Tips from the Architect: Architectural Details in the Home

April 28, 2016

There are many decorative elements in homes today that have been around for hundreds of years. Some still perform their original intended function, and some have evolved into purely decorative elements. Moldings, for example, serve a useful purpose by connecting different building elements and materials - such as the meeting of plaster walls and wood floors or  locations where windows and doors are installed within walls. Additionally, they provide durable surfaces in areas that might otherwise be damaged with frequent use. Below, we highlight some different home details that had functional beginnings.



Board and Batten Siding - A style of exterior siding consisting of vertical boards or sheets of wood with small strips of wood called battens to cover the joints. Influenced by styles from Norway and Sweden, this became popular in the U.S in the mid 1800s. It was originally favored due to its superiority over log siding, which was more prone to deterioration from weather. Due to developments in wall construction, deterioration due to weather is no longer a concern, but you can find it on many homes as a stylistic accent.

Exterior Window Shutters - The very earliest shutters were actually on the inside of the window. Early buildings made of stone had very thick walls, which made it infeasible to place shutters on the outsides of walls since it would be too difficult to reach out and latch them. As wood and timber-framed buildings became more common and walls became thinner, the shutters transitioned to the exterior walls.

Shutters serve to keep out the elements and protect window glass. Early styles were also used for security and were therefore more solid, while later louvered versions allowed some air flow while still blocking direct sunlight and deflecting rain as needed. Today, though they still play a large stylistic role in homes throughout New England, the original function of shutters has been replaced by more durable windows and interior window coverings. Shutters are often left open nowadays, serving only to frame window openings and provide character. A correctly sized pair of shutters will be built so that each shutter is half the width of the window it will cover. Shutters are not used on oversized picture windows or groups of windows. Even though shutters no longer serve their original function, they retain their integrity as a design element.

Triglyph/Dentil Molding - A decorative molding thought to represent roof rafter ends in early Greek Temples. If you picture the location of a triglyph (later called a dentil molding) along the eave of a roof, these moldings were thought to mimic wooden rafter tails that extended beyond the walls. This was recreated in stone in early buildings and transformed over time into a decorative component of the cornice. Today, dentil moldings are found in a variety of house styles including Queen Anne and Georgian.



Picture Rail - Typically installed 7' to 9' off the floor as a place to hang framed pictures and paintings using picture wire and hooks. Often seen in older homes with plaster walls, where hammering in nails would damage the plaster. In addition, the plaster may not always be strong enough to hold the pictures. Today we often see these installed as a decorative element to give interest to a space, but few people still utilize the actual rails for displaying art.

Chair Rail - Traditionally used to protect walls from chair backs and other sliding furniture. Often found in Dining Rooms and other formal spaces. Proportions are important when using a chair rail molding to visually divide a wall. Ideal height is approximately 1/4 up the wall, or 30” off the floor for a room with a 10’ ceiling. Often the chair rail height will align with the window sills or other elements. It is meant to ground the room and make the space feel taller.

Beadboard - Type of wall or ceiling paneling consisting of grooved boards that fit snugly together. The repeating profile hides the joints between boards and any movement due to seasonal changes in moisture levels, etc. Historically, beadboard was used as a wall covering in kitchens, back hallways, mudrooms, and other areas where a surface more durable than plaster was ideal. It was also often found on porch ceilings of summer houses where it gained popularity as a feature element.

Today we still like to use beadboard in similar locations, as it provides a decorative and durable finished surface for high traffic areas. It can be painted any color and integrated into the style of the house.

Window/Door Casing - These are trim moldings that function to bridge the joint between the window/door unit and the surrounding wall. They can be minimally or highly decorative but they ultimately serve the basic function of joining dissimilar materials. What started as a way to cover the joint between materials is now a means for adding visual interest and detail to a room.


Not all of the above materials are still used for their original intended function, but they create an aesthetic statement and give a finished look to a home. Details like these are important in defining an overall style and beauty for the homeowner to appreciate.