Jim Muir is the chief building official in Clark County, Washington (which stretches from the Oregon Border - and the county seat in Vancouver - up along the western border of Washington north of Amboy, Yacolt and Chelatchie Prairie). Obviously, issues of permitting and compliance with local ordinance take up a lot of his time. But Clark County, like some other enlightened municipalities around the country, is especially sensitive to preserving the aesthetic character of its neighborhoods - both new and historical. Thus, Mr. Muir wrote the following article for The Columbian, Vancouver's newspaper, and was very happy to share it with us. I hope you find it as useful and interesting as I did:
“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”
— Architect Eliel Saarinen
It is very easy to watch a community develop with no noticeable connection to its surroundings or history. Many of us yearn for a greater sense of place in modern life, but we often do not take the time to truly consider contributing to that cause. One way to create a greater sense of place is to consider “fit” in the remodeling, design, and furnishing of your own home. You can influence visitors, neighborhoods, and, ultimately, the community.
The architect Frank Lloyd Wright said it this way: “True ornament is not a matter of prettifying externals. It is organic with the structure, it adorns whether a person, a building, or a park.”
Wright also preached about the beauty of native materials and insisted that buildings grow naturally from their surroundings. “Whether people are fully conscious or not, they actually derive countenance and sustenance from the ‘atmosphere’ of things they live in or with,” he said. “They are rooted in them just as a plant is in the soil in which it is planted.”
We thrive in the uniqueness of our locale.
There are building techniques and materials that reflect the environmental conditions and history of the Northwest. Your home may have cedar siding and cedar fences designed to resist the wet weather, but those materials blend (are organic) to the surroundings as well.
The Academy building in Vancouver was built with bricks from the locally famous brickyards of Lowell Hidden. Local parks often feature Basalt stones from nearby quarries. Fir floors and Hidden bricks were used in many local homes, and some have plaster walls made with the hair of horses and other animals dating back to Clark County’s rich agricultural heritage. The La Center library is housed in an old hospital building, which was strengthened to support the weight of the books by huge beams made from fir trees felled on site.
Interior design can also include elements of regional significance. Distinctive designs of the Northwest Native Americans can be found in fabrics, carvings, and paintings. The Pendleton Woolen Mills produces many items incorporating these themes. Art that captures the Northwest spirit is used widely by local and regional artists.
Vintage houses are a reflection of varied influences
Trends in fashion, industry, and politics become embodied in our homes. Many of Clark County’s vintage homes reflect elements of the Craftsman style of architecture that puts an emphasis on personal craftsmanship and natural, local materials. The Craftsman movement was a reaction to the industrialism and mass production of many Victorian styles with their abundant use of mass-produced ornamentation.
Vancouver has a few houses built in the Second Empire Style such as the Charles Brown House at 400 W 11th Street and a couple along Officers Row. In 1851, French Emperor Charles Louis Napoleon and his wife, Eugenie, had a sense of flair that spread through Europe and, later, the world. The flair of this Second Empire French style thus reached houses built in Clark County.
It is important to recognize the original design integrity of your house when undertaking any rehabilitation. Modern appliances, a safe electrical system, and other fire and life safety elements are necessary. However, there are architectural elements of a house that, when altered without due consideration, may compromise the home’s style.
Wright declared. “Consistency from first to last, will give you the result you seek and consistency alone.” Wright was, however, a proponent of newness and use of technology and felt that by itself, consistency would kill creativity.
The responsibility then appears to be to understand what you have and creatively incorporate change to maintain a proper fit and feel. A lesson would be the ill-conceived installation of wall-to-wall shag carpeting over beautiful hardwood floors in the 1970s. This goes back to the advice by Saarinen that each part of our community, including our homes, should be considered in the proper context.