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Create a good fit
Historic building traditions are successful adaptations to the uniqueness of places. They represent the best judgment of generations to create a good fit. These traditions connect us to a shared past and the people who cultivated this place long before we arrived. By respecting local traditions we sustain indigenous character, and confirm this is a place worth keeping. America’s best preserved historic places are also its most revered. Each has a historic building tradition with models to emulate, and architects, builders and craftspeople adept in the local conventions. They can provide new work that fits the setting while appropriate for life today. Here are some ideas implicit in building traditions and how they support coherent places.

Respect character of the site
Consider the new house within a larger context—a street, landscape, neighborhood, and cultural region—and its orientation to the sun and prevailing weather. Enhance the natural setting and historic character. This could mean adapting the design to fit existing contours or a distinctive pattern of development.  If the area is long established, there will likely be a vernacular tradition to draw upon.  Respect this tradition and your new house will not be seen as an intrusion.

Invent within the rules
Historic building traditions provide practical guidance and embody the wisdom of earlier buillders.  Traditions have an implicit set of rules and practices, a kind of DNA to generate form.  These rules determine appropriate building types, scale, features, materials, construction methods and details, and give the tradition its distinctive flavor.  Use these rules to create new designs, and invent as necessary within their parameters.  A traditional house should be built from fundamental characteristics, not a style applied like frosting to a cake. 

Stay true to type
Learn to recognize historical patterns within the specific house types— their layout, massing, roof forms, and details— and use these to develop an authentic character for your project.  Respect the scale and proportions of traditional models.  A common mistake is to pick the wrong model. We have all seen the wee Cotswold cottage blown-out to McMansion proportions. A new house will feel right if it is well integrated and appropriately scaled.  Historic houses were often smaller than houses built today.  If the program requirements are too large for historic type, select a different model or scale-down the project.  Another preferred strategy is to design the house to appear as if it had been enlarged in stages over time— which was common of early houses.

Accomplish the most with the least effort and expense
To make a well-detailed traditional house more affordable, avoid redundant or underutilized space.  Develop multi-use spaces that can do double-duty rather than separate rooms for every use.  A smaller house rich in spatial variety and detail may satisfy more directly what many people seek in a big house.  Find the most direct and least complicated solutions to design problems—ones that show ingenuity and resourcefulness.  The challenge is to make every design feature satisfy more than one goal, and for all features to support the vision. 

Design for the future
Perhaps the best way to care for the future is to be mindful of the past. Cultivate a wider perspective on historic building traditions of the area and your understanding of local precedents.  For new work select long-lasting materials and methods of construction that have withstood the test of time.  Authentic building materials may cost more than simulated ones, but they will last longer and be more cost-effective. Consider using materials that develop a patina and become more beautiful with age-- like stone, copper and handmade brick. Some salvaged materials, like remilled old growth lumber for flooring, are likely of better quality than new materials sold today.

Allow for change and growth
Avoid over-developing the house in its initial stage, because it could restrict its ability to adapt over time.  Make a simple building and anticipate where a room, porch or other feature could be added. This will allow the house to change and grow as circumstances change.

Use craft as a bridge 
Skilled workmanship and fine craft are qualities all cultures appreciate, and their expression helps bridge the gaps of culture and class.  Most people experience the "thinking hand of craft" as generosity, a kind of gift. Select builders and craftspeople who know there is more to work than a paycheck.  Builders who take satisfaction in good work will be more engaged in your project if their standards of quality are shared by you and the other participants.

Include latest technology and creature comforts   
Traditional designs should not compromise contemporary life or our expectations for comfort.  Integrate into your design the most up-to-date mechanical and communication systems, but not to stand out.  Employ unobtrusive solutions that will not compete with the historical character of the house.  One advantage of pre-modern houses is most were better adapted to climate and weather since they lacked air conditioning or other mechanical methods to compensate.

The revival of traditional architecture is based on an assumption that we can learn and benefit from precedent. We can create better quality buildings and more satisfying places to live than what has become commonplace today--something the avant garde and Howard Roark types just don't seem to get. 

Thanks to Russell Versaci for his "Eight Pillars of Traditional Design" from Creating a New Old House which provoked these remarks, and wasn't it The Fountainhead that revealed to the 16-year-old his true calling?

Tim Andersen

Designing a New Traditional House
 Howard Roark may be of little help
Gary Cooper, The Fountainhead, 1949
Gary Cooper as architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, 1949
Traditional knowledge is knowledge that has been remembered or recorded, handed down, pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined over a long time.

Wendell Berry
12 March 2018