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The Weather Network
Nov. 14, 2019 | Thursday
Editorials and Opinions
ArchiText: What's wrong with this picture?
There is something odd about these chimneys. (Brian Marshall/Special)

I received an email not long ago from a regular reader of this column. A professional designer in his own right, he sent photos of two newly built houses with designs that he quite accurately described as a “potpourri of architectural styles and clichés.”

 While there are several technical flaws in the design, it’s the chimneys which really gave me the pip.

Historically, wood-burning fireplaces set in bulky chimneys were the principal source of heating and the hearth for cooking in the houses of colonial Niagara. Respecting the functional importance of the comparatively tall and always massive fireplace stack posed a direct challenge to achieving a good design of the formal house.

Early North American houses were often built around a single centrally located chimney, however, as homes grew larger with more divided interior space, the heating requirement necessitated two (or more) chimneys, which gradually migrated to the outer walls.

By the time of the rebuilding of Niagara after 1814, most houses were built with chimneys neatly balanced at each end of the design. While technical improvements through the 19th and 20th centuries reduced the sheer bulk of the chimney and allowed for a variety of placement options, it remained a functional requirement in every house.

Most designers, seeking to contend with the chimney while achieving good architectural design, worked to minimize the visual mass of the stacks by methods such as integrating them into the overall brick pattern, or bricking individual flues to produce tall, slender, visually lighter stacks. Still, no matter their approach, the objective was a chimney that did not dominate but seamlessly merged into the overall composition.

Today, technology has made the chimney an optional design element. However, the word “optional” in no way suggests that the principles of good design can be tossed out the window.

Here, infected by the worst tendencies of the McMansion craze, two proportionally massive chimneys are used to add more complexity to an already heavily cluttered gambrel roof. And, just to prove they’re merely decoration, each is pierced by a porthole window … Oh my!