Living in Old Designs - Construction Trends

What Will Our New Neighborhoods Look Like?

what appears to be a shingled cabin in the woods is really new construction
Rustic By Design.

Richer Images/Construction Photography/Getty Images

 

New homes are not always what they appear to be. What may look like a rustic cabin in the woods may be newly built with old materials. The Queen Anne style house down the street may actually be the newest kid on the block. These days, old is new again.

Most new houses have always reflected older styles. Even if you hire an architect to design a custom house just for you, house design is often based on some tradition of the past — either of your choosing or your architect's. Colonial and Georgian designs have maintained a steady popularity over the last two centuries. During the housing expansion of the 1990s to late 2000s, builders experienced an increased interest in homes with a Victorian or a Country cottage flavor.

Our planned American communities are similar — an imitation of the old European village where everything you need is within walking distance. Keeping up with trends in new construction is a lifelong pursuit for the homeowner and the city planner. Here are some examples.

How Old Is This House?

large home with pyramid roof, coned turret, and wrap-around front porch
Neo-Victorian House in Vienna, Virginia.

Jackie Craven

Guess the age of the house shown here. Is it (1) 125 years old? (2) 50 years old? (3) New construction?

If you chose number one, you're not alone. Many people mistake this house for a Queen Anne Victorian, constructed in the late 1800s. With the round tower and the expansive wrap-around porch, the house certainly looks Victorian. But, wait. Why do the windows look so flat against the siding? Is that even wood siding?

Inside this house in Vienna, Virginia the answer is made clear — this is a new house with a modern kitchen and bathrooms and many contemporary features. Set on a side street among old growth trees, a new house can look historic.

Commercializing the Neo-Victorian

newly constructed multi-gabled dwelling, turquoise awnings, built in the Victorian style
Neo-Victorian on the Eastern Shore of Lake Michigan.

Carol Ann Hall

A Neo-Victorian house is a contemporary home that borrows ideas from historic Victorian architecture. While a true Victorian house may be short on bathrooms and closet space, a Neo-Victorian (or "new" Victorian) is designed to accommodate contemporary lifestyles. Modern materials such as vinyl and plastics may be used in the construction of a Neo-Victorian home.

Shown here is the in South Haven, Michigan, located near Lake Michigan. The new building, constructed in 1995, is built upon the basement of a small ranch style house. The new construction adds to the footprint of the former house to create 7,000 square feet of living area. The Inn at the Park is vinyl-sided and has modern comforts such as private bathrooms. However, ornamental details and thirteen fireplaces give the Inn a Victorian flavor.

Neo-Victorian details include scallop-shaped shingles; complicated roofline with many gables; gingerbread ornaments in all eight gable peaks; and usually awnings.

In addition, the owners installed stained glass windows from historic harvesters. Displayed along the front facade of the building, the windows add to the Victorian appearance the building.

Making this new home look like a grand "old" Victorian house has been an ongoing hobby for owner Carol Ann Hall.

Affordable, Expandable, Sustainable

A worker prepares to move a piece of pipe into place as he builds a new home on January 21, 2015 in Petaluma, California.
Traditional Design in Petaluma, California.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There's an old fashioned feel to the house in this photo. Put a balustrade on the simple porch, and this home might be a Folk Victorian farmhouse. But, although the architectural details are borrowed from the past, the house is brand new.

A proponent of this type of home design is Marianne Cusato, one of the first designers of the Katrina Cottage. She continues to design simple, functional homes using modern materials and state-of-the-art, energy-efficient appliances. Cusato's design for the emphasizes affordability, expandability, and sustainability.

But who will be able to build these homes?  When the housing market demands well-crafted homes, trained craftsmen must be available. "Only by identifying and addressing the barriers keeping young workers from pursuing skilled labor professions can we ensure the continued sustainability of our housing economy and workforce for generations to come," Cusato writes.

Using New Old Materials

detail of roof shingles that look like slate surrounding double-paned skylights
Reproduction Cotswold Roof Slates & Conservation Rooflight Window.

Tim Graham/Getty Images (cropped)

There's an old fashioned feel to the roof in this photo. Well-maintained slate roofing can last 100 years or more. But, although the architectural materials may be borrowed from the past, the roof on this house is brand new and made of reconstructed stone.

For houses built in the past, like Cotswold Cottages and Victorian Queen Annes, builders and architects had few options for construction materials. Not so today. Even "fake" slate comes in many different substances, from polymers and rubber to that mimics cut stone. "Cast stone evokes a sense of timelessness which fits in with any type of massive construction, from domestic housing to cathedrals," claims

The new homeowner should remember that the materials chosen to build a new old house will determine the ultimate look. Companies like provide many alternatives to achieve the desired appearance.

Using Old Techniques

detail of timber-framed structure with large wooden beams held together with wooden pegs
Pre-Industrial Home Construction.

gmnicholas/Getty Images

 

Even today, most homes in the United States are made of wood, just like they were when the Pilgrims landed in the New World. This type of construction, where walls and roofs were supported by large posts and beams, lasted well into the Victorian era. Then the Industrial Revolution kicked in.

"Sawmills started producing dimensional lumber, which was much easier to transport, cut and erect than large posts and beams," writes home improvement expert Joseph Truini. "Carpenters found they could use cheap, factory-made nails to assemble these 'sticks' into structures in which the walls — rather than a heavy frame — supported the weight of the building. Known as balloon framing, the technique required much less skill and time than working with enormous timbers."

With the help of computer-aided design and precision-cutting, prefabricated timber-frame house kits have made a comeback, complete with wooden pegs.

Finding Plans for Your New Old House

Illustration and floor plans for a three-story country house near Paris, France
Maisons de Campagne des Environs de Paris, c. 1860, by Artist Victor Petit.

Print Collector Heritage Images/Getty Images (cropped)

Just about any historic style can be incorporated into a new, or Neo, home design. Neo-Victorian, Neo-Colonial, Neo-Traditional, and Neo-Eclectic houses do not duplicate historic buildings exactly. Instead, they borrow selected details to convey the impression that the house is much older than it really is. Many builders and house plan catalogs offer "Neo" home designs — build a new cottage with old house plans or build a new Spanish-styled home with adobe house plans.

Looking for more inspiration? Browse your local library and the Web for original drawings and reproduction house plan catalogs. Mind you, these historic house plans do not contain the detailed specifications required by modern builders. They will, however, illustrate the details and floor plans used on older houses. Some companies that specialize in house plans will offer popular "inspired" designs — not an original Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, but a Wright-inspired house plan.

Building New Communities

computer rendering of three houses built close together on a cul-de-sac
Three Homes. Three Generations. One Community. James F. Wilson, 2011/Builder Magazine (cropped)

As people turn to new construction of old home styles to suit their modern needs and traditional aesthetics, where will these homes be built? The new consumer may turn to historic community structures, when generations lived together in one house and people walked to work.

New generations, more affluent than their parents, are building these houses to accommodate parents, grandparents, and future generations to live together, but not so close!

The 2012 International Builders' Show in Orlando, Florida explored the new/old concept of intergenerational communities with their design for "Three Homes. Three Generations. One Community. Pictured from left to right is the Gen B House, for Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964; the Generation X House, for the next generation, born between 1966 and 1985; and the Generation Y House, for the Millennials or Echo-Boomers born after 1985.

Our neighborhoods have roots in the past. Some historians say that suburban neighborhoods existed in ancient times. Others claim that elitist neighborhoods developed in nineteenth century England, when businessmen built small country estates just outside their villages. Suburban American neighborhoods grew when public roads and transportation allowed people to live easily outside the cities. 

As neighborhoods evolved, so, too, has exclusivity. One remembers how segregated the mid-20th century Levittowns were and  how Joseph Eichler was one of the few developers who would sell his real estate to minorities. Professors Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder, authors of Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, suggest that the trend toward exclusive gated communities leads to misunderstanding, stereotyping, and fear.

A large and widely respected group of architects and city planners believe that there is a profound connection between the environments we build and the ways we feel and behave. These urban designers claim that America's tract style homes and sprawling suburban neighborhoods lead to social isolation and a failure to communicate.

Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk pioneered an approach to urban design known as New Urbanism. In their writings, the design team and other New Urbanists suggest that the ideal community should be more like an old European village — easily walkable, with open public spaces, green spaces, and piazzes. Instead of driving cars, people will stroll through the town to reach buildings and businesses. A diversity of people living together will prevent crime and promote security. But how diverse can intergenerational communities be with neighbors having the same DNA?

Sources

  • Marianne Cusato. The Skilled Labor Shortage: Where is the Next Generation of Craftsmen? HomeAdvisor Insights Forum, February 2016, PDF at http://www.homeadvisor.com/r/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Skilled-Labor-Report
  • Joseph Truini. "A House With No Nails: Building a Timber-Frame Home," Popular Mechanics, March 22, 2007, https://www.popularmechanics.com/home/outdoor-projects/how-to/a1506/4213580/