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Style Choices

The issue of style is frequently raised in my architectural practice. Clients ask if I can produce designs that are "traditional," "neo-classic," "contemporary," or "high tech. They ask because the home they wish to remodel is in one of these categories and they want the new work to be consistent with the existing work. Or they ask because their house is of a disliked style or "no style," and they wish to convert it to a style that is recognizable and preferred.


I am sometimes asked If I have my own style. This might be the case if I were to design more homes "from scratch." But in fact, my practice is strongly focused on remodeling. Remodels, (unlike entirely new homes) are direct responses to existing construction conditions. In light of this fact, I work towards harmonious interaction with the style of the existing work.

The following hypothetical scenario illustrates architectural approaches to home remodeling and the context of style: A client desires a new kitchen addition to a one-hundred year old house.

















By looking at the house and identifying how it has been laid out, constructed, and detailed, I determine that the house is Federal Style. Federal Style was used in the United States in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, after the Colonial period and before the Greek Revival Style. Like any other architectural style, it is defined by a set of characteristic design choices. These affect everything from layout and massing to methods of construction, to materials, to scale and degree of ornamentation. The following are some typical Federal Style choices:

  •    central transverse stair hall with rooms to either side

  •    stone or brick foundations

  •    rustication

  •    slender columns flanking front doors to residences

  •    lunettes (semi-circular or semi-elliptical transoms above doors) with patterned leaded glass

  •    Arched windows

  •    carved sunbursts

  •    dentils, cornices and entablatures

  •    wrought iron railings with small cast-iron rosettes, and pine-cone or pineapple finials atop posts


Armed with this knowledge, it is possible to design solutions for this particular house which share Federal Style’s typical set of characteristics. For instance, how a porch typically attaches to a house. Or how a roof line typically accommodates an addition. Or how gable ends are typically trimmed.


A particular house was built 100 years ago, yet it was built 100 years after Federal Style was current. So even in its day, it was a revival of an older style. Styles can come and go and come back again in architecture as they do in fashion. When working with a building of an older style, it is important to think through your attitude towards the original work. It helps to differentiate between the letter of the style, and the spirit of the style.


Following the letter of the style involves reproducing the exact qualities of the existing work. In this case, the original construction includes hand carved wood, molded plaster work, and leaded glass windows. These materials and processes are no longer standard practice and may be attainable only at considerable effort and exorbitant cost.


Following the spirit of the style requires compromise. Perhaps it is possible to attain proportions and textures similar to the original by substituting modern materials. For instance, Where the original has fancy doors with carved panels and elaborate doorknobs, the addition could also pay special attention to doors. However, the panel proportions might be slightly different than the existing, using an off-the shelf panel door. The doorknobs might be ornamental, yet simplified. Even if this solution does not match the existing work exactly, it will reflect the spirit of the original. This design strategy consists of a particular balance of old, new and faux old (imitation old) elements, made with the integrity of the whole house in mind. I endeavor to apply the strategy consistently throughout the project, from the largest design decisions of layout and mass to the smallest details. The old and the new can be made to coexist graciously.

Now when it comes to a kitchen, the letter of the style of an old house is usually unacceptable for modern tastes. In fact, even the spirit of the style can be seriously challenged by current kitchen needs. Microwaves, refrigerators, cook tops, under-counter lights, televisions, and the like have no place in a true Federal style house kitchen. Most homeowners choose to compromise authenticity for the sake of practicality when it comes to kitchens and bathrooms.

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