Saturday, January 23, 2010

Farmhouse Renovations

Most American homes built in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries were farmhouses.  We were predominantly an agrarian society living on family farms.  Today’s suburbs were once pastures.  Quite a few modern subdivisions include an old farmhouse, which at one time was the only house in sight.

When the farm families grew and their circumstances improved, it was natural to expand the homestead.  It is rare to find an old house today that has not been renovated and added onto over the centuries. Sometimes those changes were in keeping with the original structure, but more often the changes simply met the immediate needs of the family at that time.

When contemplating the renovation of an historic farmhouse, a little detective work is in order.  It helps to understand the evolution of building practices over time that can help reveal a history of the home.  Hand hewn beams in country homes began to be replaced with saw cut rafters in the late 1800s.  The type of nails and other building materials and styles also help to date a home.  An avocado colored refrigerator is a dead giveaway for a kitchen renovation from the 1970’s. 

It is usually not too hard to decide what to keep and what get rid of when renovating an old home.  Very often there are wonderful wide board floors under shag carpets and vinyl tile.  Vinyl siding can protect period clapboard which really only needs a good paint job.  Insulation is rarely adequate in an old home and depending on the type of wall framing, it may be easier to bundle up in winter than bring the home up to modern standards.

Care should be taken while inspecting electrical wiring, chimney flues, and boilers as any problems with those items could cause a fire.  On the other hand sloping floors, hairline cracks in plaster, and creaking stairs are what most of us have come to expect and love in our old homes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Simple Home

Whether you are designing an iphone or a country home, keeping it simple is harder than it looks.  Instead of relying on flash and dash, a simple design relies on substance, proportion, and details.  Most people cannot tell exactly what is wrong with a home when the proportions are off, but they know a beautiful home when they see it and good proportions are always the key.

In the eighteenth century, nails and bricks, as well as most other elements of a new home were made by hand and therefore became precious. Only the most experienced craftspeople were allowed to use those valuable resources. Mass produced building materials were scarce or non-existent and early American homes were therefore simple by design and necessity.

The wonderful old homes we love, are still around today because the details were well thought out and the materials were simple and of the highest quality.  Today it requires restraint and discipline to design a simple, elegant home.  Driving by most new homes, it seems that the designers have changed the old adage from ‘Less is More’ to ‘More is More’ and have thrown everything at the houses that will stick.  

Simple designs if done correctly can be timeless.  The study of proportions is critical to the success of a design and does not lend itself to formulas and templates. The proportions of each element must work individually and together as a group.  On a fa├žade, windows, doors and architectural details must relate to each other and to the whole.  Although symmetry can be beautiful, it is not required as long as there is balance.  Since a home can be around for hundreds of years, I think it is important to take the time to get the details and proportions right.