Sometimes when we spend a lot of time in a place we start to become numb to the unique features that make that place special. When people visit us in Charleston, I am reminded of this phenomenon.
Recently I gave a tour of Charleston to the Nova Scotia architect Brian MacKay-Lyons. Brian had never been to Charleston before so I had the pleasure of seeing our town through the fresh eyes of a tourist.
Right before we started the tour Brian said, "I am interested in fabric and want to see the fabric of Charleston."
For the non-architects, fabric is a term that we use to describe the architecture of the city that makes up 90% of the buildings. Imagine that you take out all of the special buildings like churches, courthouses, theaters, schools etc. The buildings that you are left with are the fabric.
The fabric is what really defines a city.
This was also another way for Brian to say "don't take me to see the normal touristy crap."
And that was good, because I wasn't going to take him there anyway.
Our tour was on foot and took place on the Southern portion of the peninsula between Queen Street and The Battery. We basically meandered through residential streets for about 3 hours.
We probably could have covered much more ground if it weren't for one thing:
Brian was completely enamored with the Charleston Single House.
Seriously! He loved it. He stopped to photograph just about each one we saw. Which is a sh*t ton of photographs and stopping.
It wasn't the individual instances of single houses that Brian appreciated as much as it was the use of the single house for generating fabric. He kept saying things like:
This is great.
Wow...look at this one.
And another one!
Why don't we built cities like this anymore?
I would say, "now we are going to head down this street." And Brian would say, "but wait, there are more down this other street." At first I just thought that his infatuation was funny because single houses are everywhere......in Charleston.
But after 3 hours of this and listening to Brian educate me on these simple houses it made me realize: he was right.
The single house is great. I have always had an appreciation of the single house, but Brian's visit was an affirmation of just how great the single house is.
Here are 5 things we discussed during our short walk.
5 Lessons of the Charleston Single House
1. Sustainable before it was cool.
Remember the quote above about the vernacular being what you did when you couldn't afford to get it wrong. Before sustainability and green architecture were buzz words, people were building green out of necessity.
The typical Charleston Single is one room wide. This is ideal for light and air. The side porch or 'Piazza' is on the southern or western side which provides shade from the harsh southern sun.
2. Great Proportions
Just like people, tall and skinny is an admirable trait in buildings. The single house presents its skinny side to the street creating a vertically proportioned street facade. The windows follow suit with tall and skinny proportions with an appropriate human scale. The result is a very attractive proportion.
Like a fish!....Wait...not that kind of scaleable.
The single house can be found in a variety of scales ranging from 2 stories up to the 4 stories although 4 is extremely rare.
2 Story 2 1/2 Story
3 Story 3 1/2 Story
4 Story 4 1/2 Story
Similar to the variety of scales, there is also:
Variety of Materials.
Variety of Styles.
The Single is also used on the commercial streets where it is squeezed together. The piazza sometimes becomes the entrance to an upstairs apartment or it becomes a skinny store.
5. Density = Community
By orienting the skinny side to the street, the single house allows for a greater density than your typical detached house. There is also a greater sense of community created by this rhythm.
The single house is the dominating feature of Charleston's Urban Fabric. The skinny form of the house is an ideal sustainable feature, and also yields an attractive proportion. There is a great bit of variety within this model and all of these features work together to create a strong sense of community.
I have been thinking about writing a blog about the single house since I started Buildings Are Cool. But it wasn't until that walk with Brian that I realized how great of an architectural lesson this little house is.
When people say things like "we don't build them like we use to." They are generally talking about the craft and longevity that is missing in modern construction. My little analysis suggests that the single house is not defined by its construction craft, but instead by basic design fundamentals that make it a superior model.
I will end this post with 2 questions: