There’s a street in my neighborhood that offers the perfect tableau of old house versus new. On one lot is a home built around 1865. It boasts restrained proportions, stately exterior trim, and cedar siding installed so flawlessly that the caulk—if there is any—is invisible. The half-round copper gutters and downspouts have an aged-yet-elegant patina and the wood windows present a handsome bearing to the street.
Architecturally speaking, the newer home (circa 2016) isn’t bad. A farmhouse-style building, it sports fiber-cement siding, vinyl windows, and painted pressure-treated porch columns. Bonus: The porch roof is standing-seam metal. Still, the home lacks the gravitas of the older house. But why?
The older home has more architecture, for one thing, and more detail. With bay windows, exterior trim, corbels, and flared and woven corners, Victorian-style buildings gave the designer (and the builder) more opportunity to flex his or her professional muscle. The newer home, on the other hand, is more stripped down and easier and more affordable to build.
Another obvious difference is the materials palette. The new home’s vinyl, pressure-treated pine, fiber cement, and aluminum (gutters and downspouts) look nice enough, but they face tough competition from perennial buyer favorites such as cedar, copper, straight-grain fir, and stone.
In some ways, though, the new house is better. Even if the 1865 energy hog has been updated over the years (as it surely has), the new home offers more closet space, an open floor plan, higher-performing windows, and better air sealing, insulation, HVAC, wiring, plumbing, and more.
Blending old-world architecture and natural materials with modern-day building science is the sweet spot in home construction, but not everyone can play in this arena. Authentic materials are pricey, making them unaffordable for the average production builder.
Custom builders don’t face that cost barrier. You have the enviable opportunity—nay, privilege—of designing and constructing new homes with up-to-date amenities, amazing materials, and the latest advances in building science. It’s important you don’t squander your good fortune.
Nigel F. Maynard
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