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A Historical Designer Talks About His Connection to Winterthur

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PHOTOGRAPHY PROVIDED BY BRENT HULL

 

Brent Hull, owner and president of Hull Historical and a builder/contractor in Fort Worth, Texas, is an award-winning designer and authority on historic design, moldings and millwork. Since 2007, his company has been the exclusive licensee for making custom, handcrafted reproductions of millwork found in Winterthur Museum’s period rooms. Hull, a former boarding school teacher and coach, graduated from the historic carpentry program at Boston’s North Bennett Street School, where he learned traditional building with hand tools. His third book, “Building a Timeless House in an Instant Age,” was recently released.

DT: How did you become a Winterthur licensee?

BH: We were approached by Winterthur, and through a lot of research and study about what they have there, we became a licensee. There is an amazing cross-section of designs, from very high-style Philadelphia things to very rural New England taverns. The book, Traditional American Rooms (a 2009 Winterthur Style Sourcebook by Hull), was a study of about 35 rooms, their proportions and scale and how [the elements of] those rooms work. I’m not sure there’s a better place in America—the world, really—for finding the incredible variety and collection of material. Studying at Winterthur was one of the things that made me more interested in classical design.

DT: What inspired your latest book, Building a Timeless House in an Instant Age?

BH: Building, restoring barns, constructing sash windows, doing all those things with hand tools, I became aware of the contrast between the lessons I was learning and what I was seeing about how [modern] houses were being built. Over the past 20 years, as I’ve learned more about classical design, production building, architecture and how houses are put together today, it became obvious we’ve lost the art of building. [The book] is an educational starting point for how not to build a McMansion. That should have been its subtitle.

DT: What is a timeless house?

BH: It doesn’t follow fads and fashion. It should last for a long time and communicate your values. What do our buildings say about us? That it’s more important to have an impressive front … a big show from the street, cheap products on the back; that we care more about what we show our neighbors and not what we can really afford. That’s a characteristic of American society today, that we’re in debt and kind of overrun with things. Houses today are not designed; they’re assembled. A timeless house is well thought through, well designed, well crafted and will last generations.

DT: Doesn’t that cost more?

BH: If builders used classical proportions in design, if they built around a design scheme that we built with 100 years ago, they could build houses cheaper. There’s a misconception that we have to use the cheapest products in order to build a cheap house. Instead, we have to design good things, and they will cost less.

DT: Can you give an example of that?

BH: Here’s where craft and design have been lost, and we forget how things are supposed to be made: The building industry is falling all over itself trying to solve the problem of rotting wood. They have come up with plastic wood, concrete wood—all these products meant to mimic wood—whereas, if we just trained our craftsmen to pitch a window sill so that water fell away from the house—that is, if we designed it functionally—it would last longer, and we wouldn’t be killing ourselves to come up with fake materials that are three or four times the price of wood and not good for our environment.

DT: How can a prospective buyer find a timeless house?

BH: A majority of the houses built today are driven by and/or influenced by production building. In the book, I go back to the start of production building, post-World War II, 1950, when William Levitt started building houses cheap and fast. Levitt wasn’t necessarily a problem, but what he started—where everything was driven by how cheap and fast it could be built—started bad habits. So, a mansion today is nothing more than a production house with more stuff, more square footage, the most amount of house for the least amount of money. When people look for a well-designed, well-built house, they’ll go to an old neighborhood where they can find a house that was crafted traditionally and has good design, and then they put up with the small closets and the single bathrooms, or whatever.

DT: Should they forgo the extra bathroom and closet space?

BH: Add them. Just make sure that the new pieces and elements match the existing character of the home—moldings, hardware, ceiling height, for example. If you remodel or fix old houses with a sensitivity to the home’s original design ideal, your work will add value to the home. This isn’t very different from building a new house, where you’re trying to find a cohesive design ideal that will unify the parts and pieces of the house. With a remodel, the design ideals are already set. Success involves applying those ideals to the new work.

DT: How about building a timeless house?

BH: Talk to the best architect you can afford, and say, “I have this much money, but I want a well-designed house.” A good architect will focus on the proportions, the scale of the windows, how everything is laid out—the little things that make a beautifully designed house. You are going to pay more as a percentage for your design fee, but you’re not going to spend more money than you have to, and you’ll have a house that’s worth a lot more.

 

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