Wrap-up Building Tradition and History

New House, Old Soul – Ep.14 – Final Wrap-up


With so many new housing estates being built today looking like they were designed by a mass-produced cardboard box manufacturer, it’s great to see some designers looking to the past for character and style inspiration. Brent Hall has shown us in this series that it’s possible to create something that looks historic using modern high-performance building materials. For that I tip my hat.

In the final episode of New House, Old Soul we look at the grand tapestry of architectural history, there is a profound allure in creating new houses with the heart and spirit of centuries past. “New House, Old Soul – Ep. 14,” our final wrap-up, beckons us to explore the intricacies of this art form that blends tradition and innovation in perfect harmony.

As we delve into this episode, we embark on a captivating journey through the annals of American architectural traditions. We decipher the rich stories hidden in the brick and mortar, understanding the nuances of Victorian, arts and crafts, and Greek revival styles. The echoes of the Industrial Revolution reverberate through design and construction, and regional variations provide a roadmap to a bygone era.

The delicate balance of modernity and heritage, exemplified in kitchen cabinets or informal living spaces, is a testament to the dedication of craftsmen who breathe life into these structures. French-inspired details, exposed hinges, and meticulously chosen design elements transport us through time.

With every episode, we have sought to reveal the magic of infusing new houses with an old soul. Join us in this grand finale as we weave together the threads of history, proportion, and charm. Share your thoughts on the elements that ignite your passion for architecture, and together, let’s craft homes that stand as living legacies to our collective heritage.

“Final Wrap-up” New House, Old Soul – Ep.14

Video Transcript

New house, Old Soul, this is the wrap-up. Hopefully watching all these episodes, you’ve gotten into the mindset of how I think about building, how I think about a house, so that you can begin to build differently.

Build Original Series hosted by Bren Hall – “New House, Old Soul,” sponsored by Stellar Floors and the Unico.

I can really dial down pretty far when I talk about narrative to story, but what really is that narrative and story? How do you put that together? You have to have a love of history, you have to have a love of building traditions, okay? So, you know, I think I’ve told the story that when I think about someone saying, “I want a vernacular farmhouse,” my question is, “Okay, well, where is it? Okay, when was it built, and who built it, right?” Because those are the things that are going to help me craft it. If it was built in Virginia, it’d be very different from something built in Texas. If it was built by a farmer, it’s going to have less high-style things than if it was built by a gentleman who had a lot of money. And then, what time period was it built in? Was it built pre-industrial or post-industrial?

Now, realize, too, that once you answer those questions, I know enough about building history and traditional building techniques that I can say, “Okay, well, if it’s stone, how did they work the stone? How did they cut the stone? Did they quarry stone locally? Was it fieldstone? Was it literally the guy was plying on his fields and would pick up stones, and that’s what you were building with? Or was it quarried? Was there a local quarry or local stone that would have been used to put it together?”

Well, so if it’s a stonehouse, what do the windows look like? If it’s a what do the doors look like? What does the roof look like? There’s a rabbit hole. It’s just, you know, Alice down the rabbit hole, and there’s all these connecting pieces to that. So that becomes your narrative. Right? Because then you have to say, if you’re going to build this new house but you want this vernacular, well, okay, that really wasn’t a master Mason with cut stone and all these different materials. There’s a dial that we’re playing with, you know, this heavy vernacular, really rustic stuff to this very refined thing. Where are we in here? And then, once you kind of say, “Well, we’re going to be here,” let’s dive in deeper and figure that out.

It’s understanding the difference between Victorian and Arts and Crafts, Victorian and Greek Revival, right? It’s understanding when Greek Revival ends, when Victorian starts, and maybe there’s some muddying the line between something that’s going on. And understanding when the Industrial Revolution affected and influenced architectural styles and houses and how they were put together. When architects became popular in America, right? You hear what I’m doing, right? I’m talking about all the history that’s involved in American building. And so I love that, right? I get excited about that because I think it’s fascinating. I think it communicates a story. Right? Here we are back to narrative.

And so, you know, the building history, understanding that, now I gained that thing by reading books. Virginia McAllister’s Field Guide to American Houses, it’s a classic. Understanding those styles and then actually going to different places and traveling and looking around so that I could understand, you know, we don’t have a lot of Second Empire houses here in Texas, but there’s a ton if I go farther East. And so, you know, looking around, going to Charleston, going to Savannah, going to Philadelphia, understanding the architectural traditions in these areas, going to Annapolis and figuring all that out. Right? So there’s this rich history that I love.

The second piece of that, and it’s part of history, is that building tradition. And building tradition is when would bricks have been used? Okay, when would stone have been used? When would…why is there so much wood architecture in America? What’s going on? And not only when, going back to history, but how would they have? One reason why all moldings pre-Industrial Revolution are painted is because they’re a softwood and you really didn’t highlight a softwood. You can’t hand plane with one of these hand planes, you know, a piece of Oak, right? I can’t take a wood body plane that would have been available up until the 1880s. I can’t take that wood plane and plane a bunch of Oak, okay? The knife will dull too fast. Very hard to do. But the soft pines you can. So understanding that building tradition, that you wouldn’t have a stain-grade kitchen in a Colonial house, right? Never would have done that. It’s not just history, but understanding how it was built during that time, right? Understanding, you know, regional differences. You know, if you go to Colonial Williamsburg, you see the end of the eve that runs across, they create a little cutout on the as an eve end like why did they do that? It was a regional thing that happened, right? Looking at how they did a wood roof back then, looking at how they did cornices, looking at, you know, how those things were built, the stonework, making the brickwork a rubbed a brick, right? I mean, a good example is a very simple house around the corner from ours. It wants to be a Tudor house, and when we did the outdoor living room, we took the best of that Tudor tradition, wasn’t seen on the house, but the best of the Tudor tradition and really upscaled the quality of that living space, the beauty of that living space. And if anything, if the house was here, you know, this addition kind of raised the quality level of the house in general because we pursued these historic building traditions that, you know, elevated everything.

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So understanding those traditions is a really important part of getting the old soul infused into the home we’re building today. Out of a 10-page playbook, if we use history, it’s a thousand pages. A lot of the problem with that 10-page playbook, you end up with stickers, and so you end up with, “Well, I want a traditional house, so I’m going to stick columns on it,” right? And not understanding, you know, when columns were used, how columns are properly organized, why there needs to be a beam or an entablature, why you can’t run your column directly up under your porch, you know, why, okay?

And so one of the things that makes a new house a McMansion, one of the things that is indicative of the McMansion thing, and I’m using McMansion to be kind of the cheap, overbuilt, you know, gaudy kind of sometimes houses that are happening today because they take these architectural elements and they stick them all over. They’re trying to infuse an old soul, but they don’t know how to do it, and so they end up with ugly things that are taking place in the house because there’s four plain windows on the front of the house, right? There’s no organization of where things are going to go, and they’ve got columns in weird places, and the columns are too small. They look like a toothpick, or, you know, they overwhelm things, the scaling proportion is wrong.

So realize that this old soul, when you practice things from the past, you get those traditional details right. The other thing that you’re going to be wrestling with is balance, okay? The balance of bringing together modern and cool things with an old soul, right? Think of a kitchen. The kitchen historically, going back to the ’20s and ’30s, was a work area. It was designed to be an efficient workshop. How do you do it today, where we’ve got that’s the center of the home? Well, you know, there’s a balance there of trying to figure out how to put those parts and pieces together. You guys are going to have to wrestle with. Typically, on a 1920s house, there isn’t an informal living room, there’s no den. So it becomes natural for us to do additions on those houses where the kitchen opens up to those areas. But realize that a bunch of important decisions there is that your kitchen cabinets need to look like a traditional early 1900s kitchen, or you’re going to not get it right, even though you open it up to an informal living area, even though there are only two walls instead of four, because you’re opening it up. The cabinets are really important, and you have to get those cabinets right, or you can mess the whole thing up. So there’s a balance there of figuring all those things out.

Dormers are another example. I mean, the reason I think people make big dormers is because they, well, I want all this great space up there. Well, why put one small window in this huge space there? It doesn’t make sense. So there’s some rules. I always talked about the 80 or 90% of those dormer faces are windows, and oftentimes it’s 20 or 30%. It just looks goofy. So there is balancing this function, right? They want to use that space, but it’s got to be balanced with the beauty of the home, the architectural style. If it’s an Arts and Crafts thing, it probably is a shed roof instead of a doghouse dormer. So anyway, there’s a bunch of balance and acts you’re going to need to do, and it’s wrestling, and guys, you probably don’t want to hear this, but you’ve got to fight for these things. You’ve got to fight to break out of that 10-page playbook. You’ve got to fight to get over here or to get over here, and you’re going to have a lot of people pushing back on you. You’re going to have a lot of people saying no or you can’t, and I’m just telling you, I do it all the time, and the guys that are working with me now, they realize that the playbook is much bigger and realize that I’m pushing them outside of their comfort zones to get better things. Look, I’m just looking at the past, but it’s a great teacher, and it’s a great place to start if you really want an old soul in your new house.

So now I want to take you over to a French house we did a number of years ago and talk to you about the French traditions that we tried to incorporate into this house, infusing that old soul right with some timbering, with some antiques, architectural antiques, the doors, the moldings, and different things that we did to try to give it that twist and push it in that direction.

Escaping is really coming in nice, and it’s really beautiful now, but there are a number of details, and I’d like to call them layers and differences that we did to give this house a narrative, a story, a history. One, you’ll notice that at the top, we’ve got an eve detail with modillions coming through the roofline, okay? So that is meant to convey that this… and this stone block, notice that we’ve got a stone-built house here is the main body, and then the outside bodies are a little bit different. So the eve detail changes, the coining is the same, but the stucco, not stone. So all these tiny little layers and little details, it’s French. How is it French? Well, the slope of the roof, the fact that we’ve got all French doors and casements, I talked about double-hung versus casement, this is all that kind of traditional kind of French country and how it lays out.

So the patterns of the doors with that large panel below and the lights, even the way that we made the mutton bars is French, right? It follows that same story. It follows that same line. You know, this entry, the hipped roof on the entry, and that door, that huge T-aisle, is something you see in France. And so we’re just looking at French details and copying them. Inside, you’re going to see moldings. You’re going to see architectural antiques all in an effort to kind of lean one way or another. I mean, here, you’ve got a decision about doors, let’s make doors that kind of lean French. You’ve got a decision about moldings, they lean French, right? All of a sudden, you do 5, 6, 10, eight of these things, and you have a much more real house, a much better story.

So come on inside. Let me show you some of this. One of the videos I shot, I was standing right here when we were talking about the moldings, and now that they’re painted, now that they’re finished, you’ll see the French influence, one. The height of this chair rail, this W-coat’s about, you know, 28 inches. It’s pretty low, but all the shapes, this lan coat cap, our door casing plin base, all have this kind of drippy Gothic French moldings because we look at French pattern books, and they have these deep, you know, kind of reveals and deep lines that only could have been made by hand originally. We actually had to take it apart so that we could make it on machines and things like that. But again, French moldings just infuse this house. Going into this door, this is the inside look of those exterior doors. What you’re going to notice is on the outside, it’s got a kind of a panel that sits on the face of the door. On the inside, though, we’ve got a sunken panel mold, French panel mold, and then these details right here, the way the mutton bars come together and the profiles here, all are come from French pattern books. So again, I’m going to show you each of these little 1% things, and you’re going to see how it continues to get better.

The kitchen is awesome. Come check it out. What you’re going to see throughout this house, right here, the fire mantle that’s out there, are antiques. And so part of what we’re infusing and putting into this house, there’s another one in the dining room, is using architectural antiques to help tell our story because, you know, that’s a nice French mantle. For us to make that, you know, it’s $20,000. For us to buy it as an antique, it’s five. And so we can, with careful planning of our money, actually buy something that’s very authentic and very beautiful, contributes to the story. And a lot of that’s architectural salvage. You can do that with hardware, you can do that with doors, you can do that with mantel and so all good stuff.

You’ll notice the ceiling as we walk into the kitchen is a beam ceiling, okay? And so we’ve taken antique beams and planed them down because they’re a little bit more of a refined house. So in here, as well as in here, we’ve got these beam ceilings, which remind us, okay, that we’re in that French country house, that we’re in that older house in a rural setting. And so it just kind of helps bring everything back. And so that’s really a wonderful detail in here. We’ve got our typical inset doors, which we do for our cabinets. Our cabinet doors are thicker than 3/4 of an inch. We’ve got true butt hinges here. So we want that historic look and historic feel. Pre-1940, all hinges were done with exposed hinges, exposed hardware. It’s only after World War II that you have the European hinge where everything’s hidden. So if we want more of a furniture look, which we do, we have to do this kind of hardware where the doors are inset to the face frame. It’s more of a furniture quality. It hearkens back to the past, right? And so maybe this is a 3% thing because I think it just makes such a big impact. But the inset moldings that we do, the way we raise the panel, those are French details. But you contribute a lot of these, and all of a sudden, this kitchen right is really magnificent. And even though we’ve got modern appliances and modern things in here, marble countertops, we still have that old feel because we got the cabinets right. Cabinets are huge in a kitchen because they take up so much of the surface area.

Let me show you outside. We’ve got an outside living area and, you know, some interesting things for living outdoors that really are special. So one of the things that’s getting into the materials of the building is that this would have been a solid masonry building. And the reason we spent a lot of time on these arches, making these feel like solid masonry arches, is because we wanted to convey that feel of that kind of structure. Solid stone structure would then support these beams. And so we’ve got solid oak beams that run across here that even have a natural little twist to them and a little movement to them that give it that feel like it’s been here for two or 300 years. Notice we’ve got a four-centered arch here. Okay, this is a Gothic arch, and it’s a form of a Gothic arch, and France was certainly where Gothic starts and where Gothic really lived for a long time. You think of Notre Dame and things like that. They were building those Gothic cathedrals in the 13th and 14th century. In any case, we wanted to convey some of that, right? So we’ve got timbers, we’ve got these massive stone arches, and then we’ve got an amazing living area over here that is a little bit distinctive, a little bit different, but I think communicates our story wonderfully.

This ends up being one of my favorite spaces because what we’ve done is we’ve come away from the house, where we’ve got the stone arches, we’ve simplified things, we’ve come out, and we’ve got these wood beams. Now, these are solid oak beams that moved quite a bit. You can see how much they’ve checked. I love that, right? Because that, to me, is communicating that traditional way of building that they would have used these massive timbers, and so you see the cracking on these timbers, you see them moving as they’ve been dried out over time, but it’s white oak, so I don’t fear those things rotting because it’s a really high-quality wood. We’re able to even throw in some joinery details. We’ve got the dovetail thing where those things lap together. So, you know, conveying kind of how that was built and how that was put together. And of course, this wood ceiling over here, we’ve got a historic mantle, and this mantle is very different from the mantles inside, which are more refined. We come out here, and this is that country French mantle type that again came from architectural salvage but really does help. We even got the antique brick on the back with the herringbone pattern. Right? Little decisions that we make along the way that really take you back in time, make you wonder, wait, where am I? What’s going on? When you can have winds like that, when you can have things that improve things, you really do tell that story. You really do infuse your house with an old soul. So this is it, guys. How do you build a new house with an old soul? It’s a number of little steps, a number of little 1% wins that when you combine a bunch of them together, you have a better house, you have that old soul. It’s architectural salvage, it’s understanding historic proportions, it’s all those fun nuanced things that can help you build better. I love this house, the way it’s come together. I love the dormers and getting the dormers right. We talked about that, the dormer sizes, making sure that the window face works, the overall feel. You know, simple things like decorative rafter tails, carriage-style doors, you know, matching those historic details really can and does make a huge difference and really can help your house have that magic that you’re looking for when you’re trying to get that old soul. Thank you, guys, so much for following along. I’ve read your comments. I’m glad you like it. Some of you guys just sent me emails, asking me how to do more things. Love it. That’s what this was for, hopefully to inspire. Thank you, guys, so much for following along. I’m Bren Hull. Thanks for watching.