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The Story of Two Houses

Together, a fictional structure from a 19th-century novelette and the author’s real residence tell the intertwined tale of architecture and engineering.

Henry Petroski

A House with Character

The liberty taken by Bucknall in subtitling Viollet-le-Duc’s work a novelette, which is sometimes defined as “a short novel, typically one that is light and romantic or sentimental in character,” was justified because this accurately describes the structure of the book. How to Build a House, in the course of a petit roman of barely 250 pages, tells how one house was designed and built in the early 1870s in France. The house may be considered the main character. The human protagonist is a 16-year-old student named Paul de Gandelau, who is spending a vacation from the lyceum at his father’s château in the central part of the country. Paul’s sister Marie has recently married, and she and her husband are traveling through Switzerland on their way to Italy and then Constantinople.

When the family de Gandelau learns that Marie will be gone for at least the coming year, her father resurrects an old idea: to build a house for his daughter on land that was part of her dowry. Soon Paul latches onto the idea and proposes to design and build the house in Marie’s absence. But where to begin? Paul has no training or experience in architecture or construction, although he does have an older cousin, Eugène, who is a professional architect and whom Paul hopes will help him through the process. There remains a key question: What kind of house would please Marie? After consulting with his father, Paul sends a telegram to his sister announcing his intention and asking her to “Send programme,” the architectural term for a client’s requirements, which Marie includes in a return telegram:


From such a sketchy description, an architect must define and subdivide the interior space for and compose the external appearance of a structure, whether it be a country house, townhouse, or urban skyscraper. Though young Paul has no training in either engineering or architecture, he uses his architect cousin’s drawing instruments to develop a floor plan incorporating his sister’s wishes as best he can. After a day’s work, Paul shows the sketches to his father, who does not feel competent to judge them. He suggests that they be shown to Eugène.

Eugène gently points out the shortcomings of Paul’s plans. Among these were that a visitor to the house on paper would have to go through the dining room to reach the drawing room, and that the kitchen opened onto the billiards room. Eugène agrees to work with Paul to come up with a more acceptable arrangement of rooms and also design a façade that had the windows that Paul’s lacked. After understanding where the house is to be built, Eugène explains how it should be situated to protect it from unfavorable winds while at the same time giving its future occupants the most pleasing views of the countryside. He asks how much Paul’s father wishes to spend on the house, which helps define its scale. The architect explains how the size, shape, and arrangement of rooms should be determined. Once an agreement is reached regarding the ground floor layout, they tackle the upper floors. Eugène explains to Paul what should have been obvious, namely, that the walls dividing the rooms of the lower floor have to support the walls of the upper and so largely predetermine the arrangement of its bed, dressing, and other rooms.

The reader is a silent witness to all this and thereby benefits from the wisdom and experience of Eugène, who surely speaks with the authority of a mature Viollet-le-Duc. Rather than stressing the aesthetic principles that a Beaux-Arts architect would have been steeped in, Eugène emphasizes practical matters of building. He points out, for example, that arched windows present difficulties when being fitted with casements, shutters, and the like; that the tops of chimneys should be above a house’s roof line; that a roof inclined at 60 degrees is optimum for holding slates and shedding snow.

In the meantime, the Franco- Prussian War has broken out, and rather than return to school, Paul, who is too young to go to war, agrees to stay with his family while working on plans and overseeing construction. He is not yet qualified to do so, of course, but Eugène agrees to give him instruction and education while they await Marie’s response to the tentative plan that had been sent to her. When that approval eventually comes, the construction is placed under the management of Master Branchu, who worked at odd jobs for Monsieur de Gandelau. This decision confuses Paul, for Branchu can barely write or do arithmetic. Eugène explains that Branchu, who was the son of a mason, has had plenty of opportunity to observe the trade and has worked his way up from being a hod carrier to becoming a good country mason. To prepare Paul for giving an order to an experienced worker such as Branchu, Eugène expresses as a general rule that before he does he “should have thought seven times of the objections to which it is liable,” lest a single word from the worker demonstrate how thoughtless the order was.

While awaiting word from Marie, Paul is also given further instruction in practical architecture. Eugène emphasizes that an architect should be somewhat of a geologist, knowing the nature of soils and rocks, not only to determine where a house should be located but also how to reuse what is dug out for a basement in constructing a foundation. Seldom could enough stone be obtained from a building site alone, so Eugène stresses to Paul that an architect should visit quarries and see the beds of stone in place and know by looking and feeling whether they would yield good or poor stone. An architect also has to know the nature of the timber that would span between stone walls and support upper floors. Covering timbers with stucco to make a ceiling is discouraged because it traps moisture, which promotes rot. There are ways to make a ceiling with exposed timbers attractive, according to Eugène, and the good architect thinks about a building’s integrity as well as its aesthetics.

As soon as Marie’s letter of approval arrives, construction begins. First a grid of cords is stretched between stakes to define the geometry for the excavation. Master Branchu sets rocks aside for use in the foundation walls and arches that will span over the basement space. Paul serves as “clerk of the works,” as the British call the person responsible for ensuring that work on the construction site faithfully follows the architectural and structural design and uses materials of appropriate quality. Paul reports back to Eugène whenever anything proves vexing. In the meantime, Eugène feels that he has to join the French war effort. This means that Paul cannot have his architectural mentor in residence. To continue his education in Eugène’s absence, Paul is told to translate Vitruvius and report on his progress regularly to his father.

After Eugène returns from war, the house is completed to the great satisfaction of Paul, his father, and Eugène. Madame de Gandelau is less enthusiastic, because she does not look forward to her daughter moving out of the house of her childhood. But when Marie returns from Constantinople, she falls in love with the house that her brother, father, and cousin have provided for her. Even Madame de Gandelau comes around at the housewarming to make for a happy ending indeed.

Throughout the book, there are digressive chapters that allow Paul to reflect on aesthetics, ethics, education, and the nature of architecture itself, including the difference between it and engineering. In one of these digressions, Eugène explains that “the faculties of the mind, reasoning, accuracy, the exact appreciation of the materials at our disposal, and their proper use, are manifested as well in the construction of the simplest habitation as in the erection of the most magnificent architectural monument.”

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