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At Home: Like brides, homeowners want something old, something new

CorrespondentFebruary 7, 2014 

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 who live in old homes long for the modern amenities new ones offer.

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.”

Amy Albert, editor of Custom Home magazine, said “several residential architects today, and even some production home builders, are building good-looking new houses that look old.”

One of those firms is Saussy Burbank, a new-home developer in the Triangle, Charlotte and Charleston, S.C., areas. Partner Jim Burbank says the firm has tried to put the character of older homes on a modern floor plan.

“Old houses feel good,” he said. 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 they need more upkeep, said Burbank, who lives in an old home in Charlotte.

Editor Albert said new homes are “about flow and connectivity.”

“They have super islands in the kitchen, where mom cooks and supervises homework while checking email,” she said. They also generally have better light, bigger kitchens and baths, lots of storage, and better energy efficiency.

Because not everyone can buy or build a “new-old” house, Albert and Burbank offered these ideas to help homeowners get the best of both in the home they have.

Make 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 said.

Shop salvage yards: Albert finds everything from funky medicine cabinets to old ceiling medallions. Consider replacing your front door with a 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.

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 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 space and improve sight lines, especially in the kitchen, dining and family areas. Let other design moves, such as a change in flooring or ceiling treatments 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 because their windows tend to be small. Lighten them up by adding larger windows and installing better built-in lighting. 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, Burbank said. “Don’t just have an idea and hire a contractor. You’ll save in the long run.”

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