architect’s pet peeve no. 8 – fake quions

“Quoins” are the exposed stone pieces that you sometimes see stacking up only on the corner of a building.  Their use today is odd and usually fake and are trying to allude to traditional masonry construction and presumably the sense of durability, solidity and timelessness that implies.

Quoins provide a kind of emphasis, a visual boldness, to the corners of a building and tend to make the building feel more solid, more object-like. However, like so many elements of architecture that appear to be merely stylistic touches, they have an origin in a construction technology.

Quarrying stone has always been a difficult and expensive proposition. Making a stone building out of the stone that are scattered around the field and forest is a much easier proposition but results in a random rubble type wall.  When that random rubble wall has to turn a corner, the stone of differing sizes and shapes create a visual and technological problem.  Because of its ragged line it collects water, because of the use of small, varied stone, they easily pop off the corner when exposed to the elements from two sides.  Quoins of cut stone were used to contain the edges of stone walls and help solve these exposed corner problems.  Being cut stone they stack nicely and cleanly on each other and their consistent size and shape they solidly and securely hold the corner true and vertical.

However, this technological use of quoins has long been forgotten and they are merely stylistic touches now applied without much subtlety to buildings.  You can see fake stone quoins, face brick quoins, wood quoins trying to look like stone quoins, and best yet, EIFS (fake stucco) quoins, in buildings all over the country.

 

“cast” stone quoins on parade

 

wood "stone" quoins; actually as you can see, quite an old fakery often used by New England ship captains to give their wood houses a sense of class
fake stucco and foam quoins

 

architect's pet peeve no. 8 – fake quions

“Quoins” are the exposed stone pieces that you sometimes see stacking up only on the corner of a building.  Their use today is odd and usually fake and are trying to allude to traditional masonry construction and presumably the sense of durability, solidity and timelessness that implies.

Quoins provide a kind of emphasis, a visual boldness, to the corners of a building and tend to make the building feel more solid, more object-like. However, like so many elements of architecture that appear to be merely stylistic touches, they have an origin in a construction technology.

Quarrying stone has always been a difficult and expensive proposition. Making a stone building out of the stone that are scattered around the field and forest is a much easier proposition but results in a random rubble type wall.  When that random rubble wall has to turn a corner, the stone of differing sizes and shapes create a visual and technological problem.  Because of its ragged line it collects water, because of the use of small, varied stone, they easily pop off the corner when exposed to the elements from two sides.  Quoins of cut stone were used to contain the edges of stone walls and help solve these exposed corner problems.  Being cut stone they stack nicely and cleanly on each other and their consistent size and shape they solidly and securely hold the corner true and vertical.

However, this technological use of quoins has long been forgotten and they are merely stylistic touches now applied without much subtlety to buildings.  You can see fake stone quoins, face brick quoins, wood quoins trying to look like stone quoins, and best yet, EIFS (fake stucco) quoins, in buildings all over the country.

 

“cast” stone quoins on parade

 

wood "stone" quoins; actually as you can see, quite an old fakery often used by New England ship captains to give their wood houses a sense of class
fake stucco and foam quoins

 

architect's pet peeve no. 9 – fake masonry

We have all seen this stuff, the clearly stuck-on fake brick and stone that has completely taken over the real masonry world.

lick'n'stick, with mitered corners no less

There are various levels of atrociousness with this stuff so let’s start by defining what we mean by masorny:

two wythes (at least) thick

LEVEL ONE: real bearing masonry. This is what masonry was 100 years ago. The stone or brick actually held up the weight of the roof and the structure above. It had to be thick, more so at the bottom, to bear the weight. The Monadonack Building in Chicago is many feet thick at the base, composed of multiple wythes (a wythe is a single row thickness of brick) of brick. When you seen header bricks they are not half-bricks, but stretchers turned 90 degrees and spanning over two wythes to tie them together. To bear the weight of even a simple roof, brick or stone had to be thicker than 4 inches (the width of a single wythe of brick).

veneer brick, with soldier course lintel; veneer stone, 4

LEVEL TWO: masonry veneer construction. For decades now the mode of construction when masonry is employed is most often as a thin (4″ – 6″ thick) veneer acting as an exterior finish material and covering the real structural support of the building, be that wood or metal studs or concrete block (commercial block construction is still often bearing – the block you see on the outside of the building is doing the structural work). This mode of masonry is what is most often used in residential construction and the masonry you see, although not holding up the building, is still stacked, stone upon stone, brick upon brick, supported on a concrete foundation. In some unfortunate cases the stone is not real – it is concrete formed units made to look like stone to reduce the cost of the material, but still bearing its own weight.

LEVEL THREE: thin veneer construction. I hesitate to call this masonry because in most instances the whole idea of this technique is to have material so thin, 1 1/2″ or so, that it does not need support from stacking the material up but rather is glued onto the wall. Each piece of fake stone or brick is simply glued to the wall often from the top down or in some strange random pattern that does not reflect gravity or any of the rules of traditional masonry. As this stuff is quite thin, as it turns an outside corner either the ridiculous skinny material is exposed or a fake corner has to be produced.

panels of ?

LEVEL FOUR: thin panel veneer construction. This is essentially paneling masquerading as masonry. These are thin panels of stone or brick, pre-assembled, with staggered side edges to hide the panel joints after installation. These panels are very lightweight and inexpensive and if installed with some care as to edges and joints, can, at a distance, fool almost everyone into thinking it is real LEVEL ONE or TWO masonry. Until the panel starts to peel off the wall at least. Usually the material on the panel is not brick or stone but plastic or resin composites.

THE PRODUCTS

Now that we have laid out the techniques of deception, expecially in LEVEL THREE and FOUR, let’s take a look at the quality of the product. Obviously in all cases if the product being used in made of the same stuff or in the same way as the original it is trying to duplicate there will be a much better chance of replicating its look and application. So, thin veneer brick that is actually cast and molded like brick, from the same clays, will be a much better fake than the vermiculite-pressed products. Same thing with stone – thin cut stone, from an actual quarry, will be far more successful than the dyed-concrete stuff (often known as “cultured stone”). Of course, in LEVEL FOUR, panels of “masonry”, none of this typically occurs.

so many pretty colors!! ...maybe too many.

THE INSTALLATION

I am all for using masonry, especially LEVEL TWO veneer masonry, in ways that do not try to replicate traditional bearing wall construction. Bricks can be laid up as straight-stacked or panelized, each “revealing” their roles as an exterior finish material, not a structurally bearing material. However, this is rarely done and most often the worst abuses of the fake masonry world occur when traditional masonry is desired but the execution, either in installation or a complete failure of the product, fails to understand what masonry is. What am I talking about here? Well, let’s have a little survey of installations that have no idea of what they are doing.

No real mason would ever let so many vertical joints align, especially in a dry-stack type of installation. These fake stone are clearly made in multi-stone units that are simply butted together – usually a sign of concrete faking it as stone. Awful, a product and installation failure.

so many fabulous choices!!

When the stuff is so thin it is glued on rather than stacked, there is no sense of gravity having any sway in this universe. And clearly the corners of this stuff ought to show that the material is maybe more than 2″ thick.

I don’t know what to say about this:

this may have some cool, deconstructivist intention, but I don't think so

Or this:

I think this is the Medieval Times look.

In conclusion: I am no fan of any use of LEVEL THREE of FOUR products or applications unless you are going to clearly apply them like wallpaper and have some fun with it. Hey, how about a brick chair? Or a stone door?

For the LEVEL TWO veneer masonry, let’s either use it in a traditional way – openings would have lintels or soldier courses, the masonry would never hang in the air – or let’s acknowledge its role as merely an exterior protective surface and detail it accordingly.

straight-stacked brick, clear non-structural, but true to its veneer construction

architect’s pet peeve no. 9 – fake masonry

We have all seen this stuff, the clearly stuck-on fake brick and stone that has completely taken over the real masonry world.

lick'n'stick, with mitered corners no less

There are various levels of atrociousness with this stuff so let’s start by defining what we mean by masorny:

two wythes (at least) thick

LEVEL ONE: real bearing masonry. This is what masonry was 100 years ago. The stone or brick actually held up the weight of the roof and the structure above. It had to be thick, more so at the bottom, to bear the weight. The Monadonack Building in Chicago is many feet thick at the base, composed of multiple wythes (a wythe is a single row thickness of brick) of brick. When you seen header bricks they are not half-bricks, but stretchers turned 90 degrees and spanning over two wythes to tie them together. To bear the weight of even a simple roof, brick or stone had to be thicker than 4 inches (the width of a single wythe of brick).

veneer brick, with soldier course lintel; veneer stone, 4

LEVEL TWO: masonry veneer construction. For decades now the mode of construction when masonry is employed is most often as a thin (4″ – 6″ thick) veneer acting as an exterior finish material and covering the real structural support of the building, be that wood or metal studs or concrete block (commercial block construction is still often bearing – the block you see on the outside of the building is doing the structural work). This mode of masonry is what is most often used in residential construction and the masonry you see, although not holding up the building, is still stacked, stone upon stone, brick upon brick, supported on a concrete foundation. In some unfortunate cases the stone is not real – it is concrete formed units made to look like stone to reduce the cost of the material, but still bearing its own weight.

LEVEL THREE: thin veneer construction. I hesitate to call this masonry because in most instances the whole idea of this technique is to have material so thin, 1 1/2″ or so, that it does not need support from stacking the material up but rather is glued onto the wall. Each piece of fake stone or brick is simply glued to the wall often from the top down or in some strange random pattern that does not reflect gravity or any of the rules of traditional masonry. As this stuff is quite thin, as it turns an outside corner either the ridiculous skinny material is exposed or a fake corner has to be produced.

panels of ?

LEVEL FOUR: thin panel veneer construction. This is essentially paneling masquerading as masonry. These are thin panels of stone or brick, pre-assembled, with staggered side edges to hide the panel joints after installation. These panels are very lightweight and inexpensive and if installed with some care as to edges and joints, can, at a distance, fool almost everyone into thinking it is real LEVEL ONE or TWO masonry. Until the panel starts to peel off the wall at least. Usually the material on the panel is not brick or stone but plastic or resin composites.

THE PRODUCTS

Now that we have laid out the techniques of deception, expecially in LEVEL THREE and FOUR, let’s take a look at the quality of the product. Obviously in all cases if the product being used in made of the same stuff or in the same way as the original it is trying to duplicate there will be a much better chance of replicating its look and application. So, thin veneer brick that is actually cast and molded like brick, from the same clays, will be a much better fake than the vermiculite-pressed products. Same thing with stone – thin cut stone, from an actual quarry, will be far more successful than the dyed-concrete stuff (often known as “cultured stone”). Of course, in LEVEL FOUR, panels of “masonry”, none of this typically occurs.

so many pretty colors!! ...maybe too many.

THE INSTALLATION

I am all for using masonry, especially LEVEL TWO veneer masonry, in ways that do not try to replicate traditional bearing wall construction. Bricks can be laid up as straight-stacked or panelized, each “revealing” their roles as an exterior finish material, not a structurally bearing material. However, this is rarely done and most often the worst abuses of the fake masonry world occur when traditional masonry is desired but the execution, either in installation or a complete failure of the product, fails to understand what masonry is. What am I talking about here? Well, let’s have a little survey of installations that have no idea of what they are doing.

No real mason would ever let so many vertical joints align, especially in a dry-stack type of installation. These fake stone are clearly made in multi-stone units that are simply butted together – usually a sign of concrete faking it as stone. Awful, a product and installation failure.

so many fabulous choices!!

When the stuff is so thin it is glued on rather than stacked, there is no sense of gravity having any sway in this universe. And clearly the corners of this stuff ought to show that the material is maybe more than 2″ thick.

I don’t know what to say about this:

this may have some cool, deconstructivist intention, but I don't think so

Or this:

I think this is the Medieval Times look.

In conclusion: I am no fan of any use of LEVEL THREE of FOUR products or applications unless you are going to clearly apply them like wallpaper and have some fun with it. Hey, how about a brick chair? Or a stone door?

For the LEVEL TWO veneer masonry, let’s either use it in a traditional way – openings would have lintels or soldier courses, the masonry would never hang in the air – or let’s acknowledge its role as merely an exterior protective surface and detail it accordingly.

straight-stacked brick, clear non-structural, but true to its veneer construction

Boulder's Historic Districts – 16th Street

Tucked against the north side of Baseline along 16th Street is a tiny historic district often overlooked.  Comprised of only 5 properties, it consists of a group of small masonry cottages surrounded by dense trees.

For the most part the houses are made of fairly traditional red brick masonry.  A few also have rustic, red clay tile roofs which, along with the brick, lend an overall dense and solid expression, strongly rooting the houses to their sites.   Like all the north-south streets in this area, the predominant slope makes the houses on the west side of the street sit up from the street.  As in the University Place district (to be profiled in a future post), a variety of terraced gardens and retaining walls resolve this grade difference between the sidewalk and house.  This slope also means that the small profile of the houses on the east side of the street contrast with the 2- or 1 1/2 story exposed at the eastern alley side.

As a whole, the little  district is a great laboratory of masonry techniques from the 1920’s.  Although in general most of the masonry is typical stretcher bond, there are some smaller examples of Flemish and English bonds.  And, in one house, a brickwork combined with stone that defies any category or style that I know of:

This is not some mason gone mad, but rather part of that strange, Romantic neo-medieval aesthetic movement of the 19th century championed by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.  (Morris is credited with founding the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, later to become the UK’s National Trust, an early forerunner of all historic preservation societies and efforts.)

I am not sure if these are actual clinker bricks, kiln rejects because of odd shapes or twists, but the coursing, or lack of, is certainly part of that tradition of using clinker bricks in often strange and fanciful patterns.  This randomness takes a lot of skill and time of a mason, increasingly rare around Colorado where laying brick is priced on a bricks/hour basis.

The 16th Street district is maybe a bit small to be rightly called a “district”, but as a collection of well-made, strongly interior and distinct houses, it is a great example of houses whose interior-exterior interface is clearly defined.  Only a few decades later, the continuity of interior and exterior spaces exercised in Usonian houses and all their ranch bastardizations made these small masonry houses seem more akin to their medieval ancestors.  These are like little castles, staunchly defended, with even that occasional turret thrown in for good measure.

Boulder’s Historic Districts – 16th Street

Tucked against the north side of Baseline along 16th Street is a tiny historic district often overlooked.  Comprised of only 5 properties, it consists of a group of small masonry cottages surrounded by dense trees.

For the most part the houses are made of fairly traditional red brick masonry.  A few also have rustic, red clay tile roofs which, along with the brick, lend an overall dense and solid expression, strongly rooting the houses to their sites.   Like all the north-south streets in this area, the predominant slope makes the houses on the west side of the street sit up from the street.  As in the University Place district (to be profiled in a future post), a variety of terraced gardens and retaining walls resolve this grade difference between the sidewalk and house.  This slope also means that the small profile of the houses on the east side of the street contrast with the 2- or 1 1/2 story exposed at the eastern alley side.

As a whole, the little  district is a great laboratory of masonry techniques from the 1920’s.  Although in general most of the masonry is typical stretcher bond, there are some smaller examples of Flemish and English bonds.  And, in one house, a brickwork combined with stone that defies any category or style that I know of:

This is not some mason gone mad, but rather part of that strange, Romantic neo-medieval aesthetic movement of the 19th century championed by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.  (Morris is credited with founding the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, later to become the UK’s National Trust, an early forerunner of all historic preservation societies and efforts.)

I am not sure if these are actual clinker bricks, kiln rejects because of odd shapes or twists, but the coursing, or lack of, is certainly part of that tradition of using clinker bricks in often strange and fanciful patterns.  This randomness takes a lot of skill and time of a mason, increasingly rare around Colorado where laying brick is priced on a bricks/hour basis.

The 16th Street district is maybe a bit small to be rightly called a “district”, but as a collection of well-made, strongly interior and distinct houses, it is a great example of houses whose interior-exterior interface is clearly defined.  Only a few decades later, the continuity of interior and exterior spaces exercised in Usonian houses and all their ranch bastardizations made these small masonry houses seem more akin to their medieval ancestors.  These are like little castles, staunchly defended, with even that occasional turret thrown in for good measure.

Colorado vernacular – stone

Much of Colorado’s early settlement was by Easterners eager for the riches of silver and gold.  The layers of sandstone and granite that had to be excavated and removed were impediments first and building materials second.  Maybe as the first miners realized that sitting through another Rocky Mountain winter in a leaky, fire-prone log cabin was upon them, the stone was stacked and masonry, Colorado-style, was invented.

Most of these early masonry buildings have only the brute material in common with traditional Western masonry techniques and forms practiced in the late 19th century.  These early Colorado miner buildings were dry-stacked, often without mortar at all, and utilized heavy timber for the spanning lintels over doors and windows.

What is most striking is the random collection of stone used to make walls.  The stones themselves were not selected or trimmed for stacking in neat, or even stable, rows or courses.  Rather the walls are rubble-style, combining large pieces placed upon each other and smaller stones inserted to fill gaps.

Later buildings incorporate cut stone or brick lintels, sills and details.  And even later, the massive stones are cut to consistently orthagonal forms allowing for long horizontal bedding planes and consistent coursing.

These early stone buildings are not so much a vernacular that relates to a formal stylistic set of conventions, but rather simple, utilitarian buildings made of local materials.  The forms of the buildings vary widely from tiny miners huts to larger storage sheds and more later to finely crafted houses and commercial buildings.  The rough stone, not self-consciously “rusticated”, but used forthrightly and simply, marks these stone buildings and indicates a desire for a more permanent use of the land, a recognition of occupation, stable and permanent.

Chapel on the Rock, St. Malo

If you have driven along the Peak to Peak Highway to Estes Park, Colorado, you have certainly seen the dramatic Chapel of St. Malo, located below the towering peak of Mount Meeker.

“Upon this rock I shall build my Church” (Matt 16:18)

Monsignor Joseph Bosetti, after seeing a meteor fall in the area and searching for its remnants, was inspired by this beautiful, rugged site to pray for the funds to build a church.  Twenty years of prayers later, the chapel was constructed with local stone from a design by architect Jacques Benedict.  Benedict was a Beaux Arts-educated Denver architect with a long list of very accomplished buildings, many of Denver’s very best, including the Phipps Mansion in Denver, mentioned here in a post last week (  ).  By all accounts Benedict was a difficult, eccentric architect, but also responsible for helping to raise money for many of the public buildings he worked on.

Unusual for Benedict, the building is a kind of mash-up of northern European medieval architecture and Romanesque details.  Typically preferring Italian Renaissance models, Benedict let the rugged, rocky site dictate both the material and the design of the building.  Maybe the then remote site evoked notions of Cistercian abbeys rather than the lighter, more delicate Greek and Roman revivals.  Or just possibly, the cost and availability of producing dressed stone at this austere, wind-blown site limited Benedict to create a building of mass and weight, not so much springing up from the rocks as melding with them.

The church and associated buildings are now run as a Catholic retreat and conference center.  Dedicated to the honor of St. Catherine of Siena, the chapel is now a protected Boulder County landmark.

Saint Malo, the Catholic saint, was one of the evangelical saints credited for bringing the Orkney Islands and northern Scotland into Christendom around 550 A.D.  (I don’t know if there are any specific connections of this site with the city of Saint Malo in Brittany, France, except maybe as the ancestral home of the grantees of the land, Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Malo.  Saint Malo, the city, is a medieval walled city on an island at the mouth of the Rance River in the English Channel.)

For more information, (including much of the history listed here), see www.saintmalo.org

brick, sustainability, and the places I've lived

Below is a series of photos of some of the places I have lived.  (Thanks to Google streetview for most of these).  Not everyplace is there – a house in Louisville when we first moved there, an apartment in Venice, a couple of places in Lexington, Kentucky – are missing.

A question came up regarding masonry houses and the West.  Most everything built here in Colorado for single-family residential work is wood frame construction with wood siding, even though the environment out here is not kind to wood (too much high-altitude sun and snow).  I was wondering how common that was in other places and decided to take an albeit bias survey of a least the places I have lived.

Of the 20 places shown here, there are a couple of brick suburban houses in Louisville, KY; a brick dorm and some brick apartments in Lexington, KY; a couple of brick townhouses in Boston and a couple of brick houses in New Haven; some brick apartments and a converted storefront in Chicago.  The lower images are from Colorado:  a small frame house in Boulder, a log cabin in the mountains above Boulder, a wood-framed townhouse and then a partial brick suburban house in Boulder.

Maybe because I was obviously drawn to apartments in old, brick houses as a young adult, they’re heavily represented.  But overall, I think my experience is probably not that different from many others, moving from suburbs to cities and back to suburbs again.  It may be a regional expression or possibly a recognition of the age of building stock, but the paucity of masonry in the West is striking.  The number of older, quality buildings in Colorado is pretty thin, but this may not be the region as much as the relative youth of most of the buildings here.  I’m afraid in an society with increasing demands to make short-term capital, the idea of creating a building to last generations has simply died away.  Even the older, brick suburban houses that I grew up in Louisville have a solidity and permanence that a wood-frame and sided house can not invoke.  So I think looking at these images, it is not the region nor the suburban/urban/rural nature of the structure, but rather its date of construction that has most influenced the use of materials.  Hopefully with a  renewed interest in the environment, we can recognize that the most sustainable building is one that lasts the longest.