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Designing a New Old Home: Part 1 (medium.com/simon.sarris)
304 points by stepstop on July 20, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 237 comments



My house is a custom one. It's substantially different from the usual pacific northwest home design. For example, the eaves are about 2 feet deep. This keeps the walls dry & clean, keeps water from getting in the basement, and shades the house in summer.

Almost no houses have substantial eaves.

Also, I have too much experience with rotted wood decks, this one is concrete :-) and it ever so slightly slopes away from the house. All in an effort to keep the house naturally dry. A damp house is a terrible thing in the PNW.

Don't ever buy a house where the driveway slopes towards the garage. You'll get a flooded garage/basement at some point guaranteed. Make sure your garage floor has a slight slope towards the door. It's the little things like this that count. (You can't even tell there is a slope on mine, except it's much easier to push the car out of the garage than in.)

Houses around here on the north slope of a hill are cheaper than on the south slope. There's a good reason for that. Hello mildew!


I had a carport pad repoured recently and I told the guys doing the work that the only real way they could mess up was if it sloped toward the house and the door.

The look on their faces, (and the rework on the just started forms) told me that these expeniced concrete workers never even thought of this. Luckily they got it right but this shouldn't have been something the homeowner should have to tell them but it was.


There are so many details like this that it's best to form a checklist.

The exterior siding here is Dryvit. When installed properly, it'll be perfect for decades. But it is normally not installed properly. I hired an independent Dryvit inspector, and the contract with the Dryvit installer was it would pass inspection.

He had to tear it all off twice and do it again before it passed. Turns out the contractor's workers had never done Dryvit before, and had to be taught by the inspector. Paying the inspector turned out to be money very well spent.

My neighbor had to have his Stucco-Flex (Dryvit competitor) all pulled off at great expense and redone about 10 years after his house was finished.


> There are so many details like this that it's best to form a checklist.

I am interested in seeing your checklist. Though I am still far out from owning my home, I am nonetheless curious about these sorts of things, and the more I an can learn now, the less I have to crash course during trying to get a purchase or construction contract.


Sorry, I don't really have one. It's all in my head.


Type it out brother! Not only a benefit for us, but putting thoughts into words might help you find interesting patterns you didn't see before.


It is so bad now days that I don't trust builders, My house was destroyed by Hurricane Irma, pretty much had to tear it down to the studs. I have spent three years this September doing it myself but it is done right. spray foam, not a single piece of drywall, waterproofing everything, no building materials that can mildew and grow mold, impact windows and doors. The problem is the incentives and the incentives are to get the job done as quickly as possible. I actually hire my own help for the big projects and honestly it's easier to find a handyman who has a passion for building things right than it is to find a contractor that will do it right.


I was fixing a problem in a friend’s house. As I showed her the problems she said, “But, they were professionals!”

I explained that professional just means someone willing to do the least amount of work for the most amount of money. What you want is a craftsman (craftsperson?), but those are exceedingly rare.


This might be profoundly naive on my part but with books like How To Build A House and the knowledge at youtube university I'm not convinced most builders do a better job than individuals would building their own house, where incentives are aligned.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5367666-habitat-for-huma...


I really enjoy DIY, and it's 'always' been my dream to build my own house (actually build, not spec and pay) but there are definitely things that do just take practice/experience.

For example, skimming a wall. Not hard to learn what you need to do, but when you actually do it... It's a lot harder than it looks. You can think it's perfectly flat and then step back or the light hits it a bit differently and it's just am obvious nasty blob.

I've only patched a few holes (from 'chasing' cables) - if I did the whole plasterboard join it'd be a mess, I'm sure.

It's such an aesthetic difference that if I built that house I might pay someone to finish the walls. It's not a graceful did-it-myself charm of an error, like one cupboard door that opens the other way or something.

Wallpapering I suspect is similarly hard, and just takes practice, but I've not tried.

There are books and videos on software engineering too - and we know that people do self-teach - but our employers pay us because we've already learnt and gained some experience.


When you are finished with you joint compound, take a wet sponge and lightly wipe over the compound to level it, you will be amazed at how level you can get it, it's much easier than sanding after the fact.


I replastered my daughter's room and you're right, I could never get it flat. I ended up just embracing the bumps on the underlying stone, which suits a classic cottage anyway.

Looking at fibre cement cladding for the exterior on an extension for just the reasons you say- plastering is an art and easy to screw up (cracks show up for one thing). similarly I'd use a mason for block walls, if we were doing blocks.


Wallpaper is fairly easy. It takes time, and it takes care, but it’s not difficult.


About the sloping driveway thing. Yes, I see a number of driveways sloping towards the house where the builder installed a gutter just before the garage door. This works most of the time, but then the leaves (or snow & slush) clog the gutter and the garage floods.

Your garage is going to flood if the driveway slopes towards it.

I've had a flood from a broken washing machine hose before. I had a lot of water damage to repair. This house has a floor drain under the washing machine, with (as usual) the floor sloping towards the drain. Ditto for under the water heater.

In the new house, I've had two gushers in the laundry room and one leaking water heater. No flood damage! Usually, a leaking water heater is an emergency. Not here, it could wait until normal business hours.

I have never, ever seen this feature in any other house, and it costs next to nothing.


Many bathrooms in Scandinavia are "wet rooms", the floor slopes slightly towards one (sometimes two) floor drains.

As I understand it, the building regulations say a washing machine must be in a room with a floor drain. Therefore, most washing machines are in the bathroom.


This used to be true, but today it is allowed to have a washing machine in a room without a floor drain, under certain conditions. There must be leakage detectors connected with mechanisms that can cut the water supply.


East Bay homeowner in complete agreement!

Even with no worries about freezing pipes, I made sure there's a washing machine catch-pan with a water-detector. The sump-pump has a water-detector next to it. And yep, the furnace has a water detector, alongside the condensate pump. One for the tankless water heater - even though it's outside. Easy.

Driveway & landscaping slope away from the house? Yes. Properly sloped storm-water drains with clean outs? Yes. Leaf-shields & redundant gutter downspouts? Yes and yes.


The midwest home I grew up in, constructed in the 70s, had multiple drains in the basement floor which was also where the laundry hookups, wash basin, water softener, HVAC w/humidifier and air cleaner etc. were located.

It was nothing special for the area.

Homes out on the west coast are constructed much less robustly from what I've seen. I presume the mild climate has a lot to do with it.


I was stunned to find out homes used to use panels of foamboard for sheathing aside from corners and one osb panel every 25 feet. Flimsy indeed.


I owned a house in Edmonton where ice would form under one side of one garage door in the minus-a-lot-in-either-scale 9-month-long winters. I used to break up the ice damn daily with a mattock, fun times.


> I have never, ever seen this feature in any other house, and it costs next to nothing.

My house, built in 1956, features these drains.


Both bathrooms and the laundry in my house have floor drains. I can't recall seeing a house here in Australia that doesn't have drains in the wet areas actually - standard part of the plumbing that happens before the slab is poured.


I have floor drains in laundry room, bathrooms and water heater room. Good for peace of mind.

But I hate how they dry out every couple of weeks and if I forget to refill them or we are away the sewer smell will raise...


I think some people add a thin layer of cooking oil to rarely used drains so the water in the trap doesn't evaporate. I haven't had to try it myself but it's worth a try.


Use mineral oil. Cooking oil goes rancid.


> I've had a flood from a broken washing machine hose before.

Oh, me too! So far my only significant insurance claim, around $70K for repairs in the mid-90s. The leak occurred while the house was unoccupied for a week.

Pro tip: you have to have receipts for all personal-property damage claims, which few people would or could have prior to everything being online. Exception: my insurer did accept a list of all damaged books with the associated cover price.



I once owned a house where the hot water heater and AC units were both in the attic (of a 2 story home.) One nice feature is that they both had pans underneath with drain lines to an AC condensate overflow line outside the house.


Is that a one story house?

Here the basement floor is below the sewer drain and deeper eaves wouldn't do much of anything to keep the 1st floor siding clean.


2 stories. But the wind usually doesn't blow hard enough for the rain to hit the side. So it works.

The contractor wanted to put in a sump pump, but I wanted a gravity drain instead which required a trench to put it in, which was well worth it. (The power around here goes out whenever it rains hard, so much for the sump pump.)


I replaced my electrical sump pump with one powered by water pressure. I figure that if both water AND electricity go out, I'm screwed anyway.


"This house has a floor drain under the washing machine, with (as usual) the floor sloping towards the drain. Ditto for under the water heater."

...

"I have never, ever seen this feature in any other house, and it costs next to nothing."

...

I have some things to say about this ...

It seems like an obvious win to put a floor drain in places that could potentially flood - especially the laundry room, but also (why not) bathrooms ... wouldn't it be great if a toilet overflow or a bathtub backup, etc., could be confined to that space ?

It's a good idea, but there are some complications ...

First, if it's a real drain, plumbed to sewer, then you need to keep it regularly watered - as in, pour a cup of water into it every day or three - or you will get sewer gas intrusion into the house (potential life safety hazard). The water in the trap will evaporate since the drain is never used so you need to keep it full.

But if it's a real drain, the value has diminished since the backup might be below the drain and you flood anyway. So instead, you might consider draining to "daylight". This solves the trap/gas problem - you just drain to the outside. But, depending on your climate, this might be drafty - it is, after all, a 2" pipe.

Finally, to make this work, you need to slope your tile which is either impossible, since perhaps the room already exists and is already tiled or adds cost and complexity to the new construction that is unexpected because, as you say, typical bathrooms and laundry rooms don't have floor drains.

Here is how I solved this problem:

1. I tiled the bathrooms and laundry room with cove-base tile all the way around. These rooms are now 4" deep swimming pools. So I don't need any slope.

2. I installed a linear drain at the threshold of the room, right on the doorway line:

https://www.schluter.com/schluter-us/en_US/showers/shower_wi...

... usually you see these in showers, but it worked perfectly right at the door threshold, since you can cover the insert with the same tile that your floor is tiled with.

3. I didn't care about the draft or heat issues because I live in California. I simply capped the end of the pipe with screen for insects. However, if I lived in a different climate, or if I wanted to improve this design, I would consider placing a very sensitive (2-3 PSI) check valve at the end of the pipe. The drain would now be closed, but if the pipe fills with water (and you have 3-4 feet of elevation drop) then the check valve will open. More complexity, though ...

This has all panned out well. The only minor item is that there is a very small gap between the door trim and the start of the linear drain but with some very careful caulking you can sort of "dam" that tiny spot to ensure the water gets to it if its coming along the wall.


Builders will just skimp where they can to improve their effective profit. Eg:

- not painting the tops of doors - not grading slabs for drainage - not following basic instructions about hanging a door - carelessly filling the drainage channel with mortar when laying bricks - not cladding a wall properly because you can't easily see it (which then starts leaking water)

I wouldn't undertake a large building project without being very well educated beforehand and allowing significant amounts of time to have your nose in things. Maybe you can get builders which will do a good job without lots of oversight, but there is no way to know this before you sign a contract.

Buying something already built saves a lot of time and effort, and dramatically reduces cognitive load.


Well said. You really need to be a picky asshole to manage a construction project.

I had to hold a kitchen contractor hostage over re-work and bullshit his guys did to skim a few hours.


Most of the doors were hung badly. At least that is not disastrous.


>Also, I have too much experience with rotted wood decks, this one is concrete

Aluminum decking is an excellent option. It never gets hot enough to burn your bare feet, doesn't rust, or smell like 'plastic' decking. e.g., http://www.nexaninc.com/products/decking

EDIT: Also it doesn't burn. Aluminum structural members are expensive. It's possible to use pressure-treated lumber to support an aluminum deck, although, of course, it is a toxic material.


>It's possible to use pressure-treated lumber to support an aluminum deck, although, of course, it is a toxic material.

I don't think pressure treated lumber involves arsenic anymore. It used to, but due to lawsuits and the EPA threatening to crack down on it, the industry moved away from it.


IIRC it's uses copper and some other chemicals now.


I believe modern pressure treated woods interact with aluminum as well as galvanized and zinc plated metals.

I could be wrong but I'm under the impression that stainless steel is the only appropriate hardware for pressure treated lumbers.


Stainless steel is appropriate for contact with pressure treated lumber, but so is hot dip galvanized steel. Cold galvanized steel is not appropriate. Hot dip galvanized is cheaper than stainless, but looks less nice.


In my area (the Florida Keys) they significantly increase the heat of the home. A good alternative to pressure treated lumber is IPE. If one actually does a little digging they can find it from sellers close to the source and get it for pennies on the dollar. I did 2000 sq ft of wrap around decking for right at 10K. That was with me installing it, but pressure treated would have been 8K with me installing it.


Ipe is an amazing material. Found a lot of prefinished ipe flooring at a habitat for humanity store a few years back and did the top floor of the townhome I had at the time in it. Really beautiful and very resilient. It's become hard to find in tongue and groove flooring lately. Abundant for decking though.


> For example, the eaves are about 2 feet deep.

Eaves are supposed to vary based on the latitude. You want to exclude the sun from the windows ans doors during the summer. But they also need to be short enough to allow the daytime winter sun to hit those same openings. That passive warmth, and light, is very valuable during the PNWs 8 months of winter gloom.


I moved to the PNW 10 years ago and thought the rotting decks everywhere were hilarious. Until I got my own of course. IDK why people keep building uncovered wooden decks here. It's like they can't see what's happening to their neighbors's house.

I think a lot of what has gone wrong here is the midcentuey California housing boom & bust pushed Cali builders here.

WA state finally adopted some sensible building codes in 1997 (I think it was 97) and 2017 but everything before then has massive issues with water. Bad or inadequate flashing jobs, unprotected windows, doors and decks, inappropriate grade along houses, inadequate sewer and irrigation drainage. I could go on.


I live in Austin, and there are plenty of rotting decks here too. But its mostly from three things, that incredibly shitty water based stain sealer which is 100% useless, the use of 1" deck boards, and/or the use of soft cedar.

I replaced 2" rotten cedar which was resting on 20+ year old pressure treated (and sunk in concrete footers) decking where the structure looked like it was good for another 20+ years with 2x6 pressure treated structural lumber+yearly pressure wash+oil seal/stain put down at a gallon or so every 100 sqft with a roller. The wood is checked, but none of the checking has gone more than a 1/4 the way through and 15 years in (on the oldest version of this ive done), it looks about the same as it did at year 2. I don't see any indications it won't last another 15 years, there isn't a drop of rot anywhere.

Its probably toxic as all get out, but I don't eat off it and outside of a week or two before the sun burns all the VOCs off I can't imagine its really out-gassing much.

The biggest problem was that oil based stain/sealers were getting really hard to acquire for a few years, but even the big box places have it again if you look.

Untreated pine (along with harder teak/mahogany/etc) was used in sailing ships for hundreds of years, in some of the worst enviroments. If you pay attention, a wood deck shouldn't really be any worse than wood siding on a house.

Personally I think a large part of the problem has been those water based deck sealers/stains which despite claims of wood penetration are just thin coats on the top of the wood which don't flex/swell with the wood and quickly are doing absolutely nothing but creating a layer between the wood and the sealer for moisture/rot to form. Put another way, i've yet to see a case where the stuff won't peel off after a couple years. Its basically really bad exterior paint. OTOH, the oil based sealers are linseed/etc and soak in and bind with previous layers, so you can switch from a stain to a clear after a couple years to maintain a particular color.


Oil based stain is the only way to go for sure. And cedar is definitely part of the problem. We purchased and refinished a Rainbow playset for my kid a couple years ago. We sanded out all the rot and old stain and used a very nice oil based stain. It held up much better but the cedar parts till needed constant maintenance.

The redwood posts and beams it came with however looked new after a light sanding and staining and there was never an issue with them.


I've heard a similar thing about what people who build houses on the Oregon coast think about the way people build houses further inland (or who move from inland and try to build on the coast).

The coast gets more rain and stronger wind, so it's better if you think of it not as building a house but rather building a submarine. That's what I've heard, anyways.

I also don't understand what the deal is with uncovered wooden decks in places that get significant rain. It seems like taunting nature to wreck your stuff.


I think decks are DIY magnets, so people may be expending more effort than sense -

Decks tie into the house in a single place, and you can build as much of a foundation as you'd like.

They require no special tools, and the wind ties effectively work as jigs that guide you through joining wood.

You can demo and build a new one, without impinging on your living situation. All of the work is outside. If it falls apart, there is no pressing need to replace it.


Rotted wood can be replaced cheaply, and easily. Cracked/crumbling concrete is neither cheap nor easily repaired. The earth moves, and concrete tends to not like that. At some point, cracks will happen.


It's been 20 years and it's fine, I've spend $0 on it. Have to paint the wood ones every year or two. Ugh. The garage doors are wood and have basically rotted away. I hate exterior wood.

The worst problem with wood decks, however, turned out to be carpenter ants. They eat the wood from the inside out, so it looks fine but has the strength of a loaf of bread. I was able to push a screwdriver right through it. When I finally realized the deck had to go, when I cut through the supports it collapsed into a pile of dust. I was astonished. Instead of picking the debris up into a truck, I shoveled it.


There are some wood gates at the place where my grandparents used to live, that are some 60-70 years old now and are still fine. And they've seen quite a bit of rain (though probably not quite as much as in PNW).

The wood itself matters a lot too. Black locust wood has an enzyme in its grain that makes it extremely rot resistant. I've heard of black locust poles used as fence poles in the ground lasting for decades.


The cracks that always happen and are cosmetic not structural.

There's plenty of inexpensive self levelling top layer compounds available - it is an easy and quick thing to repair.

And a properly installed wooden deck doesn't need to rot either. All of these things can function properly when done right the real problem is the disappearing neccessary craftsmanship. In a race to the bottom everything becomes disposable and half assed.


The secret to concrete is drainage. If it’s well drained, it will outlive you.

Of course that’s a lot of work. But in most climates it’s worth it — a deck (or asphalt driveway) has to be sealed every few years — you save a lot of maintenance expense and hassle.


I still made mistakes. For example, the house isn't wheelchair friendly.


It boggles my mind why all houses don’t have a bedroom and full bathroom on the first floor. Even if you’re young, you could get injured and not be able to climb stairs.


Because for a typical 3 bedroom house, you want about half the space to be bedrooms and half living/dining/kitchen area. If you put a bedroom downstairs, that means you have to put the living room upstairs. This is a big hassle if you have people over. Also by putting the bedrooms upstairs, you have a private space upstairs where guests don't usually go, so it doesn't have to be perfectly tidy when they come over.


Yeah, I found this out when a relative got stuck in a wheelchair for a while. It was eye-opening. A lot of it is simple stuff like "make sure the bathroom door is big enough". At least I made sure there wasn't any nonsense like sunken living rooms.


> Don't ever buy a house where the driveway slopes towards the garage.

If the rest of the house was on the same slope, I'd probably accept the garage and invest in mitigating water getting in. The natural drainage for the house will be so beneficial at naturally keeping water out.

Our house is build on a slight slope and even though we have two sumps, they hardly need to do much work at all. One was actually out for several before I noticed and there were zero water issues. Our house garage is side-load so we don't have to deal with water there. I have a workshop garage that does sit on the same slope and we have a large channel drain in front that handles the drainage well.


That’s so great. It’s bizarre when people skimp on something like eaves. It’s going to rain!


Gutters help out tremendously with the rain coming off the roof line. Much cheaper than the extra material required for the deeper eaves. Plus, if you're the developer, you charge extra for the gutters anyways.


The deeper eaves cost almost nothing extra. The cheapest part of a house is the lumber. But I have gutters, too :-)

The contractor complained that I was being ridiculous with all the myriad of things I wanted to keep the house dry. But I've lived in a damp house, and this house has been dry for 20 years. The extra money spent was cheap compared to dealing with a damp house. I love Seattle rain, but the house needs to be dry!


It's more than just the lumber. Depending on the angle of the roof, a 1 foot extension all the way around the house equates to lots of extra square footage of roof. All of that requires more material as well.


Just hearing the word damp house gives me the willies. Don’t know how the Seattle people do it.


> Don’t know how the Seattle people do it.

Just be wary when Seattlites brag about "green" construction :-)


The heater being on constantly keeps the house dry.


What other damp-preventing features went into your house?


1. french drains around the foundation

2. gravel around the foundation walls

3. waterproof sealer paint on the exterior of the foundation

4. filter fabric against the waterproofing

5. basement slab sits on filter fabric then gravel

6. french drains under the slab

7. everything slopes away from the house

8. gutters and downspouts feeding into the storm drains

9. the windows sit in a one-piece sheet stainless steel insert that redirects all water that gets in around the edges back out (I love stainless steel!).

10. screens so leaves don't get into the underground drainpipes.

It hasn't been perfect. The contractor didn't install gaskets where he put bolts through the flashing - water got in and rotted the wood out. One of the downspouts went through the structure of the house, I complained it would likely clog up and it could not be cleaned. I was told that wouldn't happen. It clogged up solid after a year, and another downspout had to be added outside. The roofing guy used galvanically incompatible metals for the flashing and the nails. I made him pull all the nails out and replace them. He was mad about that, but we had agreed in advance that he'd use galvanically compatible metals. (Incompatible metals, when wet, will form a battery which will rot away both metals. In around a year, there'd be nothing holding the flashing on and holes in the flashing. Fortunately for me, I learned about galvanic corrosion at Boeing and what a big no-no it is!)

But all in all, I'm satisfied.


Eaves are regulated in many jurisdictions for energy efficiency, eg. you should have eaves that permit sun in the winter and not much direct sun in the summer, and you should capture rainwater to reduce immediate flooding within the public water system. Apparently many places are either still loosely regulated, regulators are looking backward or snow changes the equation too much to bother with.


Landscaping seems to be the biggest source of flooding! Here in the Midwest we don't have as much moisture as the northwest, but we do get frequent large storms in the summer which cause flooding. I'm grateful to be living on top of a large hill!

It wasn't something that I thought would be too important buying this house, but if we ever buy another house I will absolutely look to make sure the landscaping is good to prevent flooding. Not much is more expensive to fix!


One thing I dislike about deep eaves is that they tend to come with a very shallow roofline that for some reason screams 1980s to me.


The roof is about 45 degrees, which gives a very European look that I like a lot.


This [1] is an example of the type of buildings around here that tend to have extra wide eaves.

I like the idea of a deep eaves, and I imagine if it was paired with a decent roofline it'd look really nice.

[1] https://www.google.com/maps/@42.0173646,-93.6163535,3a,75y,2...


You can see how effective they are at shading the house!


Many places have maximum height restrictions which limit the suburban viability of this approach.


What is it with the little PNW houses with no eaves at all? Who thought that was a good idea?


At least in Portland, outside of a few neighborhoods close-in, most houses are kit homes built with mail-order plans. The 40s and 50s were a huge growth period for the PNW and the houses from this era have decent materials but poor designs for the prevailing conditions.


There appears to be little to no vernacular architecture in the PNW, nothing evolved here, it appears to all have been copied from the east coast and California. The upshot is that there isn't a common house type that really "works" here


You have a concrete deck? I'd like to see a photo of that!


All competent deck installers grade down from the house. All competent home builders will make sure water drains instead of entering the garage.


Yeah, well, a sensible home buyer or remodeller will check these himself. It's not that hard, just bring a marble.


> They seem designed primarily to maximize one thing: the square-footage number that will be on the listing when it’s sold.

Say it again for the people in the back! This is probably my biggest complaint with modern suburban housing/McMansions. You can see it in the exterior design of the house; you see all kinds of horrendous roof lines, mismatched windows of all shapes and sizes, odd material choices, etc. The houses suffer because they're trying to build the most square footage on the smallest possible lot. I know density is the way to go in urban development, but... I feel like developers have lost the plot.


"More square feet for less dollars"

This was the slogan of a house builder I once analysed for a management consulting project on the future of the Australian building industry.

After a week touring display homes, and estimating cost (or costs avoided), I figured out exactly how the market leaders lowered the sticker price while increasing their margins. No matter that the houses quickly fell apart after purchase...

The tricks I remember included:

* No plaster on the wall behind the fridge

* Big mirrors in bathrooms, because mirrors cost about the same as tiles but are much quicker to install.

* Eliminate walls on the ground floor, to give the open-plan look. Except that there's no sound insulation, or heat retention. And the new owners need to buy a lot more furniture, otherwise it looks too empty.

* Make the eaves very narrow, to reduce the size of the roof. Even though the walls now have no shade from the sun, the interior heats up more in summer, and you spend much more on air conditioning.

* Build the house like a big box, up close to the boundary line... Looks good on the plan. Less good when your neighbours' bedroom windows look right into yours. And less good when there's no shade or privacy because the builder cut down the established trees...

I remember both feeling in awe at the cost-cutting ingenuity and disgusted at future problems it would bring the unlucky new owners.


I've seen just about all of the above, and a few more:

* Cheap out on just about anything that you need a lot of (knobs, drawer pulls, light switches)

* Cut tile or flooring at unusual angles to avoid having to do more complex cuts

* Use the cheapest lighting and plumbing fixtures possible

I've actually had friends buying new construction homes tell me that they've told the builder NOT to install certain things because they didn't want to be saddled with whatever "builder grade" materials the contractor was going to use. Imagine that! Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for a new house, but you already don't trust the builder not to cut corners! Where's the craftsmanship?


> Imagine that! Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for a new house, but you already don't trust the builder not to cut corners! Where's the craftsmanship?

The craftsmanship is there, but 95% of people can’t afford it.

It starts all the way from the fact that suppose you and your competitor are looking to purchase a parcel of land to develop a community. You make a nice plan that retains nice old growth trees, gives adequate space for eaves, design better than minimum standards drainage, insulation materials, etc.

Your competitor draws up plans and cuts all of those niceties out, and saves a few million dollars on costs. Now the competitor can offer to pay a few million more for the same parcel of land.

Guess who gets to develop it?


I think this is true, but only part of the equation. I think you certainly could build a house at average-suburban-prices without cutting corners, but your profit margins would be lower or you'd have to compromise somewhere else. For example, the market has optimized around square footage, $/sqft is the most important metric for many consumers, ergo a smaller but better built house won't sell (or, at least, won't sell for a price that justifies the extra expense). Nobody ever got rich by leaving money on the table.

The disadvantage of living in a seller's market is that it's also a builder's market; when homes sell as fast as they're being built regardless of quality, there's little pressure on builders to improve quality.


The only solution to that is to raise the minimum standards by making building codes more strict. But that raises the cost of the housing, and then you have people claiming the government is restricting housing development and pricing people out.

It's all a very delicate balance that gets thrown way off especially due to the securitization of the asset for 30+ years at artificially low future taxpayer subsidized interest rates.

A lot of the calculations about value of fixtures and finishes in a house in a high demand area get de-valued by buyers because the land value (and the land value's increase) is worth so much more than the structure that sits on it, that as a buyer, you can't afford to value things like proper fit and finish and materials unless you're looking at very high value homes, otherwise another buyer will come in and take it.


All things being equal the price per sqft actually tends to go down with the larger houses, because of simple geometry and the expensive parts (kitchens & bathrooms) remain fairly constant. AKA a three bedroom two bath 2000sqft house isn't much more expensive to build than a three bedroom two bath 1300 square foot house. Particularly if the designer manages to get most of the plumbing/etc on a common wall. This fact seems to continue through its lifetime if you compare houses in many neighborhoods, the house prices are fairly similar, while the $/sqft will vary wildly.


MDF: Particularly in most cabinetry. That stuff should be illegal because the cheap plumbing fixtures will invariably leak, and when that happens now your cabinet is ruined too.

I think similarly for OSB, and don't believe a word about how its a good building material, but thankfully i've only seen it crumble once so far. Mostly I suspect because its not been in to many buildings for 30+ years of heat and moisture cycling.


OSB's given me way too many splinters to want to work with it even if it's a fine material :p


> I know density is the way to go in urban development, but... I feel like developers have lost the plot.

This is exactly true! A lot of the time, the increased size doesn't even result in increased density - most McMansions are single-family homes. Plus, because the extra space is weirdly proportioned and placed, it doesn't provide much benefit to the inhabitants - it only serves to inflate the listed price.


You know, when I typed that I meant density in that the houses are much closer together than older developments, but honestly... they're probably not much "denser" on a human basis. The homes have just swelled to take up most of the lot.


All my dad every asks when I show him a house is what the price per square foot is. His past two houses have had hallways ending in a dead-end.


Or a house with an absolutely tiny kitchen and an enormous “basement” that’s almost useless.


When I look at new developments in my area, I feel we are getting the wrist of Urban and rural living. All the houses in the huge development look the same. Almost no yard. You live practically wall to wall with your neighbors. Many are town houses so you actually do. Yet, nothing is walkable.

Everyone would be better off if we could have more tall, mixed-use apartment or condo buildings with stores and restaurants at the bottom. It would give more options to get affordable housing close to where people work. It also would reduce pressure for areas further away to be build up to the point where it's just wall to wall suburban nightmare.

All this happens due to a combination of builder incentives, but mostly bad zoning. Clearly the land is expensive enough that we need density, yet we cannot build more proper urban housing.


Safety and cost is another reason. For example in the Bay Area the materials allowed for 4 story buildings is different than 5+ because it needs to have much higher fireproofing. The result is many 4 story buildings and almost nothing above that because of the cost difference.


This is also worth noting not only on the level of aesthetics and experience of a given building, but worth underscoring for consideration, especially for the crowd that thinks that leveling obstacles to increased supply is The Answer™ to housing costs.

Increased supply is one necessary component, but in the same way that developer incentives can more easily push them to substandard suburban construction, urban construction is likely enough to chase something other than your goals.


Last year my wife and I bought out first house. Given our budget, we had the option of either buying a new big McMansion type home further out from the city, or buying a smaller older home closer to the city. We wound up buying a smaller house built in the 1940s and gutting/renovating/modernizing the interior, and on a whole I'm really happy with the result.

The house itself feels like when it was originally built, more careful thought was put into where windows are, how rooms are lit, how rooms are ventilated, how spaces flow into each other, and so on and so forth. After our renovation work, we now also have all of the modern niceties like ethernet running through all of the walls and a shiny kitchen and shiny bathrooms and modern hardwood flooring and whatnot. Every part of the house now feels like it's the way it is specifically because we wanted it to be that way, and relatively speaking, it cost less than it would have to get a new cookie-cutter McMansion type monstrosity around here. As a bonus, the neighborhood feels cozier and friendlier and less empty compared to newer cookie-cutter type development tracts too.

The only downside is that the square footage is considerably smaller, but I have no idea what people are supposed to do with all of the empty space in a giant house anyway. Oh, I guess another minor downside was discovering that no two doors in the entire house are exactly the same size, so we wound up having to get custom doors made.

Of course, your mileage will vary depending on where you are, budget, contractors, etc; we lucked out and managed to find contractors that cared about their craft and put a lot of thought into things.


> I have no idea what people are supposed to do with all of the empty space in a giant house

They fill it with shit they don't need. Kudos to you.


George Carlin did a great routine on 'stuff'. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvgN5gCuLac

"a house is ... a pile of stuff with a cover on it".


LOL thank you for this. Watching it now, hilarious and as usual Carlin is spot on.


Indeed. I had any number of friends who bought the biggest house they could afford, because that was what you were 'supposed to do', only to be buried by the cost of filling a 4000+ sq ft monstrosity with enough 'stuff' that it didn't look empty, then heating/cooling, cleaning, etc. all that 'stuff'. I know some of those folks have rooms that a decade or two down the line that they've opened the door to less that a dozen times, much less ever used for anything more than a place to pile stuff out of the way.


they're filled with "I might need..." or "maybe I will use..." (eventually becoming "I forgot I had...")


Yep I moved into a house that was over double the size of my last house and somehow I'm out of room again.


Honestly, that's a huge advantage of a house: you can keep the stuff you might use. I'm in a small apartment downtown -- great location -- but if my wife and I both want to keep a bike then we're out of luck.

Plus well located apartments aren't so great during COVID.


there's a difference there - that's stuff you will use. It doesn't take all your garage to hold that.. unless it's say, a car :)


> I have no idea what people are supposed to do with all of the empty space in a giant house

This has been a major pain point when trying to look for houses. Newer homes are typically significantly larger than I am looking for, and the nicer "older" homes are also larger than I want.


I don't really have anything to contribute to this, but I found the article super interesting.

Perhaps a thing I could add is that Part 2 [1] is available, which wasn't immediately obvious to me.

[1] https://medium.com/@simon.sarris/designing-a-new-old-home-pa...


A cupola is mentioned for letting hot air out. It does even more than that. If set up properly, the wind will accelerate moving across the roof slant, then hit and blow through the cupola. This will create suction which will pull the hot air out of the house.


I hadn't thought about that, but looking at pictures of cupolas, that makes sense. Such would play a similar role in thermal regulation as a whole-house attic fan in extracting hot air from the house. I find myself wondering now if a cupola could supplant an attic fan, or if not, complement one enough to reduce the size/power needed.

It seems to me that done right, a cupola would also make a great source of indirect natural light.


Some very weird choices. No internal ducting for AC? Crazy, its a LOT cheaper to include that when building. Now in some heat-death future you end up with ACs hanging out the windows. Wood heating? Wow, thats incredibly polluting. Indeed, they may find it outlawed eventually, its already illegal in many places. Heating with wood also means making the room with the stove an inferno just to make the rest of the house acceptable. No closets? If that's what you're into...but its going to be hard to sell.

Average home ownership duration is ten years. So yeah, you kinda have to make some considerations for the next person. No AC and wood heating are going to be a hard sell.


> No AC and wood heating are going to be a hard sell.

(I am the author) Sorry I don't make it super clear in Part 1: I have a 500 gallon propane tank and a propane furnace as backup heat. I leave downstairs at 58F so it can't go below that at night. (I have no idea why I decided on that number). It rarely does unless I let the fire die around 7-8pm.

From October to Feb I averaged 1.8 gallons/day of propane use, which I suspect was 90% hot water and propane cooking (we bake bread 2x a week and cook for 1-2 hours almost every single day because we're somewhat obsessed with food. This is also why the downstairs is very kicthen oriented)

> No closets? If that's what you're into...but its going to be hard to sell.

Why? People can easily frame in closets on any of the bedrooms if they wanted to. They all have 2 walls they could do it against. Or if they want bigger bedrooms, they can keep them big.

The counterfactual in "hard to sell" is that there are 900000 houses out there unlike this one, and they all compete against each other. This competes with historic houses. The historic houses here (without AC, with terrible insulation, damp crawlspace basements, etc) command a huge premium. I don't think a traditional-looking house with none of the accumulated problems of real historic houses would be difficult to sell at all.


Anyone from Europe will be happy to but a house without closets. They are super uncommon there. If you aren't gonna use a room as a bedroom, it's nice not to lose the space to the closet.


I honestly think the comment you answered to is meant to be a joke ...

Wood burning is basically carbon neutral as it just releases the CO2 that the trees have captured back into the cycle.

Me, I agree to your decisions and love how it turned out. Also, congrats on becoming (being?) a father! :-)


Pollution is not just CO2. Burning wood releases a lot of particulates. Having said that, standing next to a radiant wood stove is a lovely feeling.


> Average home ownership duration is ten years

That is exactly what they are trying to avoid. It is _their_ family home. They built the house for themselves–for their life. That is why the total square footage isn't as important–each of their rooms is built around their life style for better space efficiency. People focusing so strongly the selling a house they haven't even purchased yet.


One thing I personally find infuriating when talking to people about home projects or renovations is their obsession with "resale value."

It severely limits the scope of what people are willing to do to basically what is trendy on HGTV, etc. that year.


The financial calculus behind this is unbeatable though. When you're spending a significant portion of your house's value on a reno, alarm bells start going off. If I'm spending $75k on a $500k house, you better believe I start asking myself if I'd be better off buying a $575k house instead. And trust me, you get to $75k very quickly in cities with expensive housing.


The $75k I spend is going to be tuned for how I’ll use it. That counts for a lot, at least for me.

And resale value calculations don’t take into account the joy and utility the changes afford you. Again, I value those highly.


Spending $10 knowing you will get $11 back in the future is very different than spending $10 which you'll only get $3 back.


When it comes to design choices that affect resale value a decade in the future, the examples are probably more like $10/$13 vs. $10/$12.

Real estate agents and HGTV shows have distorted people's view on the importance of small details on resale value. I promise you that the choices the author made in designing their house will find an equally enthusiastic buyer if they do decide to sell.

Of course there will be some potential buyers who have "no closets" as a deal breaker. But there will be others who fall in love with a unique house that exists literally nowhere else in the market.

If you're going to limit your design choices to appease a potential buyer decades in the future, you might as well buy an existing house in the first place rather than striking out on your own build. The whole point of a custom home is to customize it to your liking.


> Real estate agents and HGTV shows have distorted people's view on the importance of small details on resale value.

Yup. I have heard way too many times on those shows, "You spent $50K on renovations so that increased your value $100K", without any form of critical thought. Yes, improvements can have an intrinsic value, but these shows make it seem automatic and huge, without fail.


IMO this is just basic consumerism couched in a simluation of industrious investing. If you're remodeling for higher resale value, then you're a flipper and should build accordingly - ie everything this post is lamenting. Otherwise, just be honest with yourself that you're spending money for your own personal enjoyment.

Try selling a custom bicycle and you'll see how lovingly-picked components add up into a resale value, at a much lower price.


Most of the time, the HGTV spends are horrible investments even if the touted "new value" is correct. The margin after increase in closing costs--agent fees, title transfer tax, to say nothing of opportunity cost of the cash outlay--is often zero or negative.


Yup. I think it's Flip or Flop, where you start to realize that many of their flips only really break even or are marginally profitable. They'll tout "We made $30K for 6 weeks work". But $15K of it has to go to our investor who fronts the cash (he would occasionally show up on episodes), and there's two of them...

And then you remember that most of their income comes from the show itself.

I remember drama around 16 And Pregnant, and glamorizing teenage pregnancy. Says MTV, "Oh no, we only cover costs, we don't pay them for this". Fell apart when one of the girls, living in her trailer, working minimum wage at McDonalds, started appearing on the show in a brand new Saleen Mustang.


That's all conditional on you planning to sell in the near-term.

My parents have lived in the same house for 35 years. On that scale, what is good for resale value doesn't really matter.

Things that were trendy in 1990 are severely dated at this point.


That's ok, they can just wait until 90s becomes retro enough to be cool again.

Conversation pits are back in vogue from the 70s, so I'd say they have another 20 years!

https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/trend-alert-conversation-pi...


I grew up in a 200 year old school house in northern New Hampshire. Let me tell you from bitter experience that burning wood in a stove for primary heating is a nightmare on multiple levels.

First you have to chop and stack cords of wood in the fall (a thankless, back-breaking task), then go out into the snow to bring in loads of wood every other day all winter to heat the house. You can't store enough wood indoors to last months, so it's always piled up outside. Dealing with the wood is a never ending shitty job that nobody likes or wants to do. It's not a "chore", it's full on work - with cuts, splinters, bruises or worse injuries. Slipping on the ice with an armload of cordwood is a great way to break a bone or get a concussion, let me assure you. I cannot tell you how much I hated it, and how many family arguments were caused as a result.

Since all wood stoves leak, no matter what, you end up smelling like a campfire all winter. And I still wonder if the secondhand smoke effects will rear it's ugly head in the future. I've never smoked, but won't be at all surprised if someday I have lung cancer from years of breathing all that crappy air filled with soot particles.

Oof. So many horrible memories. Thank heaven I live in California now.


My wife's parents built a house out in the country when she was ~10. They put in a functional wood fireplace and used it as their primary heat source for a couple years. Her main memory of it was that the living room where the fireplace was would be really nice. Her parents bedroom up in a loft above the living room would be too hot. And her bedroom would be super cold because the furnace never kicked on and the heat from the fireplace never quite made it over to her room.

But then again, it probably wouldn't win any "new old home" or other design awards.

Once they stopped homeschooling, the desire to heat the house with wood dried up pretty quickly. These days I think they have a fire maybe a couple times a month on Winter evenings.

One great thing her family introduced me to though: The in home sauna. They are Finnish by way of Northern Minnesota. I dream of one day having a sauna in my own home.


This was part of my childhood in South Australia, too. The winters aren't as brutal as those in North America, but sub-zero temperatures in an under-insulated house needs heating wherever you are.

Firewood is certainly a PITA and I can't stand the smell of woodsmoke, but I still feel that fireplaces produce much more pleasant heat than any modern system.

Plus there's much to be said for the ambience of a flickering fire.


Yup, 7 year old me... carrying wood from the back forty and stacking it for the winter. Looking back I can't imagine my parents thought it anything but "busywork" for a kid with to much energy.

OTOH, a lot of the old coal boilers were converted to heating oil, and more recently I think people have been converting some of them to NG.


My idea of a new "old" home is to take the best of both. Cupolas? Great. Also ducts, a nice south-facing roof for solar, a garage with multiple 240V circuits so I can charge my EVs. Gigabit ethernet. Insulation.


Out of curiosity why ducts and not floor pipes for heating? Especially in a climate where you can live without AC if: 1) you make your walls thicker and as you mentioned well insulated---which helps in the winter too! 2) you have "real" blinds on the outside of your windows.


I think heating choices are highly regional.

Basically you are going to install something that you can easily get an HVAC person in your area to do maintenance on if it breaks.


Ducts do make it easy to add a humidifier or dehumidifier. Which, if you live either in a desert or a swamp, can be a plus.


talk to me about (2) ....


Not sure what you mean, but just open street view on a random housing unit in Italy or Spain, and compare that with a random housing unit in Belgium or Denmark.

Blinds on the outside keep heat away from the glass and avoid turning your house into a greenhouse.


You meantioned ""real" blinds on the outside". I've lived with these in Germany years ago (modern construction, totally integrated into the window design). I recently started thinking about this in the context of an east facing window wall in NM, which could use some solar blocking for 3 months of the year. Wondered if you were thinking of any particular kind of ""real" blinds on the outside" ...


I have no idea what would be available in the US. I found out the name in English is louver shutters.


Places that have big storms have these things called storm shutters, but I haven't seen a home that has it for thermal reasons. My experience is limited to the Midwest United States though.


I'm pretty sure that either German-style roller shutters or louver shutters would accomplish the goal. As long as the sun gets prevented from hitting the window.


There won't be a climate where you can live without AC in the next 20 years.

Anything south of upstate NY is already pretty unbearable in the summer. Another added benefit of AC is the dehumidification of your interior, which means less mold.


Even in the desert humans have been able to keep their dwellings cool with passive cooling long before we had ACs or even electricity.

Take a look at windcatchers. Even better if you combine them with a quanat. Lots of stuff like this we don't use anymore.


I live in a log cabin in the woods. They didn't have ductwork or AC in the 1830s when it was built (and they don't have the trees to make 14-inch squared timber walls today). I heat exclusively with wood and it's surprising how a place designed for passive convection heating can be cozy without being sweltering in one room and freezing in the others.

Mind you, being in the backwoods of Canada means it's not going to be all that hard to sell when the time comes to settle my estate. Most of my neighbours are in similar situations. At least, the few that I can see from the road when I head into town.


Air conditioning is not as common in New England (where the author is located) as it is in the rest of the country. I would say about a third of projects I worked on in the Northeast did not have air conditioning, and I was working on pretty expensive houses.

Insulation/air-sealing can get you pretty comfortable in New Hampshire.


Yes, first time I visited somebody who constructed a well-insulated, air-sealed house with high quality windows, I noticed the owner routinely slid the window open partially in the winter to allow excess heat to escape temporarily. I think this is common in well-constructed New England homes.


It hit 94F in Manchester, NH earlier today. And air conditioning can remove humidity which can be trapped inside well-sealed homes.


There's a once-a-summer, or really more of a once-every-few-summers level heat wave rolling through the northeast right now...not something I'd necessarily take into account when buying a house. I grew up in very old unairconditioned house in inland New England, where I don't believe I knew anybody in the 90s/early 2000s who had central a/c, even in a fairly affluent area. From what I've read the models don't expect the region to face major summer heat effects from climate change.

When it's in the high 50s/low 60s evey night, and you have some thoughtful design so the house can be ventilated well with just the windows, the cool night air sticks around well into the next day, a cold shower or a little portable a/c unit can get you through the handful of hot nights each summer.

I live in NYC now, where a/c is necessary most nights in July and August, and find it kind of funny to see New Yorkers buying summer houses in my hometown and immediately spending thousands retrofitting central air. For me one of the great pleasures of going home to visit my family is sleeping with the windows open to the chilly night air!


> No AC and wood heating are going to be a hard sell.

For some buyers, yeah, No Ac and wood heat are going to be a "Nope!". But I disagree that such is going to be the case for all buyers. There are going to be some people who actually want a house with no AC and wood heat.


The hard part of wood heat is that in a climate like NH, it means you cannot effectively leave the house for any prolonged period in the winter without making sure that any liquids in the house (e.g. paint) have been moved elsewhere. Ditto for houseplants and pets. Those wood fires won't light themselves.

My wife and I moved into an adobe home in rural NM last year, and we had to wait until our new air-source heat pumps were running in February before we could leave. Working with wood heat only for most of the winter was (1) a lot of work (2) very nice heat (3) a lot of work.

Yes, you could maybe get a housesitter but then we're into a whole new game.


The house in the article has a propane boiler also. They can leave whenever they want.


I thought it said "propane for hot water, wood for heat". But re-reading part II, they clearly have a propane heat backup, but merely "plan to rely on wood".


Lots of people have a wood fired boiler for their hydronic heating system. Located outdoors.

I talked to a guy once that had a big corn hopper installed next to his outdoor boiler. And then another corn hopper under that one to feed the stove. Go go farm subsidies.


I’ve never seen one of these but my old neighbors from backwoods Minnesota raved about them. In addition to the vast reduction in blast radius from a fire, apparently the outdoor furnaces are large enough to fit big old logs without needing to slice and split so much. And the radiant floor heating isn’t more expensive than any other type in new construction.


> (or linoleum) has replaced the rest

We wish. Linoleum is a natural, renewable product, made from linseed oil and plant fiber. Linoleum was replaced decades ago in commodity construction by vinyl tile, which is much cheaper to manufacture.


Ya, you won't find it in commodity construction, but just in case anyone is looking for real linoleum a currently available brand is 'Marmoleum'. It's nice stuff, I've used it on two projects but it's not every client's favorite. By the time a client is looking at sheet flooring it's usually due to cost pressure, and the client ends up going with a vinyl product.

I thought I had notes on a second brand that was more commercially oriented (maybe started with an 'R'?) but I can't remember the name at the moment.


Here you go. Tarkett -- linoleum is well hidden, under the "commercial" branch of their website only:

https://commercial.tarkett.com/en_US/category-tna_C05010-lin...


Thanks! I was thinking of 'Roppe' which is the not the right brand at all.


Marmoleum is a common floor replacement in the Eichlers throughout the Bay Area. It's a very nice product, and looks just right to me.


Linoleum is very eco, but highly flammable.


I'm not sure what the criteria for "highly" flammable is, I'm sure it's flammable but I've never managed to ignite it with either a blowtorch (singeing the Hessian backing on the edges of freshly cut lino) or a laser cutter (both when cutting and engraving).

It's also a good material for print making


Thanks for sharing this - for people who like pictures, the instagram feed (linked at the bottom of the article) is well worth adding.

"Homes are not built by people intending to live in them." - this really gets to the issue, I think. Somewhere along the line we took away most people's ability to construct their own home (or they just lost it), and of course if houses are viewed primarily as holding value for equity, you need to consider resale instead of your own preferences when making decisions.


I just bought an old house(1920s) and so have been doing a lot of thinking about how much better the layout of surviving old houses are.

1. Natural lighting. I generally do not need artificial lights in the daytime in any room and it is amazing.

2. Ceiling height. Modern constructions have insanely high ceilings. Why? In my old apartment I had cabinetr y I couldn't reach even with my step ladder.

3. Old neighborhoods are much more pleasant to live in and are more much walk-able than post-war cul-de-sac filled developments.

4. House sizes were smaller back then. Since family sizes have been getting smaller I think this would be a good thing to return to. I am quite happy that I don't have to spend a lot extra on furniture just to fill the space. Or pay more to climate control the extra volume.

5. A matter of personal preference but I think the older houses are just prettier.

I think it would be great if developers took a look at the older house designs and tweaked them for the modern world.


Re. Ceiling height. Lumber, insulation and boards are supplied with 3m max height typically. (Some lumber, metal structural beams and sheet metal are readily available at 6m max length above this). Therefore, the generally expressed internal heights for cost efficient construction are 3m less inter-floor allowances for ceiling/utilities/floor/inter-floor insulation. You can of course do anything you like, but to your builder it means more work and materials.

In apartment buildings, it is common to squash non-ground floors vertically to obtain more houses within the available building height envelope in order to maximize returns. Local regulations in decent jurisdictions typically specify a limit to this type of viciously commercial construction outlook.


Can't ceiling height have a climate control aspect to it? Summertime in the south gets hot, air rises, have vents at the top of the room?

I don't need 20ft ceilings, but aesthetically, I think 9-10ft feels a lot less claustrophobic.


>Old neighborhoods are much more pleasant to live in and are more much walk-able than post-war cul-de-sac filled developments.

I'll say this for my post-war-but-still-old development, it's nice having trees and birds. Looking at new construction, you realize that there's very little shade or natural life because it all gets clear cut for construction. Any trees that get added back in have a long way to go before they actually provide shade (and a barrier to hide the ugly front facades that modern construction requires).

>House sizes were smaller back then. Since family sizes have been getting smaller I think this would be a good thing to return to.

I agree, and I like the size of my smaller house. That said, there are some ways that I think the space could be better utilized... for example, we have 4 bedrooms and 1.5 baths, all of which are smaller than you'd see in a modern home. It was definitely designed with a large, baby booming family in mind.


>I agree, and I like the size of my smaller house. That said, there are some ways that I think the space could be better utilized... for example, we have 4 bedrooms and 1.5 baths, all of which are smaller than you'd see in a modern home. It was definitely designed with a large, baby booming family in mind.

4 bed 1.5 bath does not sound great. I don't think I have ever seen that one but I know it is a staple for comedy where everyone is trying to use the same bathroom at the same time. That might be less bad now than in the baby boom days. I would not want to share a bathroom with a bunch of kids. But, for a DINK family, a master bedroom, his office, her office, and a guest bedroom with 1.5 baths sounds reasonable.


A study a while back showed that ceiling height can affect the way we think. It's an interesting read, but I doubt any house developers are familiar with it.

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/04/070424155539.h...


Downside in having an old (1890s for us) home: nothing is the same size, and none of them are the same.

Upside in having an old home: you get to go to a restoration/recycling center, wander through the vast sections of hanging doors until you find the section that fits what you need, and find an interesting one you like.

Our home was a hobby for a while. Now I have different priorities for time. But that was an awesome learning experience, and I feel lucky I went through it.

My dad drafted a house at night at work (he was a mechanical engineer prior to retirement). Then he built it, subcontracting out parts like some of the framing, drywall, etc. My parents ended up with exactly the house they wanted. It was really cool to see happen, made anything seem possible.


Don't forget settling foundations. I'd be amazed if someone could find a single perfect right angle anywhere in my 1880's victorian.


I was down in the basement one day while it was raining, and watched a small piece of mortar fall out of the foundation onto the dirt floor, followed by a perfect stream of water about an inch in diameter start pouring in.

Then I learned about french drains.

My dad grew up in an old farm house that had been a dorm for the school house next door at one point. After they had been living there a while, they jacked it up, dug the blocks out, poured a new foundation, and lowered the house back onto it.

We looked at an old house, maybe from the mid-1600's or 1700's. Ship "stairs" that were almost a ladder. The corners of the rooms were probably six inches higher than the middle. It was amazing, super cool house. We passed, but eventually somebody fixed it up over the course of a year or two and flipped it.


Don’t worry, every time we’ve had to or chosen to do anything to the newer houses we’ve owned it’s been a constant series of discoveries about how out-of-square everydamnthing is. We level something perfectly and... it’s nowhere near matching what’s already there. Even the doorways go out of alignment in a just a few years, if they don’t start that way.


When you realize the laser level and plum bobs aren't really very useful because anything made square looks off. As in reframing a closet door plumb and finding the floor isn't level. So now it looks crooked.


Don't even start me on the new construction (thankfully rental) that my last home was. The stairwell landing was so badly off that there was skirting running up the side, and on the landing, they actually had _two_ layers of skirting (one atop the other). It looked ... ridiculous.

And within months, every door had squeaks and sticks, because the frame would be off by as much as 1/4 inch.


Or just... no foundation. Ca. 1800 thatched cottage and the rocks are just sitting on clay soil.


In all this discussion of the art of design in old houses I am surprised to see no one has mentioned “A Pattern Language” [1] yet. This is truly a must read book for anyone considering the design and building of their own house.

Interesting topics such as the design of a front door viewed from a street have stuck with me and is something I reflect on when walking through an old neighborhood. Infallibly the most appealing houses match up well to the principals outlined in the book.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Pattern_Language


The article's author mentions Alexanders 'Timeless Way of Building', the first book in the series of which 'A Pattern Language' is a part. I agree, it's a wonderful book.


I'll just toss in that his latest work, 'The Nature of Order' is really worth reading as well. Oh, and the book 'How Buildings Learn' is almost compulsory in this space as well.


For anyone embarking on a similar project, check out http://osarch.org/

I was amazed to come from no background in architecture to getting a land survey converted in to Blender 3D model and having accurate sun simulations running on architectural concepts within a week or two. Seems like Sketchup dying has gifted a lot of momentum to the open source space. Use it! It's pretty capable stuff.

Also, plant trees. Trees last a long time (longer than many houses), cost nearly nothing and provide excellent psychological and physical features which built environment cannot match.


>you should read two books. The first is Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use & Avoid

I own and have read a copy, excellent. Note however that it's entirely oriented toward traditional design: Deco, Streamline Moderne, and Mid-Mod are terra incognita. Eichler fans, you have been warned.


Having lived in an Eichler house, I don't understand how there can be Eichler fans.


Curious about this comment? Why? I've never lived in one, nor even been in one. But they look beautiful. What are the draw backs?


Cheaply made, nothing all that special except floor to ceiling windows.


Having not lived in an Eichler house, I'm just obsessed with the indoor/outdoor mixed space.

Is there a good takedown of eichler architecture anywhere? Just to satisfy my curiosity?


Do you have any suggestions for books that do cover these design styles?


For light reading on 20th century style I like this site:

https://retrorenovation.com/2017/06/23/59-midcentury-modern-...

Only book I've found for Streamline Moderne:

https://www.amazon.com/Streamline-Moderne-Style-Primer-Book-...


For the folks who check the comments first, this is worth reading:

>But then something happened: the average knob with a lock has a fair amount of internal complexity, but the beauty has been completely stripped out. We no longer think of knobs, hinges, latches, or locks as things worth making beautiful, and we think this at a time when it should be easier and cheaper than ever to make such things beautiful. When they were difficult to make, iron latches and handles resembled hands, lions, flowers, gargoyles, etc. Now that a latch is easy to make, they look like nothing. It is worth carefully pondering this, I think, beyond the words of this article and well beyond door knobs.

This is from part 2 https://medium.com/@simon.sarris/designing-a-new-old-home-pa..., linked here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23901248


...do you have a GitHub repo for checklisting items for building a custom house like this? I'm nowhere near financially secure enough to even begin planning for something like this. But it'd be cool to look through the checklist and have people contribute things you might forget, and it might be useful for others.


As someone who works in residential construction, this is one of the better looks at what a 'good' process looks like from the homeowner side of the equation. The only places where my advice would differ:

- They finished the floors instead of having a subcontractor do it. Everyone's comfort for various home improvements tasks differs, but this is one that I typically see farmed out. The people who do it everyday are very fast and competent - as a first timer it's hard to avoid making mistakes. I also advise people to avoid floor stains. One advantage to a real wood floor is it's easy to repair and refinish in the future, but this gets a lot harder when you start needing to stain match. Floor stain also kind of violates the tenants of 'honest materials' that the author discusses.

- To build on their point about veneer plaster walls, cost really comes down to subcontractor comfort with that detail. It's only 'slightly more expensive' if you have a contractor that does it all the time. If you live in an area with a lot of plaster homes, you'll have more luck finding someone who can do this work affordably. For example, I once had an architect specify a particular plaster finish ('venetian plaster') where we could not find someone comfortable doing the work within a two hour drive.

- They discuss the slow drying of the floor finish they used as a negative (true). A good place to use slow-drying finishing techniques is the exterior, as you can leave it alone for a lot longer as compared to a floor you want to walk on immediately. For example, pine tar exterior finishing materials take weeks to dry, but you don't NEED to touch the siding during that period.

- In the second part they show a north and south elevation of the finished home. The north elevation really doesn't reflect the historic character they succeeded so hard to emulate and/or build from in other aspects of their home. Comparing these two elevations is very instructive.

I hope their next published section addresses energy efficiency and adjacent topics (like window selection). It's a huge part of building a modern home that doesn't always get the attention it should. I did appreciate the time spent discussing air flow in part 2.

Building on their reading list, if you like older/vernacular homes start with:

"House" by Tracy Kidder

"A Field Guide to American Houses" by Virginia Savage McAlester

"American Shelter" by Lester Walker

"The American House" by Mary Mix Foley

And maybe move on to:

"A Concise History of American Architecture" by Leland Roth

"American Vernacular: Buildings and Interiors, 1870-1960" by Herbert Gottfried

"Norwegian Wood: The Thoughtful Architecture of Wenche Selmer" by Elisabeth Tostrup

"Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn" by Thomas Hubka

And then maybe:

"The Well-Built House" by Jim Locke

"The colonial House Then and Now" by Francis Underwood

"Little House on a Small Planet" by Shay Salomon


In addition to reading books, I would recommend buying a laser distance sensor (I like the first generation Zamo) to explore dimensions in spaces around you, and reading other people's construction and design documentation, generally available through your local government. This shows what details are typically used in your local area, where they are used, and also provides architects comments as to what purpose they serve with respect to the local environment and seasons.


I’ll throw in Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House” as a homage to old wisdoms in more contemporary form:

https://susanka.com/not-so-big-house/

An architect who focuses on more traditional sizes in new form: https://rosschapin.com/plans/


I might add one more - Norm Abrams of This Old House wrote a book about the construction of his home - "Norm Abram's New House"


Yes, good choice. I didn't include it mostly because I find that Norm's compromises on a few design elements/material selections may guide someone in the 'wrong' direction - but that's a huge value judgement on a book that is a quarter century old.

Another book he was involved with is "This Old House" (technically by Bob Vila I think) which is also good, but suffers again from the march of time. There are just certain things they show that wouldn't be done the same way today.


That is a good point about subcontractors, many times they end up being cheaper in the long run because they do it right (hopefully). When we were renovating my home I oftentimed worked with the contractors and asked questions. Hopefully it didn't annoy them too much, but it is a great way to learn from a professional!


If you're handy, working with contractors can also be a good way to ensure you get the result you want. It avoids the need to either be very detailed up front, which could easily come across as condescending, or having them re-do any work that wasn't as desired.

I've hired out a few jobs on my house, and in all cases felt like "helping out" was the right move. For example we had a fireplace installed; if I hadn't been there during the process it would've been much harder to clean our chimney. Have also gotten jobs done more quickly, made connections with recommended trades people, learned about local suppliers, etc.


Isn't this a lot of work? I suppose it's perhaps worth it if you plan to live in a place for a long time, but surely there are specialists that do this for a living? Like, can't you just pay an architect to design the thing?


(I am the author) Yeah there are tons of architects that specialize in traditional (and even ultra-traditional reproduction) custom houses. But I don't have that kind of money. I needed to simplify as much as possible and do as much as possible myself while trying to keep the spirit of the thing I wanted.

Still if I had the money I suspect I'd want to be very involved in the design. Your living quarters are not a trivial part of your life!


I think you'll find that no architect, contractor, etc. is going to care about your house as much as you do. Even if they are the best of the best you aren't their only client, so they have limited time to put towards your project, while you have as much time as you are willing to give it. I often find myself just kind of standing in the middle of a room of my house looking around and thinking through various permutations of how I might rework things to be more functional and aesthetically pleasing. I find this kind of thinking (and eventual action) very enjoyable. You might not, and that's totally fine, but I can't imagine not doing this kind of stuff.


It doesn't have to be a lot of work, just paying attention to what you like and dislike in your current home, friend's homes, etc. is most of the battle.

Like, if I asked you what restaurants you like to go to and what some of your favorite meals are you would probably have an answer. If I gave you the choice between two drinks, you could probably pick one over the other (or neither, or both) with some confidence.

In the same way, try to develop opinions about where and how you live.


It definitely feels like there ought to be architects who can do this- with your input of course. Learning all the nuance and getting it all right the first time would be such a colossal job. I can spend a month or two per medium sized house project, learning all the details- forget about the whole house.

Of course, all this comes very naturally & easily to some people. (Mainly, I've noticed, when their parents are in construction, remodeling, or real estate)


> It definitely feels like there ought to be architects who can do this- with your input of course.

To be fair, the article does mention that: if you commission an architect to do this, you should show them your Pinterest boards. Or at least get an idea of what you like.

> Learning all the nuance and getting it all right the first time would be such a colossal job.

I imagine it's akin to getting to the level of a working architect yourself. Which is a huge time investment. The article mentions it taking years for them.

> I can spend a month or two per medium sized house project, learning all the details- forget about the whole house.

That's much less than I'd expect it to take me. I'm curious: are you an architect, or designer, yourself?


A great architect doesn’t just do the design but specifies the materials list. Contractors then bid and any substitions have to be architect approved.

This doesn’t guarantee good construction practices without supervision, but it does insure you have less crap going into the house.

It can also be a huge savings. A relatives professionally designed house easily made up for the expense of that design - her neighbors pay $500/month in utilities, she paid $75. Neighbors have all sorts of defects, heating/cooling issues.


That's part of the charm isn't it? I too have a silly dream of sometimes designing my own dream house.


Well, yes, for some people (maybe most). I don't dream of designing my living space, but I do like to live on a nice one. It's not like my bar is very high either.


It's a lot of fun.


A lot of commenters are suffering from the bias we suffer from every time we discuss issues of the past: the "old homes" are good in party because they have passed the test of generations. The bad designs from those generations have largely been torn down. Just because something is old does not make it good.

It is another question entirely why we continue to fall for the same poor designs.


Another great book is "How to Build in the Country: Good Advice from the Past on how to Choose a Site, Plan, Design, Build, Decorate & Landscape Your Country Home"[0]

0: https://smile.amazon.com/dp/0966307518/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_...


We just bought a mid-century modern house originally built in 1955 and completely redone in 2009. Some of the choices are extremely questionable and some of them are obviously dated, but in general I like living here much more than our 2004-vintage tract house. The light and layout are just so much better.


Living in the Chicago area suburbs (think John Hughes), I developed a fondness for the Frank Lloyd Wright prairie style homes. Is it possible to get blueprints for actual FLW homes that you could give to a builder... even perhaps yourself?


Except that FLW homes tend to have serious deficiencies as houses. Their roofs leak. Their interiors often use natural light poorly and are cavernous and dark. Admire them as works of sculpture, but don't live in one.


My go-to technical encyclopedia for getting a house right:

www.finehomebuilding.com/


Journal of Light Construction is pretty good as well: https://www.jlconline.com/

And, online only, Green Building Advisor: https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/


Love the amount of details that has gone into this. Truly is a work of passion. I am waiting for a part-3 which should hopefully cover some of the "techy" stuff that can be built into the home. For e.g., Ethernet cables all over? USB ports in the wall itself in addition to switches? Speaking of which, what tech stuff would you build into your homes?


> With some careful choices and by doing some of the finishing ourselves, we thought we could make it relatively inexpensively, too.

What was the cost?


We just bought out first house, it's a super basic 1930s "Traditional Minimal". Funny enough this home is actually the youngest of the twenty or so homes we looked at. We only passed on some 1880s homes because of location issues.


you should add "in America" to the title


Indeed. While some ideas are the same everywhere, the maximum size of a house in Europe will probably be under 2000 sqft, the fixtures will be very different (e.g. door knobs or handles?), the technologies will be different (heating for example: floor pipes vs. radiators vs. air ducts) and so on.


Also:

Plots of land with services and outline planning permission are super expensive if not just unavailable in most places.

You can't get a mortgage on a self build so you best have a couple of hundred thousand lying around or risk taking a bridge loan from a bank which puts enormous pressure on you to finish as soon as possible as that interest is eating up your capital.

You have to have somewhere else to live in the mean time, which combined with possible interest or just delays due to weather etc constantly puts cost pressures on you.

It's an unbelievably impractical dream for mostly everyone.


> You can't get a mortgage on a self build so you best have a couple of hundred thousand lying around

True, though there _are_ options. A family friend added 2000 sq ft to his family home (which had been 800 - and not excessive, they had three kids in a 2br home). He is a general contractor and works for a home construction company.

Granted that was a "renovation" - well, almost all new construction. He planned on doing almost all of it himself, except for plumbing/electrical, so anticipated very little labor costs. The bank made them take a loan for the market value of the work including labor, on the guise of "if you get injured, you need to be able to pay to complete it", but allowed the setting of milestones where they could repay labor costs out of the loan.


It's usually possible if you are in small towns to contact local construction companies, see what/where they are planning to build (usually semi-detached or row houses) and customize the inside (plan and fixtures) as much as possible. It's really hard to do it without an architect with so much less space available, but even then you still have a lot of freedom.


I agree with much of the general take of this article, but having remodeled, or helped remodel houses, or just plain lived in/repaired over the past couple decades I've got my own set of opinions about this.

Starting with, never mistake style for long lasting quality. For example, wood floors are very poor flooring material unless you don't mind living in a house where the floors look like a barn after a decade or two. Tile, concrete, will unless abused, out last just about every other flooring choice while generally remaining quite nice if installed well. There is a reason the mosaics in high end roman houses are still in place two thousand years after they were built.

Also, to add to the general take of the article. Nothing you buy from the big box home improvement stores will last more than 10 years. I would qualify this with their lumber/etc is fine, but I've seen cases where the lumber was incorrectly pressure treated(!) and they replaced it after it rotted in 5 years. Which is great, except for the fact that the lumber was like 1/100th of the job cost. Frankly, its not even the big box suppliers, its just about everything they sell seems to have declined in quality. Until a couple years ago, I had never seen a light switch fail, my current house (built in the early 2000's) has had about 1/2 of the light switches literally fall apart in the walls.

So, while somethings are probably acceptable quality (indoor door handles/locks) for the most part, the exterior ones with their faux aged finishes and the like will despite their 30 year guarantees break, or the finishes will crack in the sun, or rust. And on and on...

My general take is some of it might be ok, but keep the receipt for that $300 facet somewhere you will be able to find it in 8 years, because its quite likely something will go wrong. Pay the extra for the one from the plumbing/etc supply house, because the worthwhile plumbers/etc will offer matching labor guarantees and they don't like coming back to fix something under warantee.

I could write a book about this... but one last thing. Ive spoken to a lot of people in the know, and the general take on appliances is that a good high end one from the mid 1990's will likely outlast anything built in the last 20 years. If you have an old fridge/dishwasher/etc take care of it, polish it up, treasure it. Most importantly, buy a part off ebay when it fails and fix it. Enjoy it for what it is, a quality piece of machinery that probably uses a bit more electricity, or water, but actually cleans your cloths/dishes/etc or the ice maker doesn't jam or clog, or need DRM'ed water filters. And if you really want filtered Ice buy a inline water filter and plug it into the ice line and enjoy the $5 filters and think about the fact that your saving $30+ dollars each time you change it.


Hardwood floors will look great for 20 years or more, just follow one simple rule: don’t wear (outdoor) shoes inside. That’s going to be a tough tradition to break in the US though.


No matter how hard you try stuff will happen. One of my kids tiny glass diamonds (not even really sure where it came from) somehow managed to get underneath one of the felt pads on the legs of our couch. I discovered it recently when someone moved the couch and left a three foot fairly deep scratch across the floor. That paled in comparison to what was actually going on under the couch leg.

I'm pretty good at matching/refinishing, and i'm going to tell you, our floor has a bit of built in stylistic distressing, but the filler+ careful matching/etc I did in that area is never going to match the rest of the floor sufficiently that if you look at it you won't see the scratch. Replacing 5-6 boards in the middle of the floor is really the only choice to make it look like new, but that would use up a good number of the spare pieces I have.

I guess at this point its "character", but in another decade or two the 2->3 major scratch issues a year + likely the high traffic areas will start to add up, and the floors will look like many of the houses I've seen with older wood floors. Worn out.


Sand the floors every 5-10 years should help. The worst dents and scratches might not sand out but that’s inevitable. It won’t look like new after 10 years but that’s probably acceptable.


Have you done this? Where I live its cheaper to rip it out and replace it with new wood flooring. Plus, the factory finishes are considerably harder and more scratch resistant than what you can get put down in place. I've actually wondered if a better plan for wood flooring is to treat it like my deck, a simple yearly oil based coating vs a hard finish.

Of course the out gassing from something like that is probably a health hazard.

Instead, I treat it more like carpet, aka I figure every decade or two it needs to be replaced. In my rentals I've been using an engineered laminate which is extremely robust. I picked it because I got a whole bunch of samples, took them home and then took a screw driver and started scratching the heck out of them until I found one that I couldn't scratch. I think its far superior and looks nearly as good as the real wood in the house I live in. I install it floating, but pull up the baseboards and replace them at the same time so it looks original. It has a bit of a hollow noise if you knock on it (despite being 3/4"), but I don't think there is a way to avoid that without glueing it down, which just adds cost when it needs to be replaced.


> I've actually wondered if a better plan for wood flooring is to treat it like my deck, a simple yearly oil based coating vs a hard finish.

We just put in a wood floor and went with Tung oil [1] as the finish. I don't know how well it'll hold up, but what sold me on the idea is that you can just re-apply the oil as needed.

We have three young kids, so who knows how well it'll hold up. I guess we'll find out.

[1] https://www.realmilkpaint.com/shop/oils/half-and-half/


Yes. What do you pay for the flooring vs the work? I pay $100+ per square meter for the floor (aroud $10 per sq foot) and sanding is 1/10th to 1/5 that ($10 to $20 per square meter or $1-2 per sq foot) with the costlier ones having a better finish that more resembles the factory one.


It depends... IIRC, It seems i'm probably paying a lot less than you are for the flooring/install. OTOH, the two times I've gotten quotes to sand and finish a floor its been more than just ripping out and putting in something else.

I guess it would be pretty inexpensive to rent a sander and do it myself (or hire unskilled labor) but i'm not sure I trust the latter, and the former sounds like the kind of frustration I don't need more of. I've tangentially helped people sand their decks and its was a PITA.

In Austin, there are a lot of people who can install wood flooring, and they are crazy fast, and it turns out that makes them pretty inexpensive. That is part of the reason I do floating floors in the rentals. The removal costs for a glued down floor, or "well installed" linoleum, is many multiples what it costs to put the new flooring in.


> If you have an old fridge/dishwasher/etc take care of it, polish it up, treasure it.

I think it's more a question of what you buy. The crappy ones from the '90's that weren't going to last have all died. The ones that left were the quality ones. You can still buy good quality, straightforward appliances. You just are going to pay accordingly.


That door knob is well crafted. A modern production with similar quality probably will take upwards to $400 based on my recent research on front door locks...


This is wild to me, I can't follow the author's logic here really at all. It reads like a borderline-satirical example of nostalgia for nostalgia's sake. They make such obnoxious claims like "I think most people have an intuitive sense that older homes are often special, and newer ones are often not".

Then they go on to list things that I associate much more with modern homes - not wasting floor space, and paying attention to the elements and light. A modern, open-concept design is optimizing much better for this than an old farmhouse where, for instance, the kitchen and formal dining room and living room are all closed off from each other. Modern homes often have floor to ceiling windows and sliding glass doors, old homes have tiny closed off windows. And old homes like the author uses as an example here are often just simple rectangles, so all the design decisions are constrained to be small square rooms. At least the "mcmansion" example in this post of a terrible new home has more interesting, non-perpendicular details and layout.

Maybe I just have an anti-nostalgia for this type of home, and maybe that makes me just as biased as the author in the opposite direction. I've never lived in a home like this but have been inside of a few of them, and they're often dark and closed in and kind of creepy. But I don't think I'm completely alone in feeling this way, there must be a reason so many horror movies are set in old farmhouses. To each their own, I guess.

(And on top of all this, I would argue that this kind of permeating attitude about new homes just not being special like old homes are plays a huge part in the current housing shortage crisis that much of the US faces, but I won't even go into that).


> I've never lived in a home like this but have been inside of a few of them, they're often dark and closed in and kind of creepy

I'm the author. I designed my house to have the enormous amounts of light that I found in older homes, that are often totally absent from new ones because of a reliance on electricity. You should see more of the "Colonials" that get built today. Many of them have zero windows on two sides (one side has the garage, the other merely has zero windows). There are numerous examples near me, this is right down the road: https://www.google.com/maps/@42.8408959,-71.6385114,3a,49y,3...

Those are dark and closed in. Many of the new homes I've been in, I had to turn on the light in the kitchen in the morning because they're so dark.

I have posted other examples before to Twitter, eg: https://twitter.com/simonsarris/status/1225243964237807616


So this cheap-but-large construction is that mostly a US thing? I recognize very little of it from Sweden.

If I were to build somtething new it would have be much better planned space than older homes, and if I buy something built in the last 10 years it would be designed to be open, bright, clever, environmentally friendly, and with expensive lasting materials. Very old homes (100+ years) have a selection bias where the worst are torn down. Homes from 1940-1980 usually have terrible planning, cheap materials and so on, simply because people were poorer and prirorities were different (closed off kitchen, narrow hallways,...).


Huh. Apparently houses missing windows on an entire side are a common thing. I recently noticed a newly built house without any windows on one side. I had attributed this to the lot being split off from its neighbors, who presumably specced the new home that way for their own privacy. Evidently it's just a cost saving thing that people are willing to put up with. Weird.


It seems like essentially confirmation bias in action—the author notices crappy modern houses, but ignores great ones, and vice versa for old houses. Many of their complaints about modern houses do resonate for me, but for cheap suburban tract housing. For example, most suburban houses seem to have tiny windows. I suspect this is because windows that insulate to modern standards are expensive.

My city is full of many 100+ year old houses, and I looked at a lot of them last year when I was buying a house. Around here, you get big lovely windows (that you will spend a fortune to replace with double-paned ones), no insulation, and a layout that ranges from totally bizarre to serviceable, but inefficient. In the early 1900s, heating systems were very inefficient, so people wanted lots of small rooms with doors, so that you could heat only the room you're in. This is no longer necessary, and most homes have newer, efficient furnaces, but you're stuck with the old layout. In old homes, the kitchen was a tiny, functional space, rather than the gathering space like it is now. I thought it was rather funny they showed a big beautiful kitchen with an open floor plan. These are not common in 1900s homes.

I've lived in a mix of modern dwellings and older ones, and the simple truth is each have their advantages. Overall though, I'd say modern dwellings have better layouts and insulation, but cheaper finishes that you will despise looking at after a few months. Older houses have lovely details, but they're likely all worn out in various ways (my glass doorknobs are beautiful, but also very wobbly and loose), and layout was probably great 100 years ago, but doesn't conform to modern living styles.


You’re thinking of expensive or maybe region-specific “designer” homes. If you just go look at most of the kinds of new houses being built, up to surprisingly high price points (as noted in TFA), it’s exactly as described. The waste of space especially drives me nuts and it’s everywhere in most new construction. Ditto shockingly bad and cheap-feeling fixtures and doors even in very expensive houses. When they do mimic huge “open” design spaces (incidentally, the Worst Thing Ever if you have kids) these kinds of builders usually do it because it’s cheaper, and then screw it up so the flow/layout, somehow, still sucks and wastes space—because all they care about is that the house looks impressive in photos on Zillow.


You're both right. Most modern homes are designed by builders or their terrible architects. If you're going to spend $1 million on a home, hire a good architect and get a nice home. Builders (usually) "design" terrible homes. They have goals at odds with the eventual home buyer (as the poster points out).


We recently build a house too and we avoided to have an open floor design. When kitchen, dinging area and living room are connected, you have no place to get peace when anyone is occupying one area. Our kids can watch tv now, while we relax at the table or someone is cooking.




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