French Country House Plan: How to Get It Right and How to Screw It Up

INTRODUCTION

French Country is a popular home design style nowadays, both exterior and interior.

This article addresses the French Country home design style on the exterior.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

Do you think that French Country, or the effected Country French, is a home design style? We’d say, “Not exactly.”

French Country is a range of home design styles –

1. From an early French farmhouse to not quite a French embassy

2. From residential design styles, including but not limited to Rustic French, Rural French, French Provincial, French Eclectic, Chateau (French version of the English Manor House), and the namesake French Country

3. From in-between Cajun style and Louisiana Plantation style

4. From the time period in America bracketed roughly by WWI and WWII

Comment: There is a stylistic kinship of sorts with other home home styles that are casually (and incorrectly) taken as singular and not as a set. For example, American Victorian is a/k/a (Victorian, in each instance) 2nd Empire, Gothic, Italianate, Queen Anne, Folk, Stick, Shingle, and Richardsonian (Romanesque). Or for example, Southern Colonial ranges from Warburton House (1680) in James City County, VA or Christ’s Cross (a/k/a Cris Cross) (circa 1690) in New Kent County, VA and simpler, all the way up to Bacon’s Castle (1650) in Surry County, VA and Stratford Hall (1725) in Stratford, VA [noting that other examples abound either standing, or artistically captured earlier-on or reproduced, the author having chosen these for their geographical and temporal proximity, Post-Medieval English roots, and breadth of character].

You’ll find beaucoups publications about French Country on Amazon.com and at your local bookstore. To wit, along with a slew of other design-oriented books, a while back we ordered Provencal Inspiration: Living The French Country Spirit by Home Planners, and immediately received a notice that Amazon’s out of stock. French Country is back bigtime. As another, more recent example, our just completed custom house plans in French Country Style for a property in Asheville, NC will be offered later this year at $4+ million [and the facades really do have a rural sense to them].

French Country style reminds us more than most of Craftsman style – multiple roof slopes; windows of different sizes and heights; broad overhangs and soffits; knee braces and other exposures of construction structure; front-facing gables; a mix of gable, clipped gable, shed, and hip roofs; natural materials; masonry exterior, especially stone; a mix of finish clads; restraint in exterior accessories and adornments. French Country style can be comfortable and inviting in its more relaxed presentations.

However, French Country home design departs from the Arts & Crafts Movement in several respects: high-peaked, steeply sloped roofs at pitches way above Craftsman’s; a refinement in exterior trim particularly in rakes; an understatement of observable structure; gutter systems sometimes with gussied-up copper appointments; curved rooflines to accommodate steep slopes, larger windows, unpierced ceilings and interior walls; broad soffits; arches and curve-topped dormers, elaborated ironwork; balconies; turrets; Classic columns; masonry accessories in relief, some interest in symmetry, etc. Simplicity and elegance.

There are ways to botch French Country home design, e.g., hold rooflines to one pitch to assure consistent soffit depth and single-level eaves – in the name of cheap, easy, and stylistically insensitive; apply Corinthian columns in lieu of, say, Tuscan, or flute the Tuscan columns; confuse French styling with English, unbalance vertical and horizontal to favor horizontal; not mullion grouped windows, not apply true French casement windows; use plastic shutters, S-dog the shutters, not apply true French doors, asphalt shingle the roof, insist on broad facia and frieze boards, etc.

And there are ways to develop French Country home plans by using – contemporary technologies, among them, e.g., cost-efficient cultured stone, particularly in its fieldstone representations – perhaps by Owens Corning; and by using artistry, e.g., the half-round copper gutter systems of A. B. Raingutters, Inc., Classic Gutter Systems, L.L.C., the gas or electric luminaires of Charleston Lighting Company or the aluminum wrought-like railing of Southeaster Architectural Metals, the garage doors of the Carriage House Door Company, and the like.

French Country style encourages applying design principles of excellent residential design, such as, Russell Versaci’s Creating a NEW OLD HOUSE: Yesterday’s Character For Today’s Home, The Taunton Press, 2003, and Jacobson, Silverstein, and Winslow’s Patterns of Home: The Ten Essentials of Enduring Design, The Taunton Press, orig. 1941, reprint 2002; and, separately, sacred geometry. Here again, you can embrace and succeed or disregard and fail in the design effort.

Take, for example, the layering and other arrangement of finish clad, notably in steeply sloped gable ends. In Versaci’s realm of signaled, or suggested, age, it is the wise designer who specifies supposedly older, heavier (looking) materials – fieldstone and the like – from grade up to, say, L1, and then some lighter material higher up. Such arrangement and layering would be particularly in-keeping with more steeply sloped roof gable ends which would most unlikely be originally run up 2 stories under high, hard to support roof pitches. That is, L2 should and would appear to be of more recent vintage than L1, and presenting a story of age without such attention to detail is to send the gift horse packing.

Finally, in the vernacular of Patterns of Home, again for example, the French Country style readily lends itself to creating a courtyard, or “Creating Rooms, Outside”, and to dormered space demonstrating design keystones of “Refuge and Outlook” under a “Sheltering Roof,” particularly if the rooflines are low-profiled and trimmed more simply on L2 than on L1.