Traditional Building Portfolio

Peter Zimmerman Architects renovated and enlarged this late-18th-century farmhouse in Oley Valley, PA, in 2006.



Traditional Building Today

By John Toates, AIA

By definition, an architect is a person who is involved in the planning, design and oversight of a building's construction. It is through the oversight and the planning that various craftspeople associated with construction and decorative arts are brought together in the collaborative execution of the architect's design.

During the Renaissance, architecture began to emerge as a distinct and separate profession from the master builder and craftsmen heritage. During this remarkable period of evolution in design, the ascension of architecture as a distinct profession was closely linked to the relatively new practice of preparing carefully scaled drawings by the architect for the design of a project. These drawings served as the graphic directions for the craftspeople to follow. To this day, the evolution of architecture as a profession continues and remains closely linked to the constant change in societal needs and technology.

Several hundred years after the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution brought about large-scale and convenient access to new building materials, manufacturing techniques and structural possibilities. The excitement and potential surrounding these products, combined with the rapid increase in population and prosperity, triggered a boom in construction and design. Despite this rapid change in technology and access to materials, the roles of the traditional architect, master builder and craftspeople remained unchanged because society still perceived their value and continued to generate demand for the highest level of design and construction.

In general, it seems that the hereditary relationship of the architect and craftsperson appears to have come to a rapid end soon after the conclusion of World War II. In a global setting, WWII served as a catalyst for the promotion and expansion of the concepts of mass production and uniformity to previously diverse and individual societies, which had been focused on supporting regional and cultural vernacular traditions. This newly created desire for uniformity eroded the historical values, unique qualities and support for the traditional craftsperson and the role of the traditional architect.

Historically, architects have relied on the readily available resource of skilled craftspeople to interpret a design through their drawings. It was expected that the craftsperson would comprehend the design intent behind the drawings, and be skilled enough to construct them in proper scale, proportion, appropriate construction techniques and materials. In today's world and with today's economy, despite a small resurgence in all things artisanal, the loss of the practice of apprenticeship has severely limited the available resource of craftspeople traditionally associated with the construction, building and decorative arts. In general, because of the scarcity of formally trained craftspeople, the architect can no longer rely on construction workers to make informed interpretative design decisions on their own accord. With a few notable exceptions, the traditional craftspeople associated with construction have simply become skilled laborers in the execution of the architect's vision. In the past, with formally trained craftspeople, the architect could indicate design intent through more generalized sketches and drawings. Today, if a detail or technique is not explicitly described and drawn, the architect cannot be assured of the success of the final outcome. Through drawings, architects now need to ensure that even the smallest detail in every element conforms to appropriate scale, proportion and construction techniques.

A successful modern-day traditional architect is required to be passionate about promoting the continued excellence of traditional design principles through appropriately scaled, proportioned and detailed buildings. Whether a project is urban, suburban or rural, commercial, residential or institutional, traditional or modern, the fundamentals of design remain the same. While there are no good or bad architectural styles, there is an appropriateness of style that is deeply rooted in the cultural and historic landscape of each project that needs to be honored.

It is because of the long tradition of craftsmanship in southeastern Pennsylvania that my own firm, Peter Zimmerman Architects, is fortunate enough to have retained access to a limited number of skilled craftspeople who are able to execute our designs, but, because they have not necessarily been schooled in the Classical elements of architecture, our drawings need to be thorough and detailed. We also spend a good deal of time overseeing the execution of our designs. We recognize that the desire for the highest level of architectural design and construction occupies a small niche in today's society, and without the support and advocacy of this shrinking demographic, architects and the work they create will lose value to society. We are thankful to have clients and builders who truly appreciate, comprehend and support the fundamental concept behind traditional architecture.  


John Toates, AIA, is a principal with Peter Zimmerman Architects, a full-service residential design firm located in Berwyn, PA.
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