The best of both eras: Can you create an old new home?

Posted Saturday, Mar. 08, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

Simple changes that work

Because not everyone is in a position to buy or build a new old house, Albert and Burbank offer a few ideas to help homeowners combine the charm and history of something old with the modern sensibilities and comfort of something new.

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,” Albert says.

• Shop salvage yards for items like funky medicine cabinets and old ceiling medallions. “Architectural salvage items with their worn patina can confer time in a new space in a charming way,” Albert explains. 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, says Burbank.

• Build it in. Window seats, bookcases, 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, says 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, Burbank notes. 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.

One last thing:

Whether adding years to your home or subtracting them, Burbank recommends consulting a designer. “Don’t just have an idea and hire a contractor,” he says. “You’ll save in the long run.”

Have more to add? News tip? Tell us

It’s the curly or straight dilemma all over. You have hair that’s one way, but you 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 that are more typical of newer builds.

Having lived in houses ranging in age from “so new the glue’s not dry” to “older than the invention of the light bulb,” I get the paradox.

Think of a claw-foot bathtub with jets, and you’ll get it, too. I want soul plus all-new appliances with a homeowner’s warranty. I want a mature landscape enhanced by a big gourmet kitchen with a hot-spot island. I want patina that comes with history, but not without the sweet sophistication of surround sound. I want deep wooden window sills with handsome panes and uber-tight energy efficiency.

And, I want a great front porch as well as an attached garage.

In short, I want it all.

Apparently, so do a lot of Americans, and today’s 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.”

A little of both

“Several residential architects today, and even some production home builders, are building good-looking new houses that look old,” says 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,” says partner Jim Burbank.

“Old houses feel good,” he says. “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, Burbank explains, adding that along with the charm and history of a historic abode, you often wind up dealing with issues like a shortage of bathrooms — small and situated in strange parts of the house. Other typical issues? Burbank’s list is long: “tiny closed-off kitchens, small or no closets, poor insulation, drafty windows, poor light, plus they break down, so need more upkeep.”

In contrast, Albert notes that new homes tend to be about flow and connectivity. “They have super islands in the kitchen, where Mom cooks and supervises homework while checking email,” she says. “They also generally have better light, bigger kitchens and baths, lots of storage, and better energy efficiency.”

Unfortunately, Burbank says that for all the pluses, new-home builders often drop the ball by skimping on craftsmanship, and most new homes simply don’t have the gracious scale that’s more common to older homes.

Like I said: curly or straight.

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through

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