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The Issue of Style

November 1, 2010

For the vast majority of homes built after World War II “style” is really just a veneer, a cloak of affect, which has the depth of a fashion model’s gaze with a subsequent lack of hard core impact on any desire you have to make a home accept the way you live.  Realize that the vast majority of traditional styles involves symmetry of windows and doors and roofscapes facing the street or, alternatively, a polyglot of roof forms that seem to center around and balance upon a pivotal front door.  Those semi traditional elements may look weird if you decided to halfway change them and in fact success in stylistic renovation favors the bold not the incremental. 

In truth “style” in American homes is far less than important that two critical meshes that are often ignored:

  1. The misfit between the plan of the house and the way the owner occupants actually live
  2. The nature of the way the house’s interior addresses the home’s site. 

As noted the vast majority of homes in America treat the street as a sacrosanct line that needs to be paralleled by the front of your house and treat the orientation of your home on its site as being subordinate to ease of car access. 

Classically the interior of the typical suburban house is a predetermined layout because of its “style” and this often means that unless the house prototype was designed the last ten years there are usually too many walls, too little informal living space, inadequate mud room and storage space in general, and all likelihood very little recognition that the kitchen is at the center of most domestic universes. 

Truth be told American homes are categorized in many ways that are more important to the average housing consumer than “style”.  The size of a home (the square footage “bang for the buck”) is preeminent in the determination of whether or not the home is “right” for any given family.  Size is not just the quantity of square feet but it is also the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, etc. 

Location is extremely important as are utility costs, condition, and the checklist of features (full basement, garage, outdoor living spaces) and these concerns often trump the “look” of the house for most housing consumers. However style can really be important for someone who is locked into a living situation without any ability to dump out of anytime soon. When you are forced to live with ugliness it undermines any sense of pride in ownership and in fact it can kill any motivation for making a home “yours”.

So “style” is an issue.  Unfortunately because we are steeped in the “naming of names” where a Ford or a Mercedes or a Toyota all carry connotations the same rules have been applied to houses where a “Colonial” has a different cache from a “Contemporary”.  The truth is that for the vast majority of American homes, style really is a paper thin fashion statement.  The origins of all home “styles” were indigenous ancient building attitudes that were built to be the most efficient home possible. 

The idea that a Cape would not have a large central chimney mass, or that a Center Hall Colonial would fill up its center hall with a bathroom at the end of it, or that a Victorian house would have a completely open first floor once you got through the front door are virtual heresies in terms of how these “styles” came to be.

Unless you are a historicist freak there is no reason to completely delve into these ancient arguments for why a certain home is laid out in a given way or even be a fascist in terms of the way it “should” look.  You have the authority to make any house be the best reflection of what you value.

In all likelihood you probably don’t have the ability to manipulate and change the way your home looks with the sensitivity or insights of somebody that has spent a great many years being educated and active in the creation of beauty in homes.  If the present visual state of your existing home is simply unacceptable to you, it is a good idea to hire an architect or a home designer that has had a lot of experience providing transformative rehab for your ugly duckling homes into morph into a place that brings a smile to your face when you return home from a slog.

Realize that you can never completely change a home without tearing it down and building new.  A late 18th century Cape will have that large masonry mass in its core.  A true late 19th century Victorian will have a heavily subdivided interior.  In all but the most the most intellectually bankrupt Center Hall Colonial designs that center hall will have a stair as the grand entry gesture.  However, there is nothing that says that you can’t completely reinvent your home to make it feel “yours” as long as you don’t a) break the bank and b) ruin whatever resale value you might have for any other person who might consider buying your home in the future. 

The best way to affect a stylistic change is to (really) understand what you love and act on that love assessment aggressively rather than pick a window from column A, stick it into façade B, and paint everything color scheme C (which has been the tradition for the vast majority of superficial stylistic renovations of most homes in the country.)

As we begin to realize the economic landscape will be an arid one for the foreseeable future, the “style” of our domestic situation is not a channel you can switch by flipping what you have to get a new look. Most people don’t dump a child or a spouse when they become more boring or irritating, and euthanasia is not the standard solution to very ill relatives. As we adjust away from fear of financial End Times, to a resignation that we may have a life sentence of reduced expectations it’s clear that for most of us the homes we have are coming along for the ride. That ride need not be a bumpy crawl of never ending frustration – take a deep breath, look at your home with fresh eyes (yours via being open to change or the professional perspective of an architect or designer) and move on to the next place in your life while staying put.

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