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A Field Guide to Ugly Houses

A Field Guide to Ugly Houses - Style Abuse Disorder (SAD)

SAD 01

SAD 01

It can be hard to decide - this or that, one or two, artisan whole wheat or quinoa spelt (hey, I live in Boulder).  Hopefully there is not a lot riding on those decisions and a mistake can be revisisted or disguised as toast.  A house it not such an easy fix.

I am not an advocate for building in a "style".  Thinking of buildings as simply constructions that you can hang different style clothes on runs counter to my work as an architect.  However, if you don't have an architect or don't want one, maybe the nineteenth century idea of pattern books is a good idea to help you avoid Style Abuse Disorder (SAD).

SAD houses simply can not make up their minds.  Are they Victorian or Craftsman? Ranch or chateau? Let's call it eclectic.

SAD 03

SAD 03

Even if you are finally building your own house, and you've saved your whole life to do it, it is not an opportunity to put into it every design idea that you have ever fallen victim to.  A bit of discipline is a good thing.

Again, I am not advocating some simplistic, reductionist idea of architecture.  I don't think you should be able to walk down the street and easily categorize Victorian, Modernist, Bungalow, etc. like so many products on a shelf.  In my practice we design each project examining its site, its context, the client's desires, etc. to make a building that inevitably has its own style.  Sometimes this is a bit of a mashup, but I hope one that displays its own kind of inner logic and sits comfortably along its peers.

Ugly by SAD

Ugly by SAD

So, go ahead and throw in that Gothic turret, the Victorian porch and Craftsman trim.  But then take another pass through the whole project and let it simmer a while until these flavor meld a bit.  Or, go over the top and add even more to the point of absurdity, a style all its own.

A Field Guide to Ugly Houses - Gilding the Lily (GTL)

I'm hesitant to even include this category because it seems so mean-spirited.  Gilding the Lily is house-proud gone awry from too much love.  It is  simple said, too much of a good thing.  When I look at these houses I want to go up to them and just snap a few things off, a corbel here, a festooned column capital there.

This a nice house but it careens into the too-cute ditch.  Not to be scrooge, but the holiday wreaths even add to the impression of a house that is a bit too charming for its own good.  A few years from now, if the shingles are allowed to weather to a soft gray, this house may be great.  Right now it's too shiny and new and earnest to feel like a made thing.


This is also a really charming house, a probably late nineteenth century Second Empire building that is a bit too encrusted with multi-painted corbels and trim to allow the original beauty of the house to shine through.  Its not ugly, its just too much.  If you think of a design as a balance between tension and repose, this house is overly caffeinated and is trying too hard to be your friend.

"Old World Charm" is fine enough thing, but it can go too far.  Again the tension/repose balance has been tipped into the overly romantic.  The house seems like it has been staged, not designed and built.  The subterranean drive only conjures up images of tortured visitors sequestered away in the dank dungeon.  "A man's house is his castle" is a a metaphor, not a commandment.

As I said, I feel a little guilty even including this category as each of these homeowners have probably spent considerably time and money on trying to make the best house they possible can.  Who am I to criticize.  But it is a lesson worth remembering, that too-much-of-a-good-thing is an attractive seductress to be avoided.

A Field Guide to Ugly Houses - Ugly by Design

Of the many types of ugly that inflict the American house, Ugly by Design, although not the most pervasive, it is certainly the most offensive.  These houses clearly fall into the "what were they thinking" category of a design idea gone wrong. Sometimes Ugly by Design is the result of a once-interesting and innovative design idea that has past its shelf-date.

In a lot of ways this is a nice house, but the roof form is forever associated, at least by me, with Pizza Hut.  That's not the architect's fault or the owners, but the result of a very dominant, unique roof form that has been hijacked by bad, commercial work to the point of making it iconic.

Often Ugly by Design is the outcome of a renovation gone wrong.  "It seemed like a good idea at the time", "we really hated the siding", "but I like bunkers!"

Maybe the worse examples of Ugly by Design are the houses that have a strong intention that somehow seems to get sidetracked.  The house below has an amazing southern view of the mountains, but situated on a very public corner the double height wall of glass makes a painful fish-bowl exposing everything inside to public scrutiny not to mention the blazing sun. In a different context this house is maybe not ugly at all, but in this location, I feel like I am window-shopping on someone's life.  It makes me feel guilty for looking.

The house below has a kind of grand public face of three gabled pediments that rise two stories announcing the house to the street.  It seems all the more odd then that the color and lack of windows on the other hand are trying desperately to be quiet and hide behind the trees.

About the below, I don't know what to say,

except, as a kid, it would be cool to say "yeah, I live in the super-wedge down the street."


as a late entry to Ugly by Design, a fellow reader presents the following:


A Field Guide to Ugly Houses - the taxonomy

I look at a lot of ugly houses.  No one who has a really beautiful house needs my help as an architect - they are willing to live with a too small house or a dysfunctional house because it is so well-suited to its site and well-composed.  No, as about half my work is in renovations and additions, I see awkward houses with garage snouts sticking out front, Cape Cods with a cornucopia of bad additions, and lots and lots of ranchburgers. What has struck me over the years is that house-ugly comes in distinct forms.  There is a veritable taxonomy of classification for the types of ugly, bad, horrible and embarrassing houses.  So, having reviewed a few years of work and observation, I am putting together

The Field Guide to Ugly Houses

a compendium that will hopefully answer the age old question, "I know my house is ugly, but how is it ugly?"


Ugly comes in many forms.  There is ugly by design, which has many subcategories, like ugly by designer's ego over reaching their talent:

Or ugly by design as identified in Style Abuse Disorder (SAD):

There is also of course ugly by neglect.  This can be the common neglect of maintenance or the more exotic ugly by way of codes and zoning (the sidewall bulkplane requirments and solar shadow restrictions lead to a kind of lopsided wedding construction):

And there is the ubiquitous neglect by way of finances that allows for only the most basic enclosure without any attempt to be even vaguely appealing:

As I said, there are many types of ugly, in fact a kind of Seven Deadly Sins of Ugly or maybe a Period Table of Ugly Houses.  Over the next few months I am going to post various chapters in this taxonomy, copiously illustrated with houses from around my town, Boulder, Colorado.  Below is a quick sketch of the evolving classification.  Feel free to send me your suggestions on what I have missed.

Ugly by Neglect

This is probably the most common of all forms of bad housing.  The reality is that housing is a commodity and there has always been a lot of money to be made by skimming on the bottom and providing only the most essential shelter.  The cost of a house is "location, location, location" as we are repeatedly told, so anything beyond that like scale, proportion, color, massing, style, etc. can be left on the cutting room floor.  And when the most base builder model house is then left to linger without even minor upkeep and repair, the problem is compounded.  Taken to the extreme, this kind of ugly becomes its own kind of beautiful, but that discussion may be for another day.

  • Financial
  • Maintenance

Ugly by Ambition

  • Architect's Ego:  We have all seen this and some of us architects may be guilty of it.  It is especially the case with young architects that a great commission early in one's career can end up being a design dumping ground for all those thoughts and ambitions left unresolved from architecture school.
  • Owner's ego: a corollary of the McMansion syndrome, this class of ugly is the Sin of Lust - for more, for fancier, for a kind of over the top extreme that doesn't coalesce into magnificent atrociousness, but sits uncomfortably on an embroidered velvet cushion, with a lace border, and a ruff.
  • Scale: the McMansion syndrome.  Usually executed by builders "responding to the market", these houses sprout 30' high atrium entries and more roof forms than you can fit in a bag of ugly.

Ugly by Material Abuse

  • Fake materials:  artificial stone, thin-brick, plastic wood, the list is almost endless of the ways we have "improved" traditional building materials.  Their uses can be carefully concealed or awfully exposed, and when combined a dangerous alchemy can take ugly to new places.
  • Not-understanding-the-problem:  Using materials in unconventional ways can be thrilling and lend a kind of meaning to house.  Done in a slap-dash way by inexperienced hands or, more likely, a late-in-the-game material substitution can send a house careening off course.
  • Priorities - perfume on a pig.  Sometimes it is best to just leave ugly alone.  Powerful ugly, really big, overwhelming ugly, can not be bought off with trinkets and flattery.

Accumulated Addition Syndrome (AAS)

Many simple middle-class, turn of the century houses have a kind of builderly charm.  They are unpretentious and finely scaled and now too small.  So, over the years a kitchen was expanded, a bedroom was added, then the kitchen was expanded again, until the original house is laid seige with poorly conceived and ill-fitting additions.  It looks like Accumulated Addition Syndrome (AAS).

Ugly by Laziness

  • The laziness of low expectations.  Build it quick, build it cheap.  If the windows don't align or if a part of the roof crashes into another part, just do it.  And fill it with caulk.
  • The laziness of architects and/or builders is notorious for a lot of houses that are really, really close to being lifted out of the realm of ugly, but a little more time and care were not extended to the project.  Another pass at the window schedule or another review of the drawings could have resulted in small changes, changes that don't cost anything, that would have elevated the house from the B-list.

Style Abuse Disorder (SAD)

Tuscan/Tudor or maybe contemporary/farmhouse/traditional.  The marketing slogans of housing developments often portend the ugly to come.  In an attempt to appeal to many, multiple styles are thrown together.  I know mash-ups can be fun and often liberating, but they can equally be a mess.  This is fusion cooking architecture gone bad.  Often this is the fault of builders and developers, but architects are guilty as well.  If a client wants a contemporary house with a Tudor tower, a few long nights in the studio may be required to meld these ingredients.

Beautiful Ugly

Minor infractions can be corrected.  Even fairly large flaws can be accounted for.  But really ugly can occasionally slip into beautiful.  Of course, one person's Beautiful Ugly is another person's nightmare neighbor.

As I said, if you have any thoughts about categories and perspectives that I have overlooked, send them my way and I will see how we can fold them into the taxonomy of

The Field Guide to Ugly Houses

(by the way, if I have used your house to demonstrate ugly, I sort-of apologize.  As an architect and former owner of an ugly house myself, I realize that sometimes you just own an ugly house and that's all there is to it.  You could make it better, but you don't.  It's okay, its not your fault.  Or maybe you love it. Either way, to illustrate my points here I had to use someone's house and if it's yours I apologize. Just one man's opinion anyway.)