Designing a New Old Home: Part 1

How we started, and suggestions for starting your own project

In March of 2018, Simplicity and I bought three small former haying fields overrun with pine trees in southern New Hampshire. Our goal was to build a traditional-looking house that we designed. In doing so we wanted to satisfy many aesthetic and functional features that were lacking from the modern homes available, such as proper use of light, space, ventilation, and passive cooling. With an aim towards the things we loved about old houses, it seemed like it should be possible to design something with fewer complications, yet more beautiful and useful, than most modern construction. With some careful choices and by doing some of the finishing ourselves, we thought we could make it relatively inexpensively, too.

This will be a series detailing our project and what we’ve learned, including what we wish we did differently. We will share as much advice as we can give, from how we think about design and how we started planning, down to what we paint with and how we finished our floors. If you plan to build or design your own home, we hope you will find it useful.

Simplicity in our (still partially complete) kitchen

First: What‘s the matter with modern homes?

I want to talk about the process of making a new home without getting bogged down in complaints about modern housing, but I want to talk about modern homes just enough to give you an idea of the issues we wanted to avoid. I think most people have an intuitive sense that older homes are often special, and newer ones are often not, even if the reasons are not immediately obvious. (Of course some of this is just survivorship bias: Many poor old homes existed, but did not last.)

Growing up in an 1840’s house in New Hampshire, many features of modern homes stand out:

  • They seem designed primarily to maximize one thing: the square-footage number that will be on the listing when it’s sold. Maximizing for this single variable not only comes at the cost of everything else on the budget, it also leads to ridiculous room designs, random chasms, and dead space.
  • Carpet has replaced wood flooring. $1/sqft tile (or linoleum) has replaced the rest.
  • Hardware is of poor quality, even in half-million-dollar-plus homes. Cheap and ugly faucets, light fixtures, doorknobs, and paper-thin doors dominate. It’s somewhat understandable in bottom-of-the-barrel new construction, but it’s surprising to me to find these things in more expensive homes.
  • While many modest old homes have low ceilings, you’ll still find ceilings both unnervingly too low and too high in modern homes.
  • Availability of electric light has allowed builders to ignore the sun. They do this to such an extent that lots of modern homes need the lights turned on at almost all times, for example, to use a kitchen even in the morning. Many rooms and hallways have few windows, or only one window, and many windows are insultingly bad at their job.
  • “Forced air” duct heating and cooling has allowed builders to ignore window-based ventilation. Modern homes have almost no concept of airflow outside of these systems. Rooms cannot easily be aired out. Even in houses with central air systems, rooms get too hot, or too cold, and people living in the houses sometimes must install window AC units (in houses that already have central air!) or keep windows open in the winter to moderate these failures.

There are more subtle aesthetic problems.

As the availability of stores like Home Depot (founded 1978) and Lowes (21 stores in the 60’s) spread — both have over 2000 stores each today — the commodification of house hardware intensified. Today it is easier to find the things you are looking for quickly, for example if you need a replacement doorknob. This also means that everyone’s doorknobs look almost the same. As manufacturers and distributors consolidate, while carrying only a few brands, the details of houses converge. As they converge in style, people stop considering the hardware as a choice at all, and so everything becomes even more of the same. Through this sameness the hardware became a cost that could now be cut.

One of our doorknob plates, from an architectural salvage

Standardization is typical of the aesthetic deep state: before you can choose any options, you are limited by which choices are even available. In theory, availability through the internet could put a stop to this. It’s easier than ever to find smaller companies making nicer, more interesting hardware, and it’s easier to find antique hardware via eBay, Etsy, and companies that salvage old house parts, or make restoration hardware. But builders don’t care, which leads us to the next problem.

Homes are not built by people intending to live in them. Instead, they are built by builders, who mostly want to flash-form 60 “units” overnight out of sticks and drywall. Everything from sun positioning to doorknobs becomes not just an afterthought, but a no-thought. The major architectural decision is how to maximize square-footage, over all else, in order to maximize sale price, because at some point in the past consumers wanted more space, and space (considered as square-footage) was an easily legible metric to aim for. The other variables faded into the nondescript sameness of whatever the big suppliers were selling. Since housing is not exactly a commodity, and new construction is dominated by bigger developers, this is hard to change, even if all new house buyers individually have other desires.

You might think that more custom and expensive homes would be in a class above. This is not nearly as true as I’d expect. So many bad homes have been built in the last 70 years that it appears even when it comes to building high-priced homes, the designs do not consider aesthetics or the elements. I suspect this is partly because the customer still does not demand it, and partly because few builders are actually thinking when they design houses, instead they are aping other designs, and the designs they are aping are often the poorly-conceived McMansions.

The second story of a to-be-built, $1,175,000 4 bd 6 ba 3,835 sqft house, in my town

This million dollar new construction house is at least trying to avoid the typical McMansion flaws, but still has glaring deficiencies: Bedrooms 2 and 3 contain only one window each, and all the hallways (three masses) contain a single outside window between them, in the stairwell itself. There’s a square mass of upstairs hallway labeled Loft that is larger than the bedrooms, which is not the only useless hallway on display. It’s new construction over a million dollars, and the listing gives no indication of where the sun is coming from. They can’t imagine you’d care. Only from spying on Google Maps or the tax map can we maybe guess that the bathroom, which has more windows than any upstairs bedroom (at two), will perhaps receive the southern sun. The hallways will have almost zero sun, and the ventilation will be provided from the basement. I wonder if it will sell for its $1,175,000 asking price.

I don’t want to dwell on bad homes. For that McMansion Hell by Kate Wagner has written quite a bit about the subject. But I do want you to have enough context to understand what we’re running from as we designed ours. Aside from the above complaints, many modern homes are simply ugly, inside and out. This is rarely because they are too simple, usually it is the opposite: The pile of masses that are added to increase square footage often accompany useless cascading gables, complicated roof lines, cluttered features, and sometimes comical proportions.

Why not just buy an old home?

We made two offers on old homes (and backed out of both on inspection), before buying land. We thought we’d learn more from renovating first than building something new. I still think that’s probably true. Lots of old homes have their own big problems, just usually of a different variety than new construction.

Starting home design: How to begin

We’re not professionals. But most houses in history were not designed or built by professionals, and a lot of design decisions that remain stubbornly ignored today used to be common knowledge. If you truly care about your dwelling, and you’re in a position to build your own home, I think you would be mad to leave things up to only a builder or architect (but by all means, you should involve them). I cannot tell you everything you need to do to design your home, but I can tell you what helped us, what we wish we knew when we started, and what I think you should consider. (And in a later part, what we did differently.)

Ideally you start thinking about design years before building, and over time you develop a number of designs and desired patterns to reason about. Here is how we did it and some advice.

Much of our hardware is salvaged

Step 1: Develop your visual curiosity

Begin by noticing your surroundings.

The world is built from materials, I recommend that you become obsessed with finding out what they are. What are your walls made of? Interior? Exterior? The most beautiful places you go regularly, can you remember what the floors are made of? Return and look. What about at your work? The gym? Think about the tiles in the bathrooms you visit, even commercial, on the floors and walls. What colors are they? What does it look like where the tile stops? What makes up the ceiling of your basement? Can you see how the floor is built?

What’s your kitchen table made out of? Is it wood, or does it just look like wood? How are the legs fastened to the top? Why do some wood floors look like shiny plastic? Why do some showers look dumpy, and others luxurious? What makes them feel this way? Is it the tile? The floor material? A liner? The lighting?

You also need to notice when you find beautiful places. It is not just materials and components that create these places, but patterns and interactions between materials, light, and space that create an atmosphere. Beautiful places do not repeat identically the world over, but they do rhyme. I suggest you start to collect some of these places.

The easiest way to do this is to build two photo libraries: One for more general “mood” aesthetics, and one for specific items or designs you might want in your house.

I suggest starting with two digital albums to collect these photos, in Google Photos or whatever service you might use. One album to get a sense of the moods or styles you like. They can clash and be wildly different, including totally unrealistic where you live, but its important to have them on hand. You will want to go back to them often and think about what makes each special to you later. If you end up working with an architect, you will want this to show them, too.

I suggest you keep revisiting and adding to the pictures you save, and ponder them often, just as you revisit the cherished art in your life. You do not need to become an expert in anything, but you do need to see enough environments you like to start having feelings about the differences in them.

After this, you will want to make a second album to record all of the specific things you’d like to see in specific rooms: Tiles, trim, window styles, exterior styles, knobs, appliances, baseboards, molding, cabinets, everything.

I highly recommend you do the same on Pinterest, making at least two boards to separate general aesthetics and house specifics. In our general board, we have a number of sub-boards to separate pins out by room. Long after construction, we still use Pinterest for keeping track of decoration ideas, landscape planning, and ideas for additions. I’m separately collecting ideas for cottages, if I ever get the chance to build another (smaller) home.

Our main Pinterest board for house designing contains ten sub-boards.

If you’re building a house together with someone, you should share and use these albums to talk about what you love and hate about design together. Aesthetic disagreements (and ultimately agreements) can be very useful for paring down design ideas from a large set.

A small digression about Beauty

A good home should be both functional and beautiful. Where to put the laundry machines is important, but how to make an enchanting breakfast nook, or an enchanting anything, is just as important and not at all straightforward. You should think of your home as more than just a place to sleep and do chores, it must also be a place where you can enact daily rituals, and let its beauty dawn on you. Fundamentally, whether you’re living in a palace or a tiny apartment, “Home” is the set of rituals you make for yourself and others there, in order to dwell poetically in a place. It is worth cultivating an understanding of beauty and rituals as compelling forces, and it is worth listening when environments speak to you, even if you never have the chance to design a home. Even in the very small scale, most people have more control over their environment — and their environment has more control over them — than they realize.

There is much more to say on this topic, but I will leave it for another time.

Step 2: Develop your spatial curiosity

Before you can make floor plans, you need a sense of what appropriate sizes for rooms really are. Eventually, once you have some floor plans, you will want to make computer visualization mockups, and go to an empty parking lot with some chalk or tape and draw the plans so that you can try them out by walking around in them. But not yet: Due to the openness, it’s a big mistake to assume that walking around the chalk house design will feel like being in such a house. To accurately size rooms for a floor plan, you should start in already-built homes.

Get a tiny tape measure

Get at least a 16-foot tape measure, ideally a little one you can carry everywhere, and start measuring every room you enter. Measure your bedroom, your hallways, you office or cubical if you have one. Measure your bathrooms, your friends bathrooms, kitchens, everywhere. Any time you come across a room and think “this is about how big I want a bedroom to be” or “this is a great size for a kitchen island”, you need to measure it (and measure the distance between the island and the counter, too). To get a feel for how big the rooms of your house will be, there is no substitute for actually being in realistically sized rooms of other homes. Only once you have done this can you start drawing realistic floor plans.

(Also: Get a second tape measure and leave it in your car).

What if you have never been in the kind of house that you’d like to build?

Get on Zillow and start looking for houses with floor plans that you do like. Then go tour them, think about their layout, and measure the relevant rooms. The agents (probably) won’t think you’re crazy. It’s nicer to go during an open house, so you’re not wasting their time.

Some historic town centers have old home tours (or “holiday house tours”) as fundraiser events. Many old homes have been converted into museums. If you haven’t been in many historic houses in your area, you should go see some.

Pondering homes

As you think about the spaces you visit, try to be aware of all the things you don’t see in the houses you like (or at all). For example, houses almost never have exterior doors opening right into the living room. For that matter there’s usually some kind of portal, hallway, or transition between the outside world and the indoors. Kitchen windows typically don’t give a view of the street, but of the back yard, if there is one. It can be difficult to think about the absence of undesirable features, but realizing what’s not done is just as important as planning good features. You could call the repeatable good features patterns and bad ones anti-patterns, like they do in many fields. The existence of patterns is important enough that you should read a book about the subject (that’s step 5).

Step 3: Sketch and Copy

Draw and sketch a lot — until you feel very comfortable doing it. Sketch facades freeform, with the ruler, etc. Sketching from photos is much easier than sketching from your mind, so you may want to start there. If you have any beloved houses from your childhood, you should try to sketch out their facades and floorplans from memory, too. The more houses you sketch, the more certain things will feel intuitively right about their design.

I suggest you start designing by copying designs and floor plans, if you have some that you like, and trying to modify them. It is almost always easier to begin with an existing good design, and think about how you can adapt it to your own needs and land conditions, than trying to start from a purely abstract blank slate. Almost all excellent homes are traditional, and all traditional homes are derivative. Whenever possible, you should build upon the careful thought of others.

Some early floorplan sketches, after we bought land but before we finalized a layout.

To make sketches and floorplans, you can use any kind of sketchbook or notepad. We often have several of different sizes laying around. My favorite are the ones with dot grids, like the ones Leuchtturm 1917 makes.

If you don’t have land yet, you probably shouldn’t be married to a particular design. Not all building pockets are flat, and the orientation of the house may be affected by other things, such as the road, especially if it requires a short driveway. Without knowing these, its difficult to know which direction the sun will be coming from, what windows might overlook the backyard or neighbors, and so on.

Once the house design is finalized and construction begins, you’ll want to continue sketching, this time for landscape design. If you choose to pay for landscaping (we didn’t), you’ll probably want a basic design done by the time the construction is finished. (If you’re like us, you’ll be designing and landscaping for the next 5 years).

An early plan
The first year: we cleared pines from one of the fields, and had a small garden

Step 4: Sign up for sites that have sales

There are a huge number of sites that sell more-interesting-than-Home-Depot house hardware, parts like cabinet pulls, doorknobs, light fixtures, tile, door knockers, and other details. If you sign up for email promotions, you’ll notice that many of these sites routinely offer 20% or more off sales. With a little foresight, you can sign up for all of them and if you find a part you like, just wait for the next sale. You could sign up for Anthropologie (lights, knobs), Rejuvenation, House of Antique Hardware (reproductions and retrofits), Pottery Barn (knobs and lighting again), and so on. The idea is that, with a long enough lead time, you almost never have to pay the retail price at such shops, so its good to do this early with brands and manufacturers you like and get an idea of when the sales are, how often, and how much. Some sites have big sales one or four times a year. Other sites go on sale so much their retail prices are practically a crime. Tile manufacturers (we used a lot from Cle Tile) also occasionally have large sales, and you could save thousands in tile and shipping costs by timing a sale.

Buying pulls and knobs sold as lots on eBay is sometimes cheaper than sale prices. If you find a bunch of expensive knobs you like on one site, go to eBay and search the product name.

Retail is only one place to find fixtures of course. To add to the old feel of our house, we bought some antique and architectural salvage lights and hardware, which you’ll see in Part 2. For this eBay, Etsy, yard sales, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and architectural salvage companies (There are a lot in New England) come in handy.

Step 5: Read

Unless you feel you already have a good grasp of the principles that make houses architecturally special, I suggest you take this step seriously.

At a minimum you should read two books. The first is Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use & Avoid by Marianne Cusato with illustrations by Richard Sammons and Leon Krier. It is a thoughtful book, illustrating in a “Use X — Avoid Y” fashion how to reason about appropriate features and patterns.

There’s a lot of detail in Get Your House Right, which can seem intimidating. This is less important, I think, than the proportions and the level of honesty that you put into your design. It is perfectly OK to build a grand house or a simple house, but a simple house should have simple features, and not exaggerated ones. When houses look bad, it is because things are usually out of proportion or aesthetically out of place. Cusato’s book is a great introduction to thinking about this.

Leon Krier also has a book of just his illustrations called Drawing for Architecture which explains intuitively the differences between good and bad architectural patterns, city planning, and living for that matter. You do not need Krier’s illustrations to design a house, but understanding his thinking will help, and I think his commentary-by-drawing is worthwhile.

Leon Krier

The second book you should read is The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander. Alexander proposes that our intuitive love of many beautiful places rests on a nameless quality. While it may be hard to define, it is easy to see and you have no doubt encountered it, in beautiful cottages, gardens, temples, ancient city centers, and other places. The quality makes a place feel so natural we almost forget that these places were the careful work of people.

Alexander wants us to work towards make these quality places, and sets about describing what he calls a pattern language for doing so. As I said before, beautiful places do not repeat identically the world over, but they do rhyme. There are patterns that make a place beautiful, not only in the design itself, but in the things that repeatedly happen there. When you design a restaurant or a breakfast nook, you are not just designing part of a building, but designing a place where people can enact rituals.

How was it possible that any simple farmer could make a house, a thousand times more beautiful than all the struggling architects of the last fifty years could do?

Or — still simpler — how, for instance, could he make a barn? What is it that an individual farmer did, when he decided to build a barn, that made his barn a member of this family of barns, similar to hundreds of other barns, yet nevertheless unique?

The proper answer to the question … lies in the fact that every barn is made of patterns.
— Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

The aim of The Timeless Way of Building is to introduce these patterns and to give a clearer description to the things we all already intuitively consider important about our environments. I hope you find it as inspiring as I do.

There are probably lots of other books worth reading, but the worst thing you could do is go buy a stack of books and then read none of them. Finish these two first.

Part 2

In the next post I’ll go through what we chose to build, what we think we did differently, and what we found unnecessary about most modern designs. If it’s not too long, I’ll also go over construction.

If you have any questions so far, let me know on Twitter.

If you want to see more photos of the house and the land, there are lots on Twitter, and also on my Instagram and Simplicity’s Instagram.

📯 I now have a newsletter, which contains a stromata of tales, philosophy, and ways to get lost in the forest.

Part 2 is now published, here:

Sacred things and making things. Literature, Food, Web Development. — In labouring to be concise, I become obscure.