You’ve reached a point in your life that everyone dreams of: designing your forever home. For many of us, landing on that perfect place to spend the rest of our lives poses the question whether or not to take on a historic renovation or build something entirely new. We chatted with three formidable champions of classical architecture: Peter Pennoyer of Peter Pennoyer Architects, Scott Sottile of Ferguson & Shamamian Architects, and Elizabeth Graziolo of Yellow House Architects to learn more about how to build the home of your dreams while still respecting the property’s context and honoring your favorite styles from architecture history.
Why Consider a New Construction Project Over a Historic Renovation?
When it comes to a project as important as designing one’s forever home, Graziolo advises starting with the basics. Discuss budget and timeframe with your architect to help them be best equipped how to advise you and proceed with the project. She says it’s important to keep in mind that historic renovations often will require more money, time, and flexibility than a new-construction home. You’ll also have less control of the project, especially at the beginning, with a renovation.
“Historic properties require more approvals and processes to go through, which can take a while, and you won’t be able to do any work until you get all the approvals you need,” says Graziolo. “The planning process for a new build is much quicker and a better way to get something up in the next two years. Otherwise, a historic property needs to be something you love so much that you’re willing to spend four years or more on it out of a passion for the place.”
While all of our three experts love taking on these big, rewarding restoration projects, Pennoyer says that you really can only get so far with an old house these days. The way we live in our homes has changed, and a growing desire for creating more eco-friendly structures (and living more environmentally conscious lives) brings forth a wealth of challenges when working with a 100-year-old-plus property.
“The flow of spaces and performance aren’t the same in these older homes,” says Pennoyer. “Many were relying only on fireplaces back then and there was no ventilation, so if you want a comfortable house in many environments, you can build a much more responsible and better house than working with an older building.”
Sottile notes that when it comes to transforming a historic home to match modern lifestyles, oftentimes more of the house gets destroyed than retained. He says this often happens with common areas, as multiple rooms will get knocked down to make one large kitchen, leaving much of the character and original layout to be demolished.
“If you really want both a modern lifestyle and to create a traditional feeling, it’s often easier to start from scratch and design around the way you truly live rather than adapting to the lifestyle from 100 or 200 years ago,” says Sottile. “There are lots of ways to make the house feel traditional both inside and outside that can make one question whether or not it’s always been there.”
Designing a Home That Looks Historic
Sottile says designing a house that looks as if it has always belonged on the site where it has been built begins with looking at the landscape. He says it’s important to try to plan around any mature landscaping and build the home in the way that looks like it could have grown around the trees or vice versa. Pennoyer notes that the forms and shapes of older buildings were all responses to their environments, like porches shaded from the sun. He says creating a new house means respecting the centuries-old traditions of building and understanding why they looked the way they did back then instead of trying to draw attention to your own design.
“It all starts with looking at the local historic character and thinking through what houses would have looked like 100 years ago in the area or what would have been a sympathetic style if we are building somewhere that may not have had a tremendous amount of character,” Sottile says. “Sometimes it’s about the literal history and sometimes it’s about creating a narrative with a bit of informed imagination.” Oftentimes, creating a narrative for a new home involves designing a home that looks like it had an original portion and has been added onto over time with various wings, as many homes were over the course of history as merchants and other self-made professionals grew into more wealth.
Pennoyer is a believer in designing homes with architectural heritage, which means creating houses that are comfortable and palatable in their given context. This requires extensive research of the geographical, architectural, and lifestyle history of your desired location.
“Normally, we like a house to feel as if it belongs in the community where it’s built and for it to have a relationship with the city or party of the country it’s in and the buildings around it,” says Pennoyer. “The home’s response to the environment and materials must be natural, correct, and coexist with the context.”
He advises studying the older buildings in your area to get a sense of the way they were built and with what materials. His firm houses a library with thousands of books on various architectural and historical periods that he will pull from to gauge a client’s interests and style, which he says encourages them to participate and gives them a place to have a conversation about what they love before construction begins.
Graziolo also notes that thorough research is an essential element of creating a new home that has a sense of provenance. She spends hours compiling reference images that not only helps her identify what a client reacts best to but also offers them a welcomed education on that time period, architectural style, or the history of their surrounding environment. She says that clients who are looking for a project like this often are hungry for more knowledge about the context, history, and style of their surroundings.
“Once we have the flavor of what they are looking for, we start engaging the artisan that we think will best be able to create something that offers an older look,” she says. “It’s going to come down to the architectural languages, details, and execution. It’s about choosing the millworker that makes by hand versus machine. If you can get the language, details, and execution right, you can really create something amazing.”
How to Create Provenance for the Modern Age
The old saying goes, all things that are worth doing take time, and selecting the right builders, artisans, and materials to create a traditional home for modern living requires plenty of research but will also be well worth the wait.
“We don’t try to pre-age a house, but we do use materials in a way that suggests the house is rooted in history, and we are careful about using materials that age gracefully and don’t create maintenance problems,” says Pennoyer. This means the details are top priorty, from choosing brushed over synthetic paint finishes, well-made windows that may have a few imperfections, and selecting millwork, furniture, and moldings that have softer corners and joints so they don’t look like they were laser-cut.
At the same time, Pennoyer prioritizes environmental impact in his projects and uses unique insulation systems that can be completely hidden behind older materials. His own house has majestically worn flooring where the boards aren’t too tight and perfect while underneath lies the latest innovations in insulation.
“We want to use the best of what building science allows us to do today, but I’m not looking to express that in the architecture,” he says.
Sottile also believes in the power of details and spends much of his time studying proportions, window sizes, cornice details, and practically anything else that gives an old house character as we refer to it in 2021. He says it’s important to study column proportions and other basic elements of classical architecture to be able to easily recognize if a home is based in a traditional design method.
“You can actually date buildings based on window pane sizes because as glass became more mass-produced, there were fewer limitations, so if you’re really trying to evoke a particular era, you can look at how they were made in that time,” he says. “It’s about knowing the rules that were used to design back then so you can adapt them to something more current. Studying the details helps you understand the language to find the words you want to use to create your home.”
For Graziolo, it’s all about selecting the proper artisans and stonework. She will even travel to a quarry to select the exact kind of block for a project. Since what’s available now differs vastly from availability of previous centuries, she will often scour the globe to find the quarry that will produce just what she’s looking for–the same goes for sourcing the right old, plank wood flooring. Graziolo looks to the French to achieve the type of woodwork she wants for a classically inspired house.
“Those guys are masters, and I don’t see the U.S. producing artisans like that as much as Europe does, though some of our favorite artisans and carvers have moved to New York City over the years,” she says. While it may seem like a lot of work to track down just the right people and materials to carry out your vision, Graziolo says it will still likely require less time than the hoop-jumping required for historic renovations and allow you more control over the situation and timeframe. It also allows you to blend the best of modern and traditional methods to create a beautiful, livable home.
“It’s all about creating a really organic connection between stylistic knowledge and the environmental response a building forms to nature,” says Pennoyer. “We make sure that the materials are used in a way that is consistent with the traditional practices of the craftsman. We want to use masonry and follow their traditions and rules. While tech allows you to use stone in a very abstract way—almost as wallpaper—we want it to look placed there by a master mason. Same with the trims and modelings looking like they were placed by a master carpenter or thoughtful artisan. We don’t want to be antithetical to tradition.”
Common Design Mistakes
Naturally, there are plenty of design mistakes that can occur when building a home designed to evoke a historic context. Graziolo says this often comes in play with the details of the house and one of the most common mistakes is ignoring those miniscule aspects.
“If something is really well-detailed, it can hide a lot of faults,” she says. “The attention tot he materials is so important to created that old feeling.”
Another common mistake is just assuming an architect can create something you love without any context or understanding of your personal taste. Sottile says that the client’s responsibility is to choose an architect that has previously demonstrated he or she can achieve what the client is looking for and has experience restoring older homes, so that the client can see the architect’s interaction with history itself. Pennoyer says it’s crucial for clients to be able to show architectural images of houses they love and places they think are beautiful, as he says “the best dialogue is having imagery to talk about and respond to.” This can help both the client and architect realize if the desired project matches design experience and speciality. The client needs to be confident in their needs and preferences while the architect needs to be confident in his or her ability to respect centuries-old traditions and craftsmanship.
“When you’re designing a house, it’s important to not have too many eye-catching events on the facade,” says Pennoyer. “I think you should have a sense of solidity without having too many features, sizes, and shapes. You have to edit back and distill the design instead of pack everything you love all in one place.”
Pennoyer says it’s important for an architect to have many good reasons for anything they draw without having to explain or justify decisions. He says building a house is a major investment for the client and a big responsibility for the architect, so every room, passageway, and wall needs to be thoughtfully imagined and designed. The client needs to be able to envision what it would be like to live, walk through, and experience the home in accordance with their personal routines and creature comforts.
“We don’t do reproductions, and I like to do many unusual things, but I don’t think novelty in and of itself is interesting; as a singular goal, it is not worth pursuing,” says Pennoyer. “It’s all about proportion and toeing the line between novelty and tradition.”
As Pennoyer says, designing a new home built to honor the traditions, crafts, and styles of a historic era is both a big investment and responsibility, but done right, it could truly become a forever home that can be inherited for generations. And because of its design, this home can not only withstand a full house for the holidays year in and year out, endless cocktail parties, and family nights in but will age all the more gracefully because of them.
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