Designing a New Old Home: Beginnings
In March of 2018, Simplicity and I bought three small former haying fields overrun with pine trees in southern New Hampshire, just outside a historic village. Our goal was to build a traditional-looking house that we designed.
We wanted to give attention to aesthetic and functional features that are absent in many newer homes, such as thoughtful use of light, space, ventilation, and some passive cooling. It seemed like it would be possible to design something more attractive and with fewer complications than most new homes. We did not have a large budget, certainly not a typical “custom house” budget, but we figured that with some careful tradeoffs, and by doing some of the finishing ourselves, we could build something modestly beautiful.
This series will detail our project and what we’ve learned, including what we wish we did differently. We will share as much advice as we can, from how we think about design and planning, down to what we paint with and how we finished our floors. If you plan to build or design your own home, we hope you will find it useful.
If this sounds familiar, it is because parts of this series were originally published on Medium. They are being expanded and completed here.
Looking for Homes, Finding Land
Our original plan was to buy an old home and renovate it. We expected to teach ourselves a number of skills by working with a house that needed care and improvements, and then maybe 10 or 15 years later, we might be ready to build our own. I still think this is the preferred route, and underrated for most young couples who enjoy spending time trying to make something beautiful. Fate veered us differently, however. In the next town over from my birthplace we made two offers on 1800’s homes, and backed out of both upon inspections during which we discovered there was hopelessly too much to fix for our budget.
Near to one of the houses we had hoped to buy, there were a few acres for sale. The land was overrun with pines and vines (including poison ivy), but it was quite pretty. It was within walking distance to the village, with one side up against a small forest, and you could easily tell it was a former pasture. Its setting had the rare quality of feeling both open and secluded. With love and attention we had no doubt it would be beautiful.
In fact, compared to most “building lots” it had such potential for a pretty setting that we were surprised to find the land had been on the market for almost two years when we stumbled upon it. The land was expensive, however, and used up a large part of our prospective budget. Some things are worth overpaying for, even if you have to compromise elsewhere. It is nice to have a rare occasion when the choice is so clear.
With plenty of hope and a little delusion, we set about figuring out what a construction loan would be like, and how far a budget could go if we built something as beautiful yet simple as possible. We did not aim to build a minimalist house, but we would accept an austere beauty over a compromising ugliness, with the hope that it would grow as we do.
The clearest tradeoff we could make was to do all the landscaping ourselves. After the sale, each day after work and every weekend, we would go to the land to cut down trees with axes and electric chainsaws. Eventually a friend with a tractor sped this up, especially with moving brush. But rather than steamroll the land into open space, we have tried to work slowly and on-foot when possible, saving alders, blueberries, and wild flowering crabapple trees We knew it would take years to discover everything that is truly here, and want to keep as many of its secrets as possible.
What‘s the matter with modern homes?
Before we go over our learning and planning for a traditional home, it’s important to take a scrutinizing look at modern homes. I want to talk about the process of making a home without wallowing in complaints about modern housing, but they must be mentioned just enough to give you an idea of all the things we hoped to avoid. I think most people have an intuitive sense that older homes are often special, and newer ones are often not, even if the reasons are not immediately obvious. (Of course some of this is just survivorship bias: Many uninspiring old homes existed, but did not last.)
Growing up in an 1840’s house in New Hampshire, many features of modern homes stand out immediately:
They seem designed primarily to maximize one thing: the square-footage number that will be on the listing when it’s sold. Maximizing for this not only comes at the cost of everything else on the budget, it also leads to ridiculous room designs, random chasms, and dead space. An eye towards making the best sale does not create the best living space.
Carpet has replaced wood flooring. $1/sqft tile (or linoleum) has replaced the rest. Very cheap looking tile fills even expensive homes.
Hardware is of poor quality, even in half-million-dollar-plus homes. Cheap and ugly faucets, light fixtures, doorknobs, and paper-thin doors dominate. While somewhat understandable in the least expensive new construction, it’s surprising to me to find these things in more expensive homes.
While many modest old homes have low ceilings, you’ll still find ceilings both unnervingly too low and way too high in modern homes, such as sudden 2-story living rooms, or 2-story “lawyer foyer” entryways. They exist out of all proportion with the rest of the house.
Availability of electric light has allowed builders to ignore the sun. They do this to such an extent that some modern homes need the lights turned on at almost all times, for example, to use a kitchen in the morning at breakfast. Many rooms have few or only one window, while hallways often have none at all. Often windows (or the lack thereof) offer neither good light, nor a view, nor provide a pretty façade from the outside.
“Forced air” duct heating and cooling has allowed builders to ignore window-based ventilation. Modern homes have almost no concept of airflow outside of these systems. Even in houses with central air systems, rooms get too hot, or too cold, and people living in the houses sometimes must install window AC units (in houses that already have central air!) or keep windows open in the winter to moderate these failures.
There are more subtle aesthetic problems.
As the availability of stores like Home Depot (founded 1978) and Lowes (21 stores in the 1960’s) spread — both have over 2000 stores each today — the commodification of house hardware intensified. Today it is easier to find the things you are looking for quickly, for example if you need a replacement doorknob. This also means that everyone’s doorknobs look exactly the same. As manufacturers and distributors consolidate while carrying only a few brands, the details of houses homogenize. As they converge in style, people stop considering the hardware as a choice at all, and so everything becomes even more of the same. Through this sameness the hardware became a cost that could now be cut.
Standardization is typical of the aesthetic deep state: before you can choose any options, you are limited by which choices are even available. In theory, availability through the internet could put a stop to this. It’s easier than ever to find small companies making nicer, more interesting hardware, and it’s easier to find antique hardware via eBay, Etsy, and companies that salvage old house parts, or make restoration and period hardware. But builders don’t care, which leads us to the next problem.
Homes are not built by people intending to live in them. Instead, they are built by builders, who mostly want to flash-form “units” —as many as possible, as fast as possible, out of sticks and drywall. Everything from sunlight to cabinet pulls becomes not just an afterthought, but a non thought. The major architectural decision is how to maximize square-footage, over all else, in order to maximize sale price. This is because at some point in the past consumers wanted more space, and space (considered as square-footage) was an easy, legible metric to aim for. It is so integral today that every real estate site will put exactly three details next to the price, and it is one of them:
4 beds 3 baths 3,018 sqft
The other variables faded into the nondescript sameness of whatever the big suppliers were selling. Since housing is not exactly a commodity, and new construction is dominated by bigger developers, this is hard to change, even if all new house buyers would prefer something wildly different than such a status quo.
One might think that custom and expensive homes would be in a class above. This is not nearly as true as I’d expect. So many bad homes have been built in the last 70 years that it appears even high-priced home designs do not consider aesthetics or the elements. I suspect this is partly because the customer still does not demand it, and partly because few builders are actually thinking very much when they design houses, instead they are aping other designs, and the designs they are aping are often the poorly-conceived McMansions.
This million dollar new construction house is at least trying to avoid the typical McMansion exterior aesthetic faults, but still has glaring deficiencies: Bedrooms 2 and 3 contain only one window each, and all the hallways (three masses) contain a single outside window between them, in the stairwell itself. There’s a square mass of upstairs hallway labeled Loft that is larger than the bedrooms, which is not the only useless hallway on display. This is new construction over a million dollars, and the listing gives no indication of where the sun is coming from, or any orientation info at all. They can’t imagine you’d care. Only from spying on Google Maps or the tax map can we sort-of guess that the bathroom, which has more windows than any upstairs bedroom (at two), will perhaps receive the southern sun. The hallways will have almost zero sun, and the ventilation will be provided from the basement.
I don’t want to dwell on bad homes. For that McMansion Hell by Kate Wagner has written quite a bit about the subject. But I do want you to have enough context to understand what we’re running from as we designed ours. Aside from the above complaints, many modern homes are simply ugly, inside and out. This is sometimes because they are too simple, but often it is the opposite: The pile of masses that are added to increase square footage often accompany useless cascading gables, complicated roof lines, cluttered features, and sometimes comical proportions.
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Now we have covered enough of the why. The next post in this series will be about how we started—and what you can do—to develop your visual thinking and prepare as much of a design as possible before talking to any builders or architects.
The next part is here.
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This newsletter is called The Map Is Mostly Water, and is about a number of topics.
This house design post is part of a series inside that newsletter, called Everyday Aesthetics.
If you want to see more photos of our house and the land, there are lots on Twitter, and also on my Instagram and Simplicity’s Instagram, though you may have to rummage through a lot of baby pictures and building projects to find them. The coming parts will include many photos as well.
“aesthetic deep state”: I think Beiser coined this term, many years ago.