a priority to have a modern and unique design that also blended with the neighborhood's classic aesthetic.

Next, we'll take a quick look at sustainability and your home.

Complete and Continue