If you’ve shelved your prerecession plans to buy or build a new old house, take heart. Being stuck at home needn’t mean stuck with the home you have. Classic style is well within reach. Renovations that are easy and affordable can add the missing ingredients. By incorporating the inherent comforts of the past to the creature comforts of today, you can gradually turn the house you have into the home you want.
For starters, you’ll want to research styles as well as materials that are appropriate for your region of the country, so take time to study local traditional homes. Explore the vocabulary and learn why they look the way they do. Then create a personal wish list and remodel in the traditional style you prefer, at a pace that fits your budget.
Little by little, you can upgrade unappealing builder grade doors, siding, roofing, windows, moldings, and shutters with new ones that are correctly styled and made of traditional natural materials or great simulations.
A classic home always starts with the front door, which, for any traditional style, is the home’s centerpiece and focal point. Both threshold and welcome mat, the front entry sets the tone for the home within. It should be the contented smile on the face of your house.
Unless a house is truly old, it seldom sports more than a lumberyard entry door purchased from a builders’ catalog. Glorified with names like Manor House and Victoria’s Pride, these doors substitute delusions of grandeur for real traditional style. Often they are made of sheet metal or fiberglass, look cheap, and are hollow sounding. Replace it with a real wood door from a company such as Jeld Wen to serve as the frontispiece to your classic home.
After the front door come the “vestments” of the house, the clothing for siding and roof material. Most houses constructed recently are covered in vinyl or aluminum siding, many with a wall of fake brick in front, making the house look pretentious.
Replace these man made materials with real cedar or redwood siding from companies such as Ward Clapboard. Wood clapboard siding is, of course, the real McCoy, one that has stood the test of time. Properly primed and painted, wood siding is elegant and classic.
For those who don’t want the upkeep that wood requires, high quality cement board siding, such as ArtisanLap by James Hardie, is an option. It has the correct thickness to mimic wood clapboards and is durable, fire resistant, and holds paint very well. ArtisanLap costs about the same as real wood.
The roof material is also a key ingredient in dressing up your traditional home. Most houses have roofs of composition asphalt or fiberglass shingles that are finished to look like cedar shakes or slates but these roofs often fall short of the mark.
Most all building supply companies can provide real cedar shingles in various grades that are rated by the Cedar Shingle and Shake Bureau. I prefer the CSSB grade called “perfections” because, as the name implies, it allows for few imperfections, which means a longer lasting, more stable, and more aesthetically pleasing roof.
For the environmentally conscious, there is an excellent synthetic substitute material called Enviroshake, a product made from recycled plastics with a pleasing cedar like appearance that weathers to silver gray and has a 30 year lifetime guarantee. Again, a caution: This is not a money saving alternative, simply an ecological one.
Next come windows. Most builder grade windows are cheap and look it. New windows can give your house a classic look that you will appreciate both inside and out. Wood double hung windows are always a good choice, with traditional panes between wooden mullions. Here there are many choices according to budget, ranging from barely adequate to superb artisanry.
One of my favorite window companies is Marvin Windows & Doors. They make quality wood windows at competitive prices. They have a good handle on traditional design features, and they will customize sizes for those impossible to fit openings.
In the synthetic simulation category is Windsor Windows & Doors, a company that makes sashes and frames of authentic character in a new high tech material, solid polyvinyl chloride. Not to be confused with the lethal off gassing chemical, solid PVC can be crafted just like wood and is durable. Other window companies that make superior products are Green Mountain Window, Rochester Colonial, and Woodstone.
Another place to look for changes to elevate the look of your home from pedestrian to classic is in the details. First, look up at the roof eaves. Classic roofs are trimmed on their edges with a group of shaped moldings and flat boards (fascias and soffits) called the cornice. Depending on the architectural style, cornices can be simple affairs with one curvy molding, or cyma, or a complex array of moldings with a row of teeth, called dentils. The cornice should be both tasteful and restrained. An overly elaborate cornice will make your house look like it’s wearing too much jewelry.
Good selections of classic cornice moldings come in both real wood and solid PVC, in a range of patterns. I recommend the suites of moldings made by WindsorOne. Avoid lightweight Styrofoam substitutes that are cheap and will look the part after a few years of weathering. Chadsworth Columns is also an excellent choice for classical details.
The final touch for your new exterior is window shutters, which, in eras past, were found on most houses in America. Some were designed to insulate the house from the cold, others to shade the interior from too much sun, and still others to promote cross ventilation through louvers. They vary in design from raised panels to solid board and batten (like barn doors) to fixed and operable louvers adjustable for sunlight and ventilation.
For solid wood shutters made of cedar, I recommend the large selection from Timberlane. In addition to wood, good options exist for shutters made just like wooden ones but in solid PVC, with obvious advantages in durability. Timberlane makes these, as does Atlantic Premium Shutters.
To look authentic, shutters need to actually work rather than to be nailed in place. Almost always, traditional shutters and their companion shutter dogs, or hold downs, are made of wrought iron painted black. Ball & Ball has an excellent selection.
All of my suggested changes to the exterior may sound expensive and like a lot of work. While that’s true in some cases, changes don’t need to be made all at once. The charm of a traditional home is that it grows over time as resources permit. Be patient and do things right rather than fast and furious. Your reward will be watching the house mature, just like watching your children grow in character and complexity.
Remember that traditional building is an adventure in connoisseurship and good taste. Over time, you can craft your new old house to present you and your dreams in the best light … the ultimate in sophisticated curb appeal.