Home & Garden

March 8, 2014

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

Tips for adding charm to a new home and modern sensibilities to an old one

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.

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