Hubka’s “Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn” Examines New England’s Historic Connected Farms

New England Connected Farm Barn

In Thomas Hubka’s Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn, he studies the phenomenon of the connected farm landscape of northern New England in the 19th century. Published in 1984, Hubka’s work was on the forefront of defining and expanding the field of vernacular studies. In Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn, Hubka examines the typology, evolution, and distribution of the connected farm site. The book is organized into three main sections: first, he introduces and defines the building typology; next is an in-depth discussion of the patterns associated with this vernacular type of dwelling (including the buildings, the landscape, and the permanence of the structures); and lastly, Hubka addresses the builder’s influence in the creation of these buildings, and also seeks to understand why people built these connected farm buildings.

New England connected barn

In the first section, “Connected Farm Buildings,” Hubka outlines his methodology for researching connected farms and admonishes the tendency to overlook vernacular buildings “as quaint, picturesque relics from a distant rural past” (p. 3). Hubka studied over 400 of these landscapes over a six-year period, and studied 120 of them in-depth. Through this study, he concluded that connected farm buildings were an early-to-mid-nineteenth century occurrence, confined mainly to northern New England, chiefly Maine. In seeking to understand this new building typology, Hubka starts with the history of connected farm buildings in the New England countryside.


Taken from a 19th-centutry children’s verse, the typical arrangement of farm buildings is “big house, little house, back house, barn.” The “big house” is the farmhouse, with parlor and sleeping chambers for the farm family, often oriented towards the road. The “little
house” generally included the kitchen, the summer kitchen, woodshed or shop, and according to Hubka, the “living center” of the IMG_2066house. The little house was the primary location of work areas in the house. The “back house” contained the privy and was the primary passageway to the barn, and often contained more work spaces or wagon storage. Lastly, the barn was the primary location of all farming activities, including the stabling of animals. Hubka states that these connected farm buildings display a diminishing architectural hierarchy—from big house to little house to the back house to the barn. While constructed in the same style, the barn received the least amount of architectural ornamentation, while the big house enjoyed the most. In this section, Hubka also draws attention to the fact that while these buildings appear haphazard, they were highly developed and engineered. The connected farm buildings maximized the multi-purpose agricultural production popular in New England, while simultaneously protecting farm workers from the harsh northern New England winters. However, the creation of these buildings came with risks—namely that of fire. Unlike typical farm arrangements where the buildings are spaced further apart, if a fire started in one part of the connected farm building, it likely ravaged the entire complex.


Hubka devotes the majority of his analysis to his middle section, titled “Pattern in Connected Farm Buildings.” Here he discusses the individual components of each building, the evolving farm landscape, and the larger patterns of New England farm practices. Hubka spends a great deal of time discussing the working landscape, typical crop rotations, neighborhoods, and theorized embedded patterns on the landscape that are no longer visible. He analyzes and explains a myriad of important patterns, including construction, evolution, and usages of the houses, as well as other outbuildings typical for a New England working farmstead.


Hubka concludes with a section titled, “Reason for Making Connected Farm Buildings,” featuring a case study that illustrates the shift from a typical farmscape to that of a connected one. Here he explores the impetus as to why Tobias Walker might have reordered his farm landscape. Starting with 1770, Hubka visually and verbally represents the changes made to the farm up until 1980, chronicling many phases of reordering and improvements. Hubka urges readers to remember that connected farm buildings might seem odd to some people today, but they represent a technological and necessary advancement to landscapes in northern New England in the mid-nineteenth century. Hubka simultaneously places the connected farm typology in several larger contexts, including historical, environmental, geographic, agrarian, vernacular architecture, and a context of “ideas.”


Hubka’s book is successful in explaining the nuanced and short-lived regional architectural phenomenon of the connected farm building. Northern New Englanders connected their farm landscapes to maximize efficiency and to rationalize processes. It was seen as an innovative technological advancement in a multi-use agrarian landscape, where diversifying crops, goods, and livestock were the keys to farms remaining viable and solvent. Easily accessible, thoughtfully researched and written, while employing methodologies that stand up today, Hubka’s approach to vernacular buildings and landscapes makes this book a compelling and necessary read for students of vernacular architecture and old house lovers.


Hubka’s book received a lot of positive attention and favorable reviews when published in 1984. Perhaps underscoring the importance of the Hubka’s work, it was reviewed by several prominent, early scholars in the field of vernacular architecture, including Bernie Herman, Gabrielle Lanier, John Stilgoe, Sally McMurray, and R.W. Brunskill. The book also won the Abbott Lowell Cummings prize in 1985 from the Vernacular Architecture Forum.


To purchase your own copy of Hubka’s Big House Little House Back House, Barn, visit the Amazon page here.
















  1. by Ann, on 05.28.13 @ 12:38 PM


    I love these buildings also and get to visit so many of them on my yearly trip to Maine.

  2. by Michael, on 05.28.13 @ 3:43 PM


    Hi Ann! Where do you visit in Maine? Unfortunately, it is the New England state I’ve seen the least of. I’ve been to the York/Kennebunk area a couple of times, and to the Saco River just over the border from New Hampshire, but I have yet to travel much on the rest of the Maine coast. It’s on the to-do list!!

  3. by Ann, on 05.29.13 @ 8:21 AM


    Michael: Thanks for posting this so I can read book before or on my trip. We have been going to the Boothbay region for over 16 years! But, there are a bunch of stops and other town visits while there. We have stopped at Mystic, Boston, Lowell, Portsmouth plus others, and then, York, Ogunquit, Kenneb, Portland, Freeport, Bath, Phippsburg, Pemaquid, Wiscasset (u should definitely check this out for Historic House blog), Montsweag, Ulna, Camden, Rockland…too many to name here. Always looking for new Maine locales to explore, lots of driving.

  4. by Hubka’s “Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn” Examines New England’s Historic Connected Farms | HomeCentrl, on 06.06.13 @ 1:03 PM


    […] From Historic House Blog……. Taken from a 19th-centutry children’s verse, the typical arrangement of farm buildings is “big house, little house, back house, barn.” The “big house” is the farmhouse, with parlor and sleeping chambers for the farm family, often oriented towards the road. Read more! […]

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