Making the Old New Again

Architectural styles that have withstood the test of time continue to appeal to buyers, as they discover that a piece of history can add some extra charm to even a newer home.

May 1, 2009

Not all home owners want a house filled with antique floorboards, small-paned windows, and period molding. These features may be difficult to find, expensive, and time consuming to maintain.

Some owners, instead, prefer new homes with newer components for easier care and energy efficiency, yet they still want their houses to look "old" on the exterior for the nostalgic charm and quality that cedar shingles, narrow clapboards, wide pine doors, and deep porches convey.

Architect and author Sarah Susanka, whose latest book is Not So Big Remodeling (Taunton Press, 2009), says that whether home owners build new or remodel, what they’re looking for in the older character, materials, and detailing is a feeling of substance and permanence.

You can help your buyers understand how to gain that kind of older charm—either with a period home that strives for accuracy in style, proportion, and materials, or one based loosely on a traditional design, with newer materials that look old but aren't.

There’s another option to consider—to live in a community filled with historic-looking homes, from one period or many. Several of these communities, which have sprouted nationwide, feature homes on smaller lots and with a network of paths and open greenery to connote a more carefree time that encourages neighborliness—that other prized, old-fashioned commodity.

Using History as a Guide

Here are some ways the "new" is borrowing from the "old" in home design today.

1. Staying true to architecture. At Serenbe, in the town of Chatahoochee Hill Country, Ga., developer Steve Nygren's mixed-use, sustainable community features 900 bucolic acres that include room for hundreds of houses based primarily on Queen Anne, Greek Revival, Italianate, and other popular Southern styles, though some have a more contemporary spirit. 

Nygren’s primary goal was to have builders stay true to whatever style they selected. “We didn’t want them to mix eaves, windows, and door styles, but we didn’t want to be too restrictive,” he says. He also wanted builders to show restraint so that no house became too flamboyant.

2. Made to fit. The best designed old houses fit their site, unlike many McMansions that overwhelm their small lots, says Greg Georgis of Cody Design Group Architects, with offices in Rockford and Naperville, Ill. “I find it very jarring when the scale of a house is too big for its site,” he says.

3. Extra Details. Cunnane Group in Charlotte has constructed 25 houses—with 145 more to come soon—that do not exactly replicate historic designs. Yet the overall impression is of picturesque Victorian and farm houses because the builder incorporated the right proportions, materials, peaked roof lines, shutters, and welcoming front porches. And because cars weren’t part of the streetscape in centuries past, the garages here are concealed in alleys behind houses rather than front loaded.

Similarly, architect Stuart Cohen of Stuart Cohen & Julie Hacker Architects in Evanston, Ill., prefers to develop an original design than create an authentic line-for-line copy. To him, the approach allows more room for creativity, yet he always incorporates enough detail to give the impression that the house was inspired by the past.

“Too many new houses fail because they’re what we call ‘undercooked.’ They don’t have enough detailing,” says Cohen, co-author of Transforming the Traditional: The Work of Cohen & Hacker Architects (Images, 2009).

Pier Village, developed by Applied Development Company on a 28-acre site along the Jersey Shore in Long Branch, N.J., was inspired by Victorian architecture and even brings out the style in its mixed-use buildings at the Village. For example, the condos above the shops and restaurants have been designed with a flourish of gables and turrets to reflect the style.

4. Bold with color. Architect Stephen L. Reilly of SLR Architecture in Newton, Mass., also prefers historic paint colors from companies like Benjamin Moore that have developed a period palette so you can find the perfect historic hue of red, blues, tans, and more. Many of the selections are offered in paints with little to no VOC.

Reilly encourages home owners to be bold with their choice of colors, as home owners used to be. “Don’t be afraid to use color,” he says. 

5. Walkable design. Many home owners also like that older houses in mature communities tended to be walkable, with the ability to easily walk to neighbors’ homes, village greens, and downtowns.

At Antiquity, a mixed-use development on 132 acres in Cornelius, N.C., close to Charlotte, houses are set on small lots close to sidewalks and streets, share nine small parks and one 30-acre park, and lie close to a market square with shops.

Antiquity is far from unique. It represents a relatively new breed of planned community, the Traditional New Development (TND).

TNDs first emerged 30 years ago, after the architecture firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company in Miami built the Seaside resort in Florida’s Panhandle to recreate the look of an historic Florida town. The front porches encouraged neighborliness; the sidewalks promoted the idea that a new town could be pedestrian friendly.

Old Look, New Materials

The Antiquity subdivision reflects the trend of new houses built to look old. The developer, Venture Properties in North Wilksboro, N.C., instructed builders to use historic American architecture as inspiration for their single-family houses, townhouses, and condos. 

Yet, many of the houses are built using new materials that are more maintenance free, readily available, and less costly.

For instance, at Antiquity, architect Nadine Diiorio, an owner of Cunnane Group, chose hardiplank siding since it resembles wood but doesn’t warp or develop mildew problems. She also picked fiberglass shingles rather than asphalt or more expensive slate and urethane fypon trim since it doesn’t peel.

Sometimes, a desire to totally replicate a style or structure must be moderated in order to meet budgets. For example, when running brick or wood siding all around a house is too costly, Susanka suggests applying it on the front and continuing it around the corners for 4” to 6” for a more solid appearance than not using it at all there.

Getting it Right

Whatever direction your buyers take, urge them to understand the components that make up a style, so they'll be  better able to grasp what parts work best together and make sure their new home doesn't become a poor imitation.

Learn More

Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use & Avoid (Sterling, 2007)
By Marianne Cusato and Ben Pentreath

The text and illustrations include “use” and “avoid” drawings that make clear do’s and don’ts such as a pedimented door with properly scaled arches versus pilasters with misaligned parts.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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