As a busy design/build contractor I spend a lot of time in Philadelphia homes that are over 100 years old and I’ve seen what attracts people to them. I also know what changes people ask me to make to their house when they renovate. Here are five things that many old homes have in common that you should consider when you build because they will add value to your new home (for example, in Tudor-style Plan 900-8, above).
Windows It’s not unusual to find a 100 year old house with its original wood windows intact and operational. It’s also not unusual to find windows built recently that are practically useless after 10-20 years. Though you should buy the best windows you can afford, there are architectural features on older homes that contributed to the longevity of the windows.
Roof overhangs protect the house from the elements, shown above in Plan 536-2, as do setbacks that set the window into the façade instead of flush with the surface, as shown below in Plan 120-183.For the window itself, I recommend a wood window, clad on the exterior with aluminum.
The wood interior gives you charm and a material that can be repaired and painted in the future. The cladding means you will probably not need to paint the exterior during your time in the home.
Hot Water Heat Radiators are a common sight in an old house, especially in the Northeast. The heat that comes with hot water is quiet, even, and healthier than forced air heat. Quiet, because no fan turns on to blow hot air through your house, so if the system is properly bled of air, the circulating water makes no sound. Even, because the radiators release heat into the air after the water stops circulating. Note, if you lived in a house with radiators but not one that also had one of today’s new efficient boilers you are in for a treat: outdoor sensors help modulate the temperature of water in the radiators to make the heat more even and comfortable. Hot water heat is healthier because you aren’t blowing allergens and dust around the house as much. I say as much because the rising heat off radiators does create convection currents that move air around the room. For a truly excellent hot water heat experience, try radiant heat, where the hot water circulates at a lower temperature under all your floors.
Wood Floors Wood floors are another feature common in older homes that give you longevity, beauty and practicality all rolled in to one. A properly maintained wood floor, as shown here in Plan 928-1, can last forever, and wood has timeless character and the ability to change finish
and color to suit the day’s tastes. If you are installing radiant heat, and are worried about installing wood over hot water heat, but want a floor that is as long lasting as a solid wood floor, there are now engineered floors that have a thick wear layer, able to be refinished several times.
Molding People respond to a home with character, and like a nice tie or a smart pair of earrings give our outfits that extra boost, moldings with scale and deep shadow lines used in traditional and creative ways throughout the home will set your house apart. Though people often turn to crown
molding when trying to add character, we spend most of our time looking straight ahead and down, so give more thought to the casing around the windows and doors and the baseboards, as shown around the stairway and front door of Plan 497-46, above. Use a back band, a piece that goes on the outer edge of the casing to give it more depth and character, and make baseboards 5-7” tall depending on the room.
High Ceilings A tall baseboard looks best in a tall room, and high ceilings are another thing that people respond to in older homes. A high ceiling allows you to have taller windows, bringing more light into the house, as shown
in Plan 924-4, above. Traditionally the sign of a more valuable home, this unconscious connection is still with us. One other thing to consider is all the things that reside in our ceilings these days: recessed lights, speakers, sprinklers, smoke detectors, and exhaust fans. A tall ceiling puts the swiss cheese effect that many people dislike further out of sight, while giving you the function that these items provide.
Kenny Grono is a contractor in the Philadelphia area.