Home design for non-designers Working with the home you have (instead of against it)

Today we’re back with our series on home design for non-designers.
(Yeah, I know:  It’s been awhile. A little bathroom project interrupted this party.)

Missed the first three parts? You can check those out here:
Part 1:  Two basic principles for creating a house that feels like home
Part 2:  Your personal design principles
Part 3:  What’s YOUR kind of nice?

In part 1 we talked about one of our basic principles for creating a home we love:  making choices that work with the home you actually have, rather than trying to turn it into something it’s not.

Today, we’re going to give you some exercises and information to help you figure out how to do that.

Let’s get to it!

Remember when you were in junior high (or middle school for those of you a bit younger than us) and there was only one way to be cool?

kristy mcnichol

Image via Hiss&Pop

scott baio

Image via Teen Idols 4 You
















(Don’t they look oddly alike? Weird.)

Which might have something to do with why so many of us weren’t cool:  We either had to be ourselves (which was generally not the one way to be cool) or try to be someone we weren’t (which almost always ends up being uncool).

That was some pretty cool hair, let me tell ya.

Cane didn't have awesome feathered hair, but he did have that bitchin' shirt.


















I can’t tell you how glad I am that I’m not in junior high anymore, and that I can take what I’ve learned about being true to myself and apply it to the task of designing a home we love.

In this part of our series on design for non-designers, we’ve got some activities to help you figure out what (who) your home really is.

‘Cause when your house tries to be something it’s not, it just doesn’t work.

Step 1:  Figure out what kind of house you’ve got

If you’re a regular reader, you know by now that Cane and I are learning (and sharing) as we go. With some things, my baseline knowledge is pretty much at 0, and that was definitely true when it comes to home design.

I never thought much about house styles or architectural history until my realtor started talking about mountain houses and how they’re different from suburban houses.  When he asked me to make mine “more mountainy” I wasn’t sure what that really meant.

So I did what we all do:  I started googling.  It took me awhile, but I finally found enough images that I was able to figure out what that might mean (and to realize that the house I had was an unfortunate mismash of “mountain” and contemporary suburban).

Rather than sending you off into the Google hinterland, we want to help you shorten your search for ideas and information about your home’s personality and heritage.

Exercise #1 is a reading assignment.
For this, we’ve got two places to send you:

American House Styles from This Old House
This is a good starting place, as it features pictures of a range of house styles from the days of the earliest European settlers.  It doesn’t, however, have much information about each style, and it doesn’t have much about houses from the 1940s on. It might be helpful in determining which broad era your house is from (if you’re not sure) before you go to the next source:


Home Styles Guide from About.com
We like this site because it more clearly defines different styles for each era.  When we bought our house, we thought it was a split-level.  We still refer to it as a split-level (because that’s what lots of people think it is), but we’ve learned that it’s actually a split-entry raised ranch. Why this difference might matter is important when we get to Step 2.


In our initial quest for information on home styles, we also consulted some books. We didn’t find any that were great enough to recommend, but in writing this post I did stumble upon The Visual Dictionary of American Domestic Architecture on Amazon. We haven’t read it ourselves, but it (and the related titles listed on its page) look like another good place to start, especially if you want to go further in learning about all kinds of houses.  (We don’t get anything if you buy this book, btw).


Step 2: Figure out why your house was built the way it was

Before I began this journey, I knew there were different kinds of houses, but I never thought much about why that is.  I knew I liked “old houses.”  To me, all houses were either old or newish, and my thinking had never gone much further than that.

So, the idea that the design of a house might reflect its times and ideas about living from the era in which it was constructed was a new one to me. (Have I mentioned that I’m a relative newbies who’s figuring out things as we go? Yes, I believe I did.)

What did we learn and how did it help us?
We know that one thing others find unappealing about our style of house is the very thing we like most about it:  A mix of public and private zones and clear distinctions between each. We totally understand how families in the 60s and 70s–a time when kids and adults didn’t orbit the same world as much as they do now–would find this ideal.

brady bunch

We get why Mike and Carol wanted a tucked-away family room for their tribe. (Image via Squidoo at http://www.squidoo.com/brady-bunch-merchandise)

More contemporary homes feature an open floor plan with great rooms–so that all the action in the home is happening in the same place. The raised ranch/split level usually features a separate family room. While this wouldn’t have appealed to us so much when our kids were younger, we really like this aspect of our house now that we’ve got two teens and a tween.)

basement family room

This is our family room, located--yes--in the basement. It's definitely in a private zone of the house, which means it's perfectly fine that it's more comfortable than stylish. This is the kid zone, though you can often find all 5 of us here catching a movie on a weekend night.

Another thing many don’t like about the raised ranch/split level:  It’s so common.  But again, this is something we discovered we like.  We like that these homes were built for regular old working-class families. We like that the idea was to provide affordable housing with room enough for everyone to have both privacy and shared space. (For something that really influenced our thinking on tract houses, check out Pam Kuebler’s Mid-Century Modest Manifesto on her site Retro Renovation. More on Pam and her site below.)

Yes, you can find these houses everywhere. Makes us like ours all the more.

The important thing here is not the particulars of houses from our era (or any other). It’s that learning something about your home’s history can help you both appreciate it and make decisions about how to best carry it into the future.  (For example, this Wikipedia article about the Arts and Crafts Movement contains great information about the design principles of that movement that would really help us if we were putting our personal stamp on a traditional Craftsman house.)

So, how do you start thinking about this aspect of your home?

Exercise #2 is to do more reading to learn about design features/principles for your home.  Here’s a place to start (if your house was built before 1960ish:  An Overview of 20th Century House Styles from Antique Home Style.

Another way to find information, once you’ve identified the style of your house (Craftsman, Tudor, Cape Cod, etc.), is to put that search term into Google and see what comes up.

Some other search terms you might want to attach to your house style (particularly if there’s lots of information on it):

  • homes
  • style
  • decorating
  • design
  • philosophy

Another route to go is searching for the history of specific rooms.  Kitchens, for example, have changed tremendously over time. If you’ve got questions about what to do with your kitchen, you might search “kitchen design history” and see what  you find. (Interesting stuff!) Think of this as a treasure hunt. Follow links and see where they take you.

Step 3:  Decide how true to its origins you want to be

Once you’ve got a good idea of what your home is (and was intended to be), you need to think about how true to its origins you want remain. We’ve got some thoughts about that, and about the whole idea of “updating” a home.

Seems to us that everything in home design/decor falls out of favor when it’s about 10 years old.  When it’s around 15-20 years old, it’s likely to be considered not just outdated, but “hideous.” That would be why both of us hated split-levels when we were young adults looking to buy our first  homes. Everyone hated them then.

Get far enough out, though (around a good 40 years), and those “hideous” homes are suddenly retro cool. (That’s why we predict that the split-level is a house whose time is about to come.)

split-level home with extended roofline

We love this house in our neighborhood--but neither of us would have looked twice at it 20 years ago.

Problem is, if we’re updating every 10 years or so, by the time the house is old enough to be cool it’s likely been stripped of many of its desirable original features. What’s the solution?

split-level living room with brick fireplace

We love the windows that flank our upstairs fireplace--they're made from wavy-gold glass we see all over our neighborhood. We're positive our front door used to have the same glass, but it's long gone. Because these are the only windows in the whole house like this, they seem a bit out of place.

We’re not here to tell you the answer to that, as we think the answer can vary. We will point you to a post and comment thread on the earlier-mentioned Retro Renovation site, which you can find here, which provides tons of food for thought on the question of home renovation.

While we don’t think there’s one right answer to this question, we do think a house can go all kinds of wrong if you make choices that are really out of character for it. Case in point:  our house.

grandma-decorated dining room

Our dining room before we bought the house.

brass and glass light fixture

A close-up of the dining room light and heavily-textured, faux-stucco ceiling.










At some point, our house was “updated” with features we associate with McMansions:  brass fixtures and door handles, brass/glass lights, “designer” paint colors (in mint and sage green), valances over all the windows, a front door with feminine, floral etched glass.

Perhaps these choices would look good in a different home (say, a true McMansion), but we think they register far too elegant for a modest, pedestrian split-entry home. To us, they just don’t work–not because they are “dated,” but because they don’t really fit the house’s unpretentious, working-class roots.

split-level dining room turned into a library

This is what the same space looks like today. Still have the ceiling, but have ditched the thick carpet and window treatments, and we've swapped out the brass/glass light fixture for one from the 70s. We're working on the wall color and on getting rid of the plastic mini-blinds.

As we’re making changes to remove those elements that seem out of character, we’re thinking continually about the line we’re walking between the house’s heritage and today’s ideas about design. Right now, the house probably feels worse than when we started because we’ve got some real mixing going on.

Our kitchen with many of its remaining design challenges.

Our kitchen poses some real challenges for us. We swapped out 90s vinyl floors for cork that feels more in keeping with its ’70s vintage (and we’ve since painted that long wall, which you can see here), but this space has major “updates” we don’t want want to replace–because the pieces are functional and would be expensive to swap out. (Discarding perfectly good old stuff for expensive new stuff would definitely violate some of our personal design principles.)

Those cabinets are white MDF–hard to paint and don’t look at all like the original cabinets (in the garage). We’re guessing the tile counters were installed when the cabinets were sometime in the 90s. We know we want to replace the light fixtures in here, too (have two brass/glass “boob” lights in addition to the chandelier), but aren’t sure what will both complement the ones we’ve already installed (you can read more about that here) and not look weirdly out-of-place with the cabinets and tile.

Are we saying you can’t mix anything up?

Of course not! I guess we are saying you need to mix carefully and thoughtfully, though. Just this week on Apartment Therapy, we saw a home with an interesting mix of Craftsman and contemporary, which you can look at here.

home from Apartment Therapy

This is the Fleet family home, via Apartment Therapy. (Access it through link in the text above.)

We think this house works because most of the things that would have come with the house (doors, windows, faucets, light fixtures) are true to its original style. The modern touches come primarily through the furniture and textiles.

Step 3 is easier said than done, and we think it takes awhile, especially if your house has been updated at various times. To figure out where that line between original and contemporary is for you, we think you’ve got to play around with figuring out what you like (you can find some ideas for doing that here) and you’ve got to figure out what your personal design principles are.  That’s the topic of our next installment in the series, which we hope to post sometime next week.

In the meantime…

We’d love to hear about your house. What kind is it?  What were houses all about back when it was built? And if you’ve got an older house, how do you walk the line between old and new?

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