Learning From Louis Henry Gibson, Architect

Architect Octavian Ungureanu / Architect’s Blog / Learning From Louis Henry Gibson, Architect

First I found by accident the ”Convenient Houses: With Fifty Plans for the Housekeeper” by Louis Henry Gibson, Architect – 1889. Then I searched for more! He also wrote ”Beautiful Houses: a study in house-building” in 1895.

Gibson starts his text with a pledge for the convenient house, a house that is the best fit for housekeeping with all the modern facilities. He stressed the importance of saving labor and time in housekeeping.

I was reading the book, talking with the author: ”Say it! It should be a functional plan!”.

More than 125 years ago, architects were also concerned about the functionality of a house. They did not use the word, but they were preparing the ground for it.

Maybe it is obsolete to read about the importance of running water in the house. But arguing for it, the author tells us the history of American houses.

Louis Henry Gibson Architect

The Prairie House

The American pioneers used to build simple, one or two rooms houses. They had a fireplace that helped the housekeeper cook and boil water. The room was a kitchen, dining, living room, bedroom, and bathroom at the same time. The houses also had a water barrel near the entrance.

It was easy for the housekeeper1 to bring in water and also to dispose of the bathwater in front of the house. It was convenient. Everything was within the reach of a hand. Nobody had to worry about housekeeping.

The end of the eighteen century was a changing time. The people’s lives became better and better and a prosperous economy2. The houses became bigger: more bedrooms, reception rooms, parlors, dining rooms, sitting rooms, kitchens, and so on. He tells the readers that treating such a house with the ease they might have been used with the former simple house was a terrible mistake.

Indeed, it is natural for everybody to think about the bigger house as larger than the small one. What is the difference? You just add more rooms.

Well, a more sophisticated lifestyle with a more sophisticated house represents also a functional challenge. A bigger house triggers more housekeeping: more cleaning, more dusting, more of everything. You cannot afford to get water from a barrel. You can not easily empty the bath tube from the second story.

Functionalism, premiered by the Convenient Houses of Louis Henry Gibson, Architect

The author had an important experience. He once designed a mill. A mill is supposed to be designed starting from the workflow: The worker should save time walking around to work more, to be more productive. The prime materials should be moved less. It is a short lesson on work productivity and the importance of design for industrial productivity.

Louis Henry Gibson, an Architect, was not only one of the first architects (as long as I know about) to sense the importance of functional space. He was also brilliant enough to say it to his clients!

The author writes about everything: the importance of a functional approach to the building plans, the lifestyle impact on the house, and also about the impact of the house on the owner’s family.

He talks about costs, building quality, and the importance of good design. He also stressed the design’s impact on energy efficiency. A better house could have significantly low coal consumption.

Gibson even has a small chapter about developers. He advises not only about construction costs but also about property value, rent values, and property devaluation.

I also especially enjoyed a few pages about social housing. He describes the success of Glasgow municipality in developing tenants’ buildings with one, two, and three rooms near the former Salt Market.

In the second book, he focused on aesthetics. One could see it as a style-oriented discourse as the end of the 19th Century was about. But it is not just that. It is a manifesto for the rational use of decoration.

He writes that no ugly house was built because of the lack of money but as a misuse of the money. His book is not focused on decoration but on the importance of design.

Louis Henry Gibson addressed a special audience: his future clients, and other architects’ future clients. He educated and impacted the market telling people what they should think about while considering building a new house.

The Architect and the Housekeeper
The introduction of the first chapter

The Informed Client

Louis Henry Gibson, the Architect, sensed that an informed client is a better client.

At some point, he observed that entering the architecture studio, neither the architect nor the client know how the future house will be.

For this amazing practitioner, architecture is not like a painting that an artist is selling to an educated client. The architecture is the result of the architect’s skills serving the client’s best interest. The architecture is also the client delegating the design to the specialist.

Most of the contemporary architecture literature is focusing on promoting iconic design. If we are talking about client education, it is also focusing on promoting artsy design. The purpose seems to create the Ideal Client who will blindly trust the Creator, the Architect.

More than a century ago, a little-known architect, Louis Henry Gibson, wrote for future clients, helping them to understand what they should ask for when dealing with the architect:

– convenient house, as in a functional house

– up-to-date house (running water, bathrooms, WC, etc)

– beautiful houses – as in conscientious aesthetics

– cost control construction3

Everything the author says is mostly common sense. It is not common sense only for the architect, it is also for the client. But many times, common sense is hiding from our sight. Reading all this in a captivating style will help everybody to realize that they already thought that way, they were just not aware of it.

The books gave Gibson a tool for understanding the client. After reading the book, the client consents with the common sense of evidence. The client accepts that the house should be convenient, beautiful, cost-controlled, energy-efficient, and adapted to his family’s needs.

A late 19th-century and early 20th-century client of an architect must have been overwhelmed by the two books. He would think everything was common sense and would decide this would be the way he should approach his project.

There is no subject the client should also know about, no secret anymore. On the other hand, this is not a do-it-yourself book. The reader will need an architect after that.

More important, the reader will be aware of the importance of the architect and his services and will be open-minded to the valuable architect’s services.

Our Lesson from the „Convenient..” and ”Beautiful..”

Nobody wants a clumsy, ugly, and expensive house!

The architects and the clients just don’t always find the common ground to agree on how the house should be functional, beautiful, and inexpensive. Not stating their common goals from the beginning, they have a very narrow way ahead if any. In another way, tensions, and frustrations will occur and they will distort the project from the inner core. The public has almost no clue of the architect’s importance and the value that architectural services will add to his project. 125 years later, this is sadly true.

We, the contemporary architects pay almost no effort to show our future clients how our services are valuable to them, We focused on design, design theory, and so on.

We are sending the wrong message! We are trying to shape an Ideal Client of the Creator Architect.

Our goal should be to tell clients about the challenges their projects will have. We should advise them on how to avoid them and tell them how good design will overcome the challenges. We should provide practical insights into the risks they have, on the value they could lose.

I must confess that my admiration for Gibson’s books is related to my practice. I also write articles for my clients saying the same thing as he did. I also get informed, better, and better clients. They trust me and they agree with common sense valuable information I provide for them.

I tell them how to find the construction land, how they should evaluate the urban code impact of the land, about the functional layouts, the care for design, the cost control, the building permit process4, the energy efficiency, and so on.

I always wondered what would I do if we wouldn’t live in the Internet era. I wondered how I was able to reach them. I never thought about writing a book. What an idea!

But we live in the Internet Era. We are lucky on first hand to be able to see the work of virtually any architect in the world. Our architecture, our style, and our ideas tend to get into a big collective that allows both good and bad examples to be known. We benefit from the creativity of our colleagues worldwide.

We also have both a collective and an individual voice in the global village. Together, even if we want or not, we tell all others what we think, and how we value our clients, the architecture, and ourselves. We do this even when we are not trying to do this. We send messages even if we are or are not aware we do that.

I think the lesson is that we should be aware of our message. I think we should distill our message, carefully pick what is valuable for our clients and tell them again and again and again. We should make our clients our dialogue partners. We should offer good advice after good advice and let them enter our studios agreeing on the common ground and with an open mind.

”Convenient Houses : With Fifty Plans for the Housekeeper” by Louis Henry Gibson, Architect – 1889.
A rare edition of the ”Convenient Houses: With Fifty Plans for the Housekeeper” by Louis Henry Gibson, Architect – 1889.

About Louis Henry Gibson, Architect

As hard as I tried, there is only little information about him. He was born in Aurora, Indiana, and lived and worked in Indianapolis. There is a record only of his birth year, 1854. He was married in 1879 to Emily S. Gilbert3  and worked in Edwin May’s studio. I was not able to find a picture of him or his work.

1 It is a 125 years old book. The Housekeeper was the housewife and she might have servants. For us, it might look sexist. But if one would consider age, it is progressive. Gibson, as an architect, was concerned about making the housewife’s life easier.

2 In” Beautiful Houses”, Louis H. Gibson tells us how one could build a better house for 3500 $ than one or two decades ago because industrialization provided better building materials. He was talking about the middle-class house. Not too far away, we can learn that a carpenter’s salary was about 2.50 dollars a day. This had to be a good earning, a carpenter could afford to save enough to build for himself a middle-class house saving about ten years.

3 Gibson says a client should not expect any extra costs than the estimations that the architect is making, except he is changing his mind and is going to modify the design during the works, this way adding more building materials and labor.

4 In Romania, the building permit is a little bit complicated.

5 Info from Prabook