The Do's and Don'ts of Modern Gingerbread House Design
According to architect Susan Matheson, who wrote the book on modernist gingerbread house design, the taller or larger your building, the thicker the exterior panels should be—up to 3/8”. Who knew?
Images courtesy the artist
Making a good gingerbread house is hard, and it requires not only ingenuity but actual training to make anything outside of the instructions-on-the-box standard model. Founder of Matheson Architecture + Design Susan Matheson possesses that rare combo, as is evident in her book, The Gingerbread Architect, packed with ideas for making confectionary real-estate from scratch.
Matheson's family life, however, rather than her architecture career, led to the candy-coated land of gingerbread design. "I had a toddler and some building skills, and suddenly very little time for real projects. That happens when you have children," she says. She met her future book publisher at a "Mommy and Me Morning," and they began filling their spare time with designing, building, and documenting tiny houses. The learning curve was steep—gingerbread and icing are less durable than concrete and metal beams—but in less than a year she became an expert in edible materials. Her book is filled with festive images of American-style gingerbread homes and detailed instructions about how to make them yourself. We caught up with Matheson to learn some of the basic tenets of gingerbread craftsmanship for making your own sturdy and inventive custom designs.
The Creators Project: Can you tell us some of the key architectural concepts behind building a gingerbread house?
Susan Matheson: When you are planning to build a gingerbread house, pick some characteristic details such as a mansard roof line, arched windows and doors, or a farm house veranda. Then remember that you’re building with gingerbread slabs and piped icing, so keep those details simple. Create the essence of the detail without trying to mimic the many layers of a true architectural detail. And most important of all, remember to have fun.
How do you pick the best materials for a structurally sound gingerbread house?
An important fact for keeping your gingerbread house structurally secure: don’t roll out your gingerbread panels too thin. The taller or larger your building, the thicker the exterior panels should be, up to 3/8”. The thicker the panels, the more uneven they will bake and you’ll probably need to trim those edges to make them straight again once they come out of the oven.
There are so many great candies for adorning your gingerbread house and that’s the delightfully fun part. Mini Chiclets make great tiles, round dummies make wonderful wreaths, fruit leathers present a world of opportunity, black licorice sticks of gum make for great shingles, and I was surprised how easy it was to make roof shingles for the victorian house with melted green chocolate!
Above all, I never tire of creating glass candy windows by baking crushed hard candies into window openings and then piping on mullions. The very best is when you backlight those windows with interior lights, Voila!
What are your do's and don'ts for gingerbread house design?
+ Once you settle on the gingerbread house design, cut out your cardboard template and test it by taping it together to ensure a good fit. Trim the cardboard template if necessary.
+ Think about your piping colors and shop for your candy, cookie trimmings in advance.
+ Decide whether you want to pipe your windows onto a flat gingerbread panel or cut the windows out. If you do cut the windows out it’s wise to plan whether you want to fill them in with candy glass or leave them open.
+ Don't forget to plan for the house surroundings, trees, lawn, snow drifts, and snowmen!
+ True gingerbread aficionados only use edible structure and candy trimmings, so don't use anything else. The house's platform and interior lighting are the only exceptions!
What about for the construction process?
+ The lovely ginger smell that permeates your home while baking your own gingerbread pieces makes the effort of baking your own gingerbread worthwhile.
+ My trusty kitchen microplane is my favorite tool. Once my gingerbread house facades is baked I can gently pick them up and microplane an edge straight. Straight edges translate into tighter fitting corners and more structurally sound and longer lasting buildings. You can also cut the edges when the building facade panels are right out of the oven and still soft. The microplane was a wonderful tool for straightening window edges, too.
+ Decorate your flat gingerbread wall panels with piping and candy before the walls are erected.
+ Don’t be afraid to pipe icing swirls, fancy fenestration, fences, or whatever comes to mind (children’s names) onto parchment paper, let it dry and then add it your house.
+ Feel free to pipe extra icing at the interior corners of the house to make those gingerbread corner seams as strong as possible.
+ Do feel free to cover any piping regrets with a layer of candy.
+ HUMIDITY is the enemy of all gingerbread houses. Humidity softens gingerbread walls and roofs threatening the structural stability of your project. I had to keep the air conditioning on all summer long while I built houses for the Gingerbread Architect project. If you’re constructing a gingerbread house in humid weather, turn the air conditioning on and bake the panels a bit longer to help keep them dry.
+ Don't rush. Take your time and enjoy your building project. Remember nothing's too difficult, some things just take more time than others.
+Absolutely no hot glue! &
Why is it so satisfying to see a gingerbread house that looks like a modern home?
Modern houses built of gingerbread are always such a surprise, simply not what you expect out of the gingerbread medium. I must say that the most difficult of all the gingerbread houses that I built were the modern house forms. Just no room for tolerance or mistakes in those houses, pretty much the same as in real life modern buildings.
Buy Susan Matheson's book, The Gingerbread Architect, here.