Making New Look Old

Philadelphia Business Journal

Featured Guest Columnists: Peter Archer, AIA & Richard Buchanan, AIA

08 June 2007

Charming though houses from a bygone era may be, frequently their quirks and idiosyncrasies do not work for the way we live today.  Designing a new residence with the warmth and appeal of yesteryear, or renovating an antique home in a way to retain its graciousness while accommodating a modern lifestyle, requires delicacy, sensitivity to historic precedent and tradition, and a special expertise that respects the past while laying the foundation for future generations to enjoy.

Our clients frequently ask us to create new buildings having the look, feel and best characteristics of traditional architectural styles, along with the spatial, technical and structural benefits of new construction.  They want practical, beautiful solutions to current patterns of life, family, work and recreation – in other words, their challenge to us is to make what’s new look old again.

Design is in the Details

In our view, good architecture is a sustainable way of building.  Rather than putting together a set of expensive, imported, pre-fabricated components such as trendy imported kitchen casework and appliances or gaudy synthetic extruded trims and decorations, we feel that a home’s design should include graceful proportions, good and lasting quality materials indigenous to the region, and that utilize the skills of local craftspeople to fabricate the countless intricate details. In this manner, architecture can be conceived as widely conservation-based both in regard to the re-use and repair of old buildings and the creation of new ones.

The Philadelphia region contains some of the finest work executed by a number of extraordinary architects, but their designs typically are not always practical for modern living and entertaining.  In our re-design of a home by the late colonial revivalist architect Richardson Brognard Okie, for example, we needed to convert a rabbit warren of former staff rooms into an attractive, comfortable and functional family space more suited to a modern lifestyle, without sacrificing the character and history of the home. The alterations brought the formerly “servant” utility spaces such as the pantry, kitchen, maid’s, dining room and larders up to date for contemporary living, while matching the character and detail of formal “served” areas of the house. The new living space included salvaging and re-using the home’s original antique, very wide and long plank floors and incorporating new cabinets of our design that reflect aspects of the former fittings, along with and custom reproduction hardware.

In another project, we performed extensive renovations to a circa 1906 mansion designed by famed architectural firm Duhring, Okie, & Ziegler.  The renovation returned the massive, graceful structure to its former grandeur. Again, we converted the former servant areas into a large custom kitchen with intimate spaces for family dining, while we also updated formal spaces to accommodate entertaining on a grand scale.  We restored, replaced and repaired century-old wood paneling, integrated new architectural millwork, fireplace tiles and chandeliers in the billiard room and added a new elevator and a spacious master suite.  All blended in complete harmony with the home’s century-old architecture. 

Another example is a new residence influenced by the Arts and Crafts style, which remains faithful to the master craftsmen who constructed such homes a century ago. The house features extraordinary carpentry and millwork, such as a half-moon bench in the dining room and curved mantel in the family room walk-in fireplace, stained glass and ironwork by local craftspeople copper-clad mahogany windows and pebble-dash stucco on the exterior.  The home has the spirit of early bungalows where private spaces are mixed with open, common areas that encourage family time and togetherness.

Guiding Principles

We feel certain factors are critical to achieve the desired effect of history and permanence, in both renovation/expansion projects as well as in the construction of new homes:

  • Consider the local architecture so the new house or structure fits into the period of the neighborhood. Our region is home to a multitude of architectural styles dating back to the colonial-carpenter era through to the best contemporary designs.
  • Consider the siting of the new structure in relationship to the property. Work to conserve existing trees and landscaping.
  • Use exterior materials that weather gracefully such as copper, brick and stone, and employ local craftsmen for custom interior and exterior detail work whenever possible. Avoid synthetic materials such as vinyl and particle boards that betray their cheapness with poor performance over the long term. Better to build smaller with better materials than build a McMansion with shoddy ones.
  • Best results in renovation or expansion projects will either adhere to the architectural style of the existing building or present really thoughtful contrast to it. Incorporating the building’s existing design to achieve a seamless result.
  • Proportion from one section to another is extremely important and can be achieved by a skilled architect regardless of the desired size of the new section. The same is true when adapting an older-era design for a modern lifestyle within an historic footprint. Often we are faced with historic homes that are too small in every direction for today’s living. We succeed in enlarging these houses, while keeping the older portion the “leading element,” by the subtle composition of windows, floor lines and roof forms.

Design to Last

Technology and science have developed modern building materials that promise to replicate the workmanship of earlier craftsmen and provide cost- and energy-efficiencies. But although the pace of change is intense, not all change is progress. The industry has made great strides, for example, in understanding the behavior of buildings that are super-insulated and sealed for thermal efficiency. But at the same time, we have seen the advent of some really unappealing synthetic materials we believe will not perform well and will age poorly over time.

Artificial wood or slate roofing, synthetic stucco systems on foam insulation, stick-on precast “faux” stone and pre-formed aluminum and plastic trims are a few of the materials that will not age gracefully. Rather, we feel these materials are marketed to a public wanting to ignore maintenance. Years on, when natural materials will have required a painter’s visit or a carpenter’s tune-up, the artificial items may have failed, dented or trapped moisture in some unpredictable way. This is why modern mold and “sick building” syndromes are not an issue for the breathable houses of the past. 

We also advocate a careful balance of technologies and systems discretely integrated with interior and exterior finishes of traditional, natural materials. We tend to utilize stone walls and terraces, wood siding and roofs, and slate, brick and copper elements. These original low-maintenance materials have been used for millennia and, when properly detailed and maintained, perform beautifully for dozens and even hundreds of years. Other ways we use materials to achieve an “old” feeling in a new place are by introducing into the design used, salvaged or antique building materials or new, natural materials fabricated by hand, such as flooring, slate or clay tile roofing, building stone, millwork, antique glass, hardware and ceramics.

Crafting Character

No matter the architectural style, we have one goal for each of our projects. It is the creation of houses and buildings that both contribute to and draw from the stream of our architectural heritage. These works aspire to be both thoughtful allusions to the past and innovative interpretations of modern life today. Our hope is our design will be remarked upon 100 years from now as wonderful examples of architecture at the turn of this century.

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