Marni Jameson: How to make new a house feel old

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.”
Oklahoman Published: February 8, 2014
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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,” Burbank said. “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, Burbank said.

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