In his line of work, residential building designer Mark Decker has seen a little of everything. He’s even been asked, he admits with a laugh, to participate in some of it.
“I once witnessed a 1950s ranch home with gingerbread applied to the eaves,” he recalls.
“It looked ridiculous. It was so jarring because you don’t expect to see that kind of detail on a house like that — a house designed with simplicity in mind.”
Historic architectural styles seem to reflect materials in use, climate of the region in which the home was built and attitudes of society at the time of construction.
Craftsman-style homes, for example, were designed to display fine wood craftsmanship, with gabled roofing, wide eave overhangs, open rafter tails and elaborate porches.
Interiors feature wood detail, usually dark, and extensive moulding.
Clues to the age — and style — of any home can be uncovered in factors such as floorboard widths, window styles and moulding types. A designer’s bible, residential building designer Mark Decker recommends the design guide, A Field Guide to American Houses (Knopf, 1984) by Virginia and Lee McAlester.
Other resources include local tours of historic homes or area historic societies. In addition, books available at home improvement stores show a variety of styles, though more loosely defined, as well as classic reproductions and modern ideas.
Don’t be surprised, Decker notes, if your house is a mix of styles. Most newer American homes are not a specific style. For any remodeling work, the key is to find out what style a home is, then choose whether to keep it or change it.
Another example of what-was-someone-thinking, a prairie style home, popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright for its horizontal lines and low hipped roofing with deep overhangs, had been restyled with vertical board-and-batten siding.
“It looked very strange, like a mushroom,” Decker recalls. “You had these vertical lines and this big cap on top.”
With so many historical reference points, from glorious Victorians to sturdy Craftsmans, home styles can practically beg to be restored. Unfortunately, few road maps are provided guiding homeowners how — and how not — to accomplish such a task.
A rule of thumb is that home styles can be divided into two categories; classic and modern. Unless it’s a deliberate reproduction of a historic style, most newer homes don’t sport an obvious style. Home improvement stores, on the other hand, offer everything from Roman-style columns and Craftsman corbels to gothic moulding.
“The bottom line is, don’t be too afraid to do anything. If you’re making improvements, and you’re happy with the results, that’s the main thing,” Decker says.
“However, if you are going to try to mimic a certain style, you want to make an effort to do some research. The main thing is consistency. Choose a style and stick with it. Then, when you question what kind of columns or windows would go with what you’re trying to accomplish, refer back to the style and it answers the question for you.”
Another consideration, Rogue Valley architect Heiland Hoff says, is realize that building styles were primarily built with function in mind. Consider the climate in which the house will be built. Notice there aren’t many castles, stucco homes or flat roofs in Southern Oregon.
“We have all these California folks come up and want a southwestern style adobe house in the middle of Oregon,” notes Hoff. “As an architect, the client is always right. I can’t say I’m completely blameless because if I can’t talk them out of it I’ll usually do it, but there really are certain styles that don’t belong in Oregon… If you absolutely must build a Cape Cod house, you really ought to think about doing it in Cape Cod.”
Along the same lines, housing styles should be somewhat complementary to neighboring homes.
“If you make a hospital, you don’t want it to have a steeple or people will think it’s a church!” says Hoff with a laugh.
“You want, or you should want, the styles to match not only the rest of the house, but the rest of the neighborhood. If you want to start a little development, and you get some other people to go along with your foolishness, then it’s not as bad to have 12 houses on the block that are adobe.”
For homes with a pronounced style, whether newer “reproductions” of classic styles, or the genuine article, check into city codes, neighborhood CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions) and historic guidelines for remodeling.
In any case, remodeling a home in need is better than being afraid to make changes.
“It’s important to realize that you can carry conformity too far. We don’t want every house to be a cookie cutter of its neighbor,” Decker says. A house that stands out somewhat can be an interesting conversation piece. But make sure you understand — when you’re specifically calling attention to that house — that it screams different. If that’s what you’re going for, great! But the neighbors may not be so excited.”