architects' small house service bureau

“Employ an Architect” and other Advice from 1920’s Era Architects’ Small House Service Bureau


A century ago, America had an era of epic growth in single family home ownership.  Around the time that Chicago was switching from neighborhoods of Greystone two-flats to developing the Bungalow belt, a small group of Minnesota architects banded together to promote good design – and the hiring of architects – for a better American housing stock.  

The Architects’ Small House Service Bureau never missed an opportunity to point out the value of design in saving money and preventing the headaches of the building process.  It would be hard to beat them for relentless design boosterism.

Their key talking point was always ‘Why You Need An Architect.’

Best advice of the Architects’ Small House Service Bureau

Take a minute to flip through this delightful document available though a pattern book entitled 100 Bungalows, featuring floor plans and sketches plus a wealth of common sense advise.  If you don’t have time, here are a few cherry-picked highlights from the home building manual.

  • “What we wish to stress is that the architect is the man to rely on for revisions in the drawings, just as he is relied on for the original drawings, the general construction, and all the other details that make a house beautiful and give it distinction.  Ask your architect.  He knows (59).”
  • Referencing Vitruvius; “Architecture is putting into building certain qualities – namely, logic strength and beauty. […] These three combined make good architecture.  Without any one of these a house is a mere building.  It is not architecture (11).” 
  • There are two ways to build a bungalow that is different.  One of these is to “jazz it up” – to build it full of trick balconies, overhanging cornices and arches.  The other way is to put some architecture into it.  The little house here is different because it has architecture (61).
  • At the end of a cautionary tale of bad construction entitled “The House that Rested on a Shingle” the author gives this delightfully sanctimonious homily: “The owner had good drawings.  He had a good set of specifications, but he did not have a good contractor.  He entrusted his home building to a man known to him only by hearsay, and because he put in a low bid.  There are plenty of good contractors.  Why take a chance? (29)” 

From the Q and A section at the back:

  • Q: “What is the best kind of plan for a foundation already set 38 x 26?  Where can I get it?”  A: “You have the cart before the horse, as you probably already know.  The foundation is supposed to fit the house, not the reverse.  Employ an architect.  He may be able to work out a plan since the dimensions you’ve for your foundation are not unusual.  Do no more work on the walls until the plans are finished (64).”

Per the Minnesota Historical Society page on the group, member enthusiasm for the Architects’ Small House Service Bureau faded, and in 1934 the AIA “withdrew its endorsement” perhaps feeling that the ASHSB handed out too many free floor plans.  It was eventually disbanded in the early 40’s, but its written legacy remains.

While their tone is a touch officious, we couldn’t agree more with their opinions on the benefits of design (and employing design) to ensure a good result in construction.  And we really can’t get enough of their sage advice.  In closing, “Here is a way for you to keep costs down.  But in order to do so you must be entirely familiar with the plans.  Read them.  Mark them.  Be sure you understand them from first to last (55).”