Proportion Adds Value to Property in Boston

by David Clayton on May 28, 2010

We can make a Beacon Hill anywhere This past weekend I drove down to Boston from southern New Hampshire to meet a friend who was visiting for the weekend.  As we walked around town we wandered into the Beacon Hill area. This is the old heart of the town and full of elegant 18th-century terraced homes. They are built in a variation of the style that in England we would call Georgian. I’m not sure what it is called here, perhaps ‘colonial’ style? These are right at the top end of the price range for property in Boston.

Why are they so sought after? Well location will have a lot to do with it certainly. You would probably pay a fortune for the ugliest shoebox here if it could take a bed. But I would say also that their beauty is a big factor too. Beauty adds value because it stimulates greater demand and pushes the price tag up. And why are they beautiuful? Two hundred years of New England weather softening the edges on the red-brick or cobblestone forms probably adds something. But it is more than this. The main reason, I suggest, is their harmonious proportions.

What struck me about these houses is how simple and reproducible their design is. They have a simple symmetrical arrangement of windows, one above the other, and a pointy roof.  There is some decorative work around the doors and the windows, but it could never be called flamboyant. If I knew about building materials then I reckon I could design one myself. Yet despite their simplicity they look good and it is as a result of the traditional proportionality.

Given this simplicity and the value that beauty adds to buildings, I am surprised that it hasn’t occurred to more developers and architects to study traditional proportion and use it, if only for economic reasons.

Look at the photos in this article. Notice how in every case the window size varies, storey to storey, so that the first is to the second as the second is the third and so on. When this rhythmical progression corresponds to the traditional pattern then the result is elegance. Sometimes the order changed around slightly so that it is not always the largest at the bottom. The dimensions of the first and second might be changed so the biggest storey is always the main living area. These architects didn’t play tricks – they put things where you expected them to be, so that the outward signs give an indication of the internal purpose. Similarly, the main door is always more prominent than the servants’ entrance. (You can’t count on this now. I was at an art gallery recently, which was a modern building made completely of reflective glass and the doorway was indistinguishable from any other panel. There was no indication through the external design where the door was. In fact it was placed offset to one side in a counter-intuitive position, presumably deliberately. I had to wait until I saw someone coming out before I knew where I could get in!)

Coming back to Beacon Hill, I am convinced that these houses  looked just about as good the day they were built and if anyone chose to conform to these basic patterns today, then it would look good and sell at a high price. This has to be the simplest way for an architect to add greatest value for minimal investment of time and money. There is no need for pastiche – we are not bound slavishly to follow the decorative style of the period in every way, but provided the principles are adhered to, then here is way for modern architect to stand out from the crowd. The mathematics is relatively simple (I have presented it all in an article about proportionality, here).

So come on architects and town developers. Here’s your chance to make a killing. So let’s see a new Beacon Hill in the US! (I am available to consult on the project, by the way, at a very reasonable hourly rate!)

Incidentally, the Prince of Wales built an experimental new town on the outskirts of Dorchester in England that conformed to traditional proportions, called Poundbury (right, click to enlarge). The experience there was that although they were slightly more expensive to build, their beauty made demand so high that their price on the open market made the modest extra investment more than worthwhile. You can see more of Poundbury here.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Matthew James Collins May 29, 2010 at 5:03 am

You have touched upon an interesting subject. Your average person has more contact with architecture than with any of the other arts. It can be justifiably considered the ‘Mother of all arts.’ All the other arts are usually experienced in the context of a built environment. One usually doesn’t hang a painting on a tree. However, architecture is by far the least understood of all the arts.

Proportion is essential to art. My father, an architect, refers to great buildings as ‘frozen music.’ However, one can not underestimate the pressure of the practical and economic requirements on works of architecture, especially in the venacular. A building is a fantastically complex equation. It involves factors such as structural properties of materials(technology), labor costs, sociological requirements, and lots of money. Very often the ascending proportion that one sees in pre-elevator buildings is economic. The more stairs that you had to climb, the less rent you were required to pay. Or as you mentioned, there where areas dedicated to servants. Does that change the inherent beauty of that particular proportional progression? Absolutely not.

Another misconception of architecture is the emphasis on facade. That is unfortunately a result of badly taught art history. Great architecture is a masterly articulation of space. It’s sculptural quality comes next. The icing on the cake is decorative elements that complete the structure. The Pantheon is memorable because of its spacial arrangement. Brunelleschi’s church of Santo Spirito is the same as is the work of Palladio.

Unfortunately, the pattern books that left Italy were incapable of transporting the concepts of space.

It would be great to hear you explore more the world of architecture as it is so important to our work as artists.

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DAVID CLAYTON June 1, 2010 at 9:51 am

As usual Matt, love what you have to say. I have an article about your blog written and will post it in the next few days, so don’t worry. I try to rotate the subjects a bit. I will let you know. Thanks for your continued interest. David

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Michelle May 29, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Hi David, driving to Rhode Island beaches and finally able to read through the last ten posts or so…bravo, David, inspiring thoughts!

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