This Old House vs Shiny New House-Making a New Old House

See previous post, “This Old House vs Shiny New House,” on the advantages and disadvantages of both lifestyles. How do you make the choice between a new and old house?

It’s true, “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Post war houses, when compared to their pre-war counterparts, can seem charmless and homogenous. Imitation materials and touches can look cheap and tacky (remember faux brick walls?) You could blame Mies van de Rohe, who helped introduce modernism and buildings free of context. He was meticulous and careful in his craft, but in the mass market the style translated to depressing boxes with no baseboards or trim and had the unfortunate timing of happening right when houses were being mass produced for the baby boom. (For an entertaining look at modern vs. traditional architecture, check out Tom Wolfe’s “From Bauhaus to Our House.” It’s a fun, quick read)

Not easily (or cheaply) replicated: Mies van de Rohe’s Farnsworth House, completed in 1951

Mid-century, building materials became standardized, trades became specialized, and housing became much more of a commodity. If you know the buyers are there, and a stripped down version of a home is now acceptable, why bother with moldings, cornices, cut glass? Especially for developers today, unless you are building a very high end product, “charm” just doesn’t pencil.

In retaliation to the McMansion phenomenon, Sarah Susanka published “The Not So Big House” in 2001, showing that charm doesn’t have to be a thing of the past, but to to afford it we needed to shrink our collective expectations of the size of a house. Instead of spending money on size and volume that costs more to build, furnish, heat and cool, spend money on real materials and creating quality spaces. Gone are the days when a Realtor could say with a straight face, “You need a formal living and dining room for resale.” The feeling of being inside a house with solid wood floors, wood windows, crown moldings, real wood paneling, and built-ins is unmistakable, but these things come at a price. One way Susanka proposes making up for space is creating nooks and alcoves to replace rooms, which are some of my favorite aspects of old houses (I refer to them as “nooks and crannies”).

The House of Turquoise blog is featuring on-going “tours” of an amazing old new house in Utah. This link is for the first “tour,” but it’s worth it to scroll through all of the entries and photos. Aside from the obvious close attention to every detail, what really makes this house spectacular are the floors, many salvaged from different places.

Reclaimed oak flooring from an old barn make this new house feel old, but without the drafty windows, leaky plumbing and faulty electricity of an actual old house. I love the plaster ceiling and chandelier also. (Photo: Hiya Papaya)

Originally posted for D+A Studio

This Old House vs Shiny New House

The past few weeks I’ve been looking at the Paradox of Choice as it applies to custom home design. One of the toughest decisions for an architecture junkie is between an old and new house. I am seduced by beautiful photos of clean, modern houses, and my own space is white walls with simple furniture and not much decoration. But then I go into an old house and fall in love with the nooks and crannies and intricate wood work.

Old doesn’t necessarily mean gingerbread. Modern architecture goes back to the early mid 20th century and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House was completed in 1951. But in many speculative (i.e. a house you didn’t commission and build yourself) homes today and of the last few decades the cost of charm is prohibitive, and you won’t find the delightful surprise rooms tucked away and areas waiting to be finished like you can in old houses.

Below is a post I did last year for D+A Studio on the choice between an old and new house.


I, like many people, have a thing for Old Houses. It started in my childhood: a trail behind our backyard led to a cluster of trailers behind a large 19th century farm house. A Grandma lived in the farmhouse, while her kids and their kids occupied the trailers. I spent endless hours with her grandkids exploring the nooks and crannies of the Old House, complete with a secret passage exposed behind a mirror in a closet. In my super cool old house fantasy, this house would be part of the underground railroad-which is not too far fetched considering it sits just a few miles north of the Ohio River on the border of Kentucky and Ohio.

Don’t expect to walk into a model home and find this: intricate wood detailing, solid wood stairs and floors, solid doors and stained glass in an Old House. Photo Credit.

Exploring an Old House as a kid is magical. Attics with years of treasures offer endless exploration opportunities, exposed eaves and cathedral ceilings feel like castles, back staircases make for a perfect game of hide and seek.

The reality of owning an Old House is not so magical. I’m talking pre-war, solid oak floors, 12″ base and crown molding, built-ins abounding, nooks and crannies, solid wood windows. That castle like attic has mice who love to nibble on what’s left of the insulation. Those indestructible solid floor, once level, now offer a different slope in every room thanks to a sinking foundation. Those beautiful solid wood windows are cracked, the caulk is peeling away, and you can tell the outside temperature just by standing next to one of those single panes.  You can hear mice running in the lath and plaster walls. The archaic electric system needs to be replaced, the plumbing leaks, the floors squeak (growing up, all I heard from my dad was “Stop running–you’ll skip the record!”).

Well, now we don’t have to worry about the IPod skipping. Heck, you can now control your heat and lights from your phone. This is the New House. Windows are now at least double pane standard, filled with argon gas, if not triple pane. Houses are so tight that only the tiniest insect could sneak in a roof vent; insulation fills every millimeter of the exterior envelope. The plumbing is efficient and brand new, the electrical system had to pass a million safety tests from the factory to the distributor. The roof has a warranty of 30 years.  There’s plenty of space for everyone and enough bathrooms to go around. If you’ve lived in an Old House and spent every other weekend working on whatever was broken this week, it may be hard to imagine living in a house where the only project is weed-eating the sidewalk and mowing the grass.

Shiny, sleek, and ready to go: a new speculative condo

Yes, it sounds like a vacation. But most New Houses (usually spec) offer no surprises. Features that are there just for “delight” are the first to be value engineered out of today’s tight margins.  There’s probably no back staircase, or a wall of built-ins in the dining room, or small nook off the bedroom, or solid wood baseboards over solid oak flooring. You might find laminate floors posing as wood, baseboards made of MDF, hollow core doors, textured painted walls. Of course, nicer speculative developments and custom homes can bring some interesting touches, but it’s just not the same as an Old House, built before television sets, building and energy codes, vinyl windows, microwaves, even cars.

I don’t live in my last home yet. I’ve lived in homes and apartments built in the 40′s, 70′s, 80′s, turn of the century to brand sparkling new. As much as I love Old Houses, my view of my time in my turn of the century apartment  is romanticized by the fact that there was a landlord to call, and the kitchen and bathroom had been updated. And as you may guess, as a designer, I have a modern bent and hope to someday build what my husband dreads will be the “oh, the architect lives there” house on the block. But whatever I choose, I will surely miss the other–unless I can miraculously blend the two, which sounds like a great design challenge to me.

Why did you choose a New House, or an Old House? Any regrets?