A “Sweet” and Cheap Architectural Detail Resource

Yes, I thought it was time for a bad pun. The “sweet” resource I’m talking about is the Sweet’s Indexed Catalogue of Building Construction. Not the modern version, mind you, but the earlier volumes. In particular I’m talking about the first one ever printed, in 1906.

Reprint copy of the first edition of Sweet’s

I found my copy in a used bookstore about 25 years ago, back when 3rd Street in Santa Monica was still a sleepy street lined with great used bookstores instead of chain outlets. It was a 1970’s reprint of the original, in great condition. But the most striking thing about it was how different it was from it’s modern relatives. This book was printed for people who actually drew details, and both wanted and needed to know how things were built.

Most of the products pictured throughout the book had either detailed drawings or photographs of the items, with dimensions and cutaways showing how they operated and how they were integrated into the architecture of the building. This was a far cry from the ‘updated’ version, void of details, which was meant only to be a means of calling out the correct ‘part number’ on a drawing rather than giving the architect a full understanding of the specifics.

The original volume, if you can find a copy, has a green cover. The reprints will have a tan cover. The most useful ones for our work run from 1906 to the 1930’s. They aren’t easy to find but Google has solved that problem. Among the millions of books they have digitized for their ebook site are the 1906 and 1907 editions of Sweet’s. The digital editions aren’t as crisp as a printed copy, but the details you’ll glean from them are priceless. You can download it as a pdf and have it on your computer whenever you want to refer to it. Here is some of what you’ll find:

A sample of a typical advert featuring both photos and detailed sections

details of furnace and ducting showing how the duct and registers are attached to the wall framing

One of hundreds of photos showing details such as trim, ironwork and tile.

Detail of large furnace for an office or apartment building

An early central vacuum system

And here’s proof that people had MUCH bigger heads 100 years ago

Another good source in Google Books is a magazine from about the same time period called The American Builder which has some good articles with details. This ad for a drafting course is great. Considering an average draftsman would have made about 35 to 40 cents an hour at that time, $100 a week would have been top dollar.

Graphic Standards From Across The Pond

Here in the US, the book we primarily turn to for all questions of an architectural nature is the AIA Architectural Graphic Standards. For our work, the third and fifth editions are the most informative because they were printed at a time when architects had to draw everything rather than order most elements pre-made. If you happen to be drawing up European architecture, though, it won’t do you much good.

In the rest of the world, the architectural book most people turn to for similar answers is Neufert’s Architectural Data. Soon to be released in it’s 40th edition, the book is printed in 18 languages and is the architectural Bible in the metric world.

Ernst Neufert

Ernst Neufert worked at the Bauhaus as chief architect under Walter Gropius and later taught at the Bauhochschule until the Nazis closed it down in the early 1930’s. Seeing the need for a book that graphically laid out the architectural standards of the time, the book was first printed in 1936 and soon became a big success. Like Graphic Standards, the book is mainly a visual reference of architectural design and space standards for the European continent.

The book has had a number of English language editions, but the 1998 International is the most useful and easiest to use for the metrically-challenged. A large number of each edition are printed so it should be fairly easy to find used copies. You may have better luck throught British booksellers than second-hand businesses here.

kitchen standards from an earlier edition

In Britain, The book many people refer to is McKay’s Building Construction. Originally published in three volumes over an eight year period, the recent re-publication has combined them into one book. The books are so popular in England that when they briefly went out of print, students were encourage to beg, borrow or steal to get a set.

page on hand-cut stonework

Written by W.B. McKay, who was Head of the Building Department at both Leeds and Manchester colleges, the book is particularly useful for our business as it shows and describes exactly how the various methods of construction (wood and masonry ) are carried out. Filled with hundreds of beautiful perspective drawings by McKay, the book takes up where Graphic Standards ends.

Like Neufert’s, this can be had in used editions, the most recent from 2004. I found my copy in a bookstore in New Delhi, India, so you may have to search around. This is definitely a book that is worth the search.

If you’re in a hurry, you can order it here.

methods of forming masonry openings

He Had To Draw

The silent film director Karl Brown was just a teenager when he went to work as D.W. Griffith’s assistant in 1914. He would later write a book, “Adventures With D.W. Griffith”, about his experiences as both a participant and a witness to both the birth of feature films in the USA and the beginning of what would become the Hollywood Art Department. Before ‘Intolerance’, the sets for Griffith’s films were created by his Construction Foreman Frank ‘Huck’ Wortman from rough sketches or picture postcards. When he decided to recreate Babylon, Griffith knew he would need an actual designer to envision the huge set. He found Walter L. Hall, a British scenic designer who had come west from New York.

Walter L. Hall drawing for the Babylon set for the D.W. Griffith film 'Intolerance'.

 

The thing that Brown found so intriguing about Hall was not just is abilities, but his method of work.

“I had seen all kinds of theatrical sets . . . but I had never seen things during the drawing board stage. Hall combined the great gift of an imaginative creative artist with the needlepoint accuracy of a fine architect. There was no tentative fiddling around: a bold stroke here, and half an arch was on the board. Another stroke and the entire arch was there.”

Wortman, too, was amazed at the man’s ability but questioned the technical accuracy of the elevations he saw on the cardboard. His skeptical attitude was probably not helped by the fact that neither man had ever seen Hall use a scale to draw with, much less a straightedge or a T-square.

“‘You want a scale?’ Hall drew a swift straight line at the bottom of the design. He ticked off sections of his line with pencil strokes. ‘There. There’s your scale, in feet.'”

When Wortman doubted the accuracy of the marks, Hall snatched a piece of paper and drew a line and quickly drew two thin small marks across it. “‘That’s an inch. Measure it.'” Hall demanded. Wortman pulled a metal rule from his pocket and set in on the paper.

Brown would write, “It was not only an inch but it was a finer, closer inch than the one shown on the steel scale. For the scale’s markings had definite width, while Hall’s hairline marks split these widths exactly in the middle.”

“‘How did you learn all this?’ I asked him one day. ‘Learn? Learn this? Nobody can learn this. It’s something you have to do.'”

“‘It must give you a great deal of satisfaction to be able to do anything so wonderful so easily.’ I remarked enviously”

“‘Satisfaction? Chained to a drawing board hand and foot, day in and day out. . . It’s a dog’s life, Brown – a dog’s life.'”

“‘Then why do you do it?'”

“‘Because I must, can’t you see that? Because I must!'”

“‘Don’t you like drawing?'”

“‘I hate it.’ He said vehemently. ‘It’s the most demanding, the most merciless work a man can do.'”

The finished Babylon set from 'Intolerance'