It’s the curly-hair-straight-hair dilemma all over. You have one, and want the other. Those who live in new homes covet the character and charm of old ones. Those living in old homes long for the modern amenities new ones offer.
Having lived in houses ranging in age from so new the glue’s not dry to older than the light bulb, I get the paradox.
I want soul and all-new appliances with a homeowner’s warranty. I want mature landscape and a big gourmet kitchen with a hot-spot island. I want patina that comes with history and surround sound. I want a claw-foot bathtub with jets. I want deep wooden window sills with handsome panes and uber-tight energy efficiency. I want a great front porch and an attached garage.
As usual, I want it all. Apparently, so do a lot of Americans, and today’s home builders are on to us.
A recent Wall Street Journal article reported on the trend of residential designers offering up a new old house: “a sanely proportioned residence that’s historically accurate on the outside, but conceived for the needs of modern Americans on the inside.”
Think Snow White’s cottage with walk-in closets. Huzzah!
“Several residential architects today, and even some production home builders, are building good-looking new houses that look old,” said Amy Albert, editor of Custom Home magazine.
One of those firms is Saussy Burbank, of North Carolina. “We’ve tried to capture the look of older homes, and put that on a modern floor plan,” said partner Jim Burbank.
“So it’s like beauty with benefits,” I said.
“Something like that,” he said. Then I make him get specific, which, as you know, when you talk to these abstract designer types can be like trying to park a cloud.
“Old houses feel good,” said Burbank. “Even the wear feels good. If the floor sways a little, or is warped some from time, that adds to the character.” But they don’t work for today’s way of living because they have small rooms. Today’s lifestyles call for an open floor plan.
Old houses also have “few, small and strangely located bathrooms,” he said, “tiny closed-off kitchens, small or no closets, poor insulation, drafty windows, poor light, plus they break down, so need more upkeep, said Burbank, who lives in an old home in Charlotte, N.C.
“New homes are about flow and connectivity,” said Albert. “They have super islands in the kitchen, where mom cooks and supervises homework while checking email.” They also generally have better light, bigger kitchens and baths, lots of storage, and better energy efficiency.
Where new homes drop the ball is by skimping on craftsmanship and by not having the gracious scale found in older homes, said Burbank.
Like I said, curly or straight.
Because not everyone is in a position to buy or build a new old house, Albert and Burbank offered these ideas for homeowners to get the best of both eras in the home they have.
Make a new house feel old:
• Beef up the outside elevation. New homes often lack character, because builders cut costs by not adding touches like brick or stone, real wood siding or trim, shutters, or pediments over the front door. “Around back, where residents often spend a lot of time, builders often really skimp,” said Albert.
• Shop salvage yards. “Architectural salvage items with their worn patina can confer time in a new space in a charming way,” said Albert, who finds everything from funky medicine cabinets to old ceiling medallions there. Consider replacing your front door with an old salvaged door. If you come across an old-fashioned Dutch door, use it to replace a standard interior door.
• Add a porch. If the basic shape of the house permits, add a deep, well-detailed porch, with period light fixtures, said Burbank.
• Build it in. Window seats, book cases, a dedicated place by the door to hang coats and stash boots, and other thoughtful built-ins can add old-fashioned warmth, as can moldings around doors, windows, and ceilings.
Make an old home feel new:
• Update the flow. If a home’s floor plan is chopped up by lots of rooms, consider knocking down a wall to open up the space and improve sightlines, particularly in the kitchen, dining and family areas. Let other design moves, such as a change in flooring or ceiling treatments, instead of walls define the space and make sure it doesn’t feel bland, said Albert.
• Tighten the envelope. Make an old home more energy efficient by adding double-pane windows and beefing up insulation.
• Add light. Older homes are often dark, partly because their windows tend to be small. Lighten them up by adding larger windows and installing better built-in lighting, said Burbank. Clerestory windows are a good way to introduce light while maintaining privacy.
• Expand the bath. If possible, upgrade and relocate bathrooms so they are en suite and have more spa features than those in Lincoln’s day.
Whether adding years to your home or subtracting them, consult a designer first, said Burbank. “Don’t just have an idea and hire a contractor. You’ll save in the long run.”
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through marnijameson.com.