Home Renovations: Style and Character

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We have all dreamed of the kind of house we want, its spaces, its style, and its character. The reality of the marketplace, however, often presents us with houses and apartments that are not quite what we had in mind. We may have been looking for a new home but buy a turn-of-the century building instead because of location, financing, availability, or simply chance. In the process of renovating these buildings to suit our specific needs or to upgrade them, we should work with their style and character.

“Style” and “character” are often used inter changeably although they have very different meanings. Style refers to those elements in a house that place it in a particular time period. An old house would generally represent a style of its time. A new house, on the other hand, may at tempt to revive a style of the past or represent a current style. The character of a house relates to those elements in it that give it a distinctive quality. Many houses have a great deal of character without belonging to any particular style.


The changing nature of styles is clearly apparent in most houses. We are all relatively familiar with styles such as Colonial and Federal. There are few people who are fortunate enough to own original homes of these periods. Most of us fall into a much broader category of hybrid housing styles. Even houses in historic-landmark neighborhoods are seldom pure examples of a given style. There are many Victorian homes with Colonial Revival detailing and Cape Cods with Georgian door ways. Presently, it's not uncommon for builders and developers to arrive at an efficient house plan and then envelop its façade with a period “look.” The result is often a contemporary open-plan house wrapped in Colonial trimmings. If you are among those whose house is of a particular style or styles, the renovation process will take yet another dimension. The style (or predominant style) of a house should be seriously considered when planning a renovation.

Each style has its own sense of proportions and scale. It also has distinctive detailing (or lack of it). When we think of a Victorian house, the imagery is one of tall, ornate spaces. We envision intricate plans with unusual-shaped rooms. The exterior would have asymmetrical massing with turrets and oriel windows. In contrast, a traditional farmhouse brings to mind low-ceilinged rooms with wide-plank floors and small windows. The plan and the exterior would be simple with spartan detailing and a large front porch.

From the 1600’s to the present numerous styles have evolved throughout the United States, each with its own set of proportions, scale, and detailing. In many instances the style originated from basic functional needs, as is the case with Colonial houses. The great majority of American housing styles up until the 1900’s, however, evolved from an attempt to re-create styles which were fashionable in Europe at the time. After the turn of the century American housing styles started to develop in their own right with the emergence of the Craftsman movement and Prairie houses. The modern movement had an impact internationally and houses quite consciously shed their traditional trappings. Even today, however, eclectic housing styles are very much alive and well, and within the architectural profession a revival of historicism in buildings seems to be a very popular design approach. The Glossary of Major Housing Styles at the end of this volume attempts to describe some of the most popular ones. Be advised that there are numerous books and web sites that cover this subject in much greater detail.


The character of a house or apartment is one of its most important assets. Defining what we mean by character is relatively tricky. Driving through some of the older neighborhoods we often come across houses with lots of “character.” When we look at these buildings we see strong rooflines, projecting porches, and interesting window treatments. Their walls are sometimes covered with brick, intricate patterns of wood siding, or a combination of materials. They may display architectural features such as bay windows or greenhouses. The way in which a house is sited also contributes to its character. A rural house may sit nicely at the top of a hill or hugging a rock formation while an urban house may fit unobtrusively within the street fabric. Character is also influenced by landscaping. A house surrounded by dense vegetation is quite different in character from one which is landscaped with a formal gar den. The exterior character of a house is related to its massing, materials, siting, and landscaping.

When we walk inside a house or an apartment, we find that the sizes and heights of the rooms help to define its character. The character of a loft apartment in a warehouse is quite different from that of an apartment in an old luxury building. The loft would most likely have one large open space surrounded by enormous windows. The old luxury apartment will probably have many varied-sized rooms serving specific functions. A house with small rooms may feel cozy and intimate. Large rooms and high ceilings give an aura of grandeur. Symmetry or lack of it also has an impact on character. Symmetrical rooms tend to be more formal than those which are not. The quality of light within a house also relates to its character. Skylights and large window areas en able the house to embrace the outside. Conversely, small windows sparingly located could give a sense of protection. Character also relates to finishing materials. Floors become a prominent feature when covered with decorative wood parquet or with interesting tile patterns. A room displaying walls of rough brickwork is totally different from one with the slick covering of mirrors. The detailing of a house such as the wood work around the windows and stairs is also integral to its character. A house may have special architectural features such as marble mantels or window seats. The size and proportions of rooms, their layout, the quality of light, materials, and detailing all play a role in giving a house its character.


Most buildings are renovated or remodeled; few are restored. Remodeling a building involves cosmetic work. Walls are painted, cabinetry may be upgraded, and the bathroom fixtures may be changed. Technically speaking, remodeling does not involve structural or mechanical work. In a renovation a building is made sound and ready for use. Structural and mechanical systems are generally upgraded. Attention may or may not be given to the architectural integrity of the building. In restoring a building, not only is it made sound but its appearance is brought back to what it had been at some previous time (usually when it was originally built). This approach is taken with buildings of historical importance. Old buildings with no claim to fame are often “adaptively’ restored. Adaptive restoration takes into account the overall architecture of the building while also incorporating elements not always in keeping with the original design. For example, a house may feature an exquisitely restored dining room which is serviced by a contemporary kitchen.

An old warehouse loft was converted for contemporary residential use. The round form in the center (which hides the powder room) divides the kitchen from the living room.


A most important question you need to ask your self at the beginning of your renovation project is whether or not you are pleased with the way your home looks. Examine the house from the outside. Walk through all those spaces and rooms you know so well. Carefully evaluating those elements of your house that you want to retain and those that you don't is a key issue in the process of renovation.

General Issues

• Is the house or apartment representative of a particular style or styles? Is it your basic, comfortable builder’s classic? Can it be classified at all?

• Is there anything about your home that gives it a special character?

• Is there a particular architectural feature that is very important to the overall design of the house? Is it a feature that you love? Can the renovation expand and build on this feature? Would you rather forget it ever existed?

The Interior

• Is the house made up of a series of rooms that are very formal? Would you like to retain the formal character? Would you rather make it more casual?

• Do the rooms have a particular spatial hierarchy? For example, some rooms are definitely suited for entertaining whereas others are geared for relaxing.

• What are the proportions of the rooms? Are they large or small, tall or low? Do you like the proportions? Do you hate them?

• Does the house have any detailing? Which aspects of the detailing do you like the best? Which ones can you do without? If the house lacks detailing, would you like to incorporate some in your renovation plans?

• What are the predominant materials used for the interior finishes? Do you like them? Are you ready for a change?

• Are there any particular architectural features that display a high level of workmanship? Can they be saved and incorporated into the renovation plan?

The Exterior

• Do you like the proportions of the house? Do they need improvement?

• How do you feel about the size of the windows and doors? Are they too big, too small, or just right?

• Are the windows and doors of particular architectural interest?

• Are these windows and door openings providing you with the quality of light you are comfortable with? Do you need more light?

• Are the windows located so they take full advantage of the views?

• Is there detailing on the exterior?

• What are the predominant building materials used on the outside of the house? Do these materials give the building a rich texture? Is the house lacking in texture?


There are several design approaches that can be taken when planning a renovation (Inset I). The first and perhaps the easiest is to work toward re-creating the style of your house or apartment. A second, not uncommon approach is for the renovation to contrast the existing style and character of the building. Yet another one is to give character to a nondescript house.

Option 1: Re-creating the Existing Style and Character of Your House

If you decide to take this direction, the first thing that needs to be done is to clearly identify the style of your house. An Internet search or a trip to the library to familiarize yourself with the various books on the subject would be most helpful. There exists a wealth of books that can guide you through the various styles. The local historical society (if you are lucky enough to have one) can be an excellent source of pictorial information. These societies usually keep good photographs of neighborhoods and houses similar to yours. In addition to the style, try to find out the date when the house was built and by whom. The more you can find out about your building or buildings of that period, the easier your job will become.

The next step is to find out which are the key elements within that particular style. Each style has its own proportions and details. For example, Victorian buildings have traditionally had very tall ceilings. Should your house be of this style, any renovation effort would need to maintain the ceiling heights. Dropping the ceiling in the parlor from 12’ to 13’ will substantially change the house.

When you look at proportions in a style, you should look at the windows and doors, ceiling heights, and the sizes of rooms. Whenever you are replacing or adding any of these elements, keep them within the same proportions.

A close look at the detailing is also valuable. Federal homes are elegant in their simplicity of detailing. At first glance, they look relatively crisp and unadorned. A closer look, however, reveals a wealth of fine, consistent detailing. Any renovation effort which attempts to stay within an original style should display the same degree of detailing as the original building. Detailing features to look for are the window and door moldings, floor patterns, wainscoting, fireplaces, stairs, transoms, railings, hardware, ceiling moldings, etc. Should these architectural features be deteriorated, it's usually easier to try to repair them if at all possible than to replace them. When you have no choice but to replace, try to keep it in character by matching the material you are replacing in scale, color, texture, and design. Finally, a renovation effort attempting to re main within a style should keep to the original layout of the building. Let’s take a house or apartment with a formal plan. Rooms are ample and clearly defined as living room, dining room, and separate kitchen. Opening up the kitchen and making a gigantic kitchen—dining room space will detract from the architectural integrity of the building. The room you have just created may be lovely, but certainly not in keeping with the style of the house. You may do better by redesigning the kitchen to make it more efficient within the given space constraints.

A country house, originally lacking both style and character, was given a new identity by relocating the entrance, adding a storage room, and resurfacing with horizontal siding.

Option 2: Contrasting the Existing Style of Your House

In architectural and interior design magazines, we often find photographs of homes and apartments showing contrasting styles. This eclectic approach has become relatively popular, particularly with owners of older homes who, although respectful of the style and character of the building, choose to give their renovation effort a different, often contemporary solution.

To successfully contrast the existing style and character of a house or apartment is not an easy design problem. More often than not, the homes you see published have been designed by architects or other design professionals. This approach requires a careful evaluation of those elements in the building which give it its unique ness. It also entails learning how to keep some of these elements while adding others that will enhance the original. In short, it requires a sophisticated design sense.

One way to start is to survey the entire house or apartment with a critical eye to its proportions, layout, and detailing. You need to decide which rooms or areas in the house have proportions that you like and which ones can benefit from a change. For example, your house may have small rooms with low ceilings that you find both comfortable and cozy. These are pleasant spaces which you would like to maintain. None of these rooms, however, are of sufficient scale or space to accommodate your requirements for a family room. Perhaps the best solution is to add an ex tension to the house which could have a tall ceiling, a double-story space, or maybe even a greenhouse. Keeping the building intact while at the same time introducing a space unlike any other in the house can offer a welcome change.

A close look at the layout and hierarchy of spaces is also important. The owner of a loft apartment with large, two-story-high open spaces may like the exuberant feeling of the over all space but prefer to dine in a more intimate and formal environment. Carving a separate area out of the existing living-dining room can satisfy his criteria. It could be a small cube of space with a low ceiling that floats within the larger space of the apartment. This new room could be designed symmetrically and have a formal approach.

Materials and detailing also offer opportunities for contrast. A home rich in detail may benefit by having new elements such as stair railings and built-in furniture of simple design. The beauty of the original work may be enhanced by the spartan quality of the new additions. Conversely, the introduction of ornate architectural elements in an otherwise stark environment could provide the interest that had been previously lacking.

Option 3: Giving Character to a Nondescript House

We are familiar with homes that meet all our functional requirements. They have the right room count, enough bathrooms, and a kitchen of the appropriate size. Yet the house leaves us cold; there is nothing interesting about it. The house sorely needs something to make it special.

As in the previous design approaches, attention needs to be paid to the proportions and layout. One of the problems the house may have is that there is too much “sameness.” Every room is of approximately the same size and height. Windows and doors are all the same. A solution may lie in combining two rooms into a larger space. You may have to modify the structure of the roof to do this. If you can’t afford to lose any rooms, perhaps you can open up one of the exterior walls into a window wall. Another solution can involve raising the ceiling height by taking down the existing ceiling and opening up the room to the attic space. You may give the house variety by playing with the proportions of the rooms and their openings.

The house may have sameness of texture. There is little detailing and no variety of materials. Adding trim to the windows and doors or replacing the stair railing with a new and interesting one would most certainly help. Introduce new materials of contrasting colors and textures. The kitchen floor could have the rough texture of quarry tile or smooth-surfaced tile with an interesting pattern. The living room may have the richness of wood parquet floors, the slick covering of marble, or a carpet of an unusual color.

Special features such as fireplaces, greenhouses, and skylights always give character to another wise dull space. Rooms with lovely fireplaces have traditionally been favorites. There is a special appeal to rooms with a greenhouse. It could be that they offer the feeling of being outside within the comfort of our home. Skylights, as many and as large as possible, have transformed the space of even the most banal of cottages.

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