Brent Hull thinks new houses should be more like Starbucks coffee.
There was a time when most people didn’t think a lot about their coffee. They opened the can, put the grounds in an electric percolator and drank whatever came out.
Then Starbucks came along.
“Now, everybody talks about coffee,” Hull says. People know about different types of beans and different ways to make coffee. And they expect goodcoffee.
Homes — usually our biggest monetary investment — should get the same attention, says Hull, a national authority on historic design and building preservation. He longs for a return to good home design and craftsmanship, which he says are missing in today’s home market.
“There is an avoidance of good design,” Hull says of many new houses.
In his book, Building a Timeless House in an Instant Age, Hull uses history and philosophy along with practical examples to examine how and why today’s homes should be improved. He’ll speak at the Dallas Historical Society meeting Thursday at Fair Park’s Hall of State. The event is co-sponsored by Preservation Dallas.
Home facades often are a mashup of different styles, competing materials and mismatched trims. Inside, the disarray continues with kitchens, perhaps, done in a very modern style with bathrooms in faux Italianate. Trim and moldings are picked from a limited catalog and poorly installed, he says.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Homes could be designed by good architects based on timeless principles and built by craftsmen trained for their jobs, he says. It would cost more, he acknowledges, but would be well worth it.
Hull grew up in Preston Hollow surrounded by elegant homes. He graduated from St. Mark’s School of Texas and Baylor University. Having developed a love of beautiful architecture, he then attended the North Bennet Street School in Boston, where he studied preservation carpentry and cabinet- and furniture-making.
Producing finely crafted cabinets, trim, molding and other millwork has been his life’s work. His Fort Worth company, Hull Historical, helped ensure that the windows at Dallas’ Woodrow Wilson High School and Long Middle School were historically accurate when the buildings were renovated. He has overseen work at the Tarrant County Courthouse and other courthouses around the state. In addition, he has built and done other historic work at numerous homes, including his parents’ in Fort Worth.
His crowded office in an industrial district near downtown Fort Worth is strewn with pieces of window frames, molding and bookcases. Shelves are crammed with books about the history of building and construction techniques.
His 2-year-old golden Lab keeps him company. The hum from the attached workshop provides a lulling backdrop.
He speaks passionately about the importance of a good house.
A well-designed home is your signature, says Hull, 49. It tells people who you are and what your values are. It also provides a comfortable background for your life.
Houses, even working-class houses, before the 1940s were built by hand. Although the designs may have been modest, they were mostly well-done.
Then the need for housing in the 1950s gave an opportunity to William Levitt. Levitt started building 800-square-foot houses that were cheap to build and buy. They sold faster than he could build them.
He used his ideas of assembly-line homebuilding to create Levittown, N.Y., and then refined those ideas in one of his most famous projects, Levittown, Pa., near Philadelphia. The houses, which have slab foundations, were mostly built off-site. A workman did one specialized job, say putting in doors, rather than working on the whole house.
The assembly-line approach meant Levitt could sell the houses for $1,000 less than competitors’ houses and still make a profit, Hull writes.
That brought in the current age of building houses as quickly and cheaply as possible. It also pretty much ended the trained craftsmanship that went into homebuilding, he says.
That’s what Hull hopes to see change, and he is optimistic.
There is a smaller-home movement and smaller homes mean more money in the budget for craftsmanship, he says. Smaller homes also must be more carefully designed to make them livable.
Smaller doesn’t necessarily mean significantly cheaper. Instead, homeowners are giving up space in exchange for good design. Dining rooms are a good example, Hull says. “Why spend money on a room that is going to be used twice a year?” he says. Instead, getting rid of the formal dining room frees up money for a home designed by a careful architect to carry out a particular style. As demand for such homes grows, craftsmen will also be in demand.
He knows that such hand-built homes can be expensive and concedes that most of the homes built the way he would like to see them built could cost millions. Again, it doesn’t have to be that way.
“There is an opportunity for a New American Home, something that captures 200 to 300 years of American history,” he says.
He sees something with columns and a front porch. “A front porch is iconic and idyllic,” he says.
It might have a portico and wood siding. It surely would have outdoor living space.
Houses of this type would become the norm rather than poorly designed production houses of today.
Hull ends the book with a benediction.
“May your house tell the story you want it to tell. May your house be timeless.”
A great house doesn’t have to be formal. A casual setting works for many families. Careful design and good workmanship make it timeless.
Want to build a timeless house?
Brent Hull, author of Building a Timeless House in an Instant Age, (Brown Books Publishing Group, $26.95) offers these guidelines for designing and building a beautiful, high-quality home.
Read books about good design and homebuilding. Hull recommends Get Your House Right (Sterling, $22.95) by Marianne Cusato.
Look at different homes. Drive around, identify houses that appeal to you and take photos of what you like.
Or better yet, travel the world. See how people in other countries live and decide if there’s something there for you.
Think about the style of house you like. This needs to be fairly specific, not just a wide-open category.
Should your home be simple or decorated? Formal or informal? What materials are you drawn to? Do you like natural wood or maybe a red brick? What values do you want your home to express? For instance, an arts and crafts house expresses straightforward, honest ideals.
Find a good architect. Be prepared with examples.
Have a budget ready before plans are started.
“I’ve had clients say there is no budget, but there is always a budget,” Hull says.
There are times when you have to give up something, so begin thinking about what’s most important to you.
Pick a builder. The builder needs to be local and have experience building the type of home you want. For instance, a company that specializes in contemporary-style houses probably will not have the experience for a colonial style.
Visit several projects the builder has completed. Be sure to carefully go over your plans with the builder and set a schedule.
Plan your life
Brent Hull, author of Building a Timeless House in an Instant Age, will speak Thursday at the Hall of State in Fair Park, 3939 Grand Ave.
Doors open at 6 p.m. A cash bar will be available.
The program starts at 6:30 p.m., followed by a book signing.
It is free and open to the public.
For more information on Hull, see brenthullcompanies.com. (Courtesy of DallasNews.com)