Tips on How to Design a New Modern Home in a Historic Neighborhood

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By The Ranch Mine
Vacant lots in historic areas are becoming increasingly popular, as homeowners are drawn to their character, neighborhood scale, and central locations. While these lots provide fantastic opportunities to infill and add to the history of the area, designing a new home in a historic neighborhood presents many challenges—and brings up the occasional battle of conflicting interests.

Challenges can arise as residents are often concerned about the introduction of a modern home to the community, while most preservation guidelines encourage new construction to be distinct and clearly discernible as new—as to not devalue the historic homes. While it's important to be well-educated in the specific guidelines of your local historic preservation office or governing entity, we've gathered a few examples of design strategies to help you successfully introduce a modern home into a historic neighborhood. 

Consider the Neighborhood's Proportions  

Many established historic areas are relatively urban, which increases the importance of maintaining proportions that are familiar to the community. The townhomes shown below in the historic Mount Vernon Square neighborhood of Washington, DC continue the approximate width, height, and opening ratios of the adjacent townhomes in the front, before stepping back to the more modern facade.   

Tips on How to Design a New Modern Home in a Historic Neighborhood - Photo 1 of 5 - View from Ridge Street

View from Ridge Street

Follow the Form of Neighboring Homes

Using a common layout found in neighboring homes creates a pleasing pattern from the street and a connection to the adjacent neighbors. Following the form of the historic homes can also help you successfully implement passive design strategies. An example is shown below, with a modern interpretation of the vernacular courtyard house in the American southwest. The new design elements create passive cooling and shade to escape from the desert sun. 

Tips on How to Design a New Modern Home in a Historic Neighborhood - Photo 2 of 5 - "Sol" is a new home in the Willo Historic District in Phoenix that was designed by The Ranch Mine. The house is a modern interpretation of the vernacular courtyard style found throughout the southwest.

"Sol" is a new home in the Willo Historic District in Phoenix that was designed by The Ranch Mine. The house is a modern interpretation of the vernacular courtyard style found throughout the southwest.

Consider Materials and the Textures They Create

How exterior materials are used effects the way we perceive a home—from the way they look and feel to the way they age—and can be a defining aspect of a neighborhood. Sea Ranch is a great example of a place where new, modern homes are consistently introduced while maintaining the original principles of the community.

Tips on How to Design a New Modern Home in a Historic Neighborhood - Photo 3 of 5 - Cor-Ten steel and board-form concrete give the exterior a weathered look.

Cor-Ten steel and board-form concrete give the exterior a weathered look.

Try Massing to Find a Common Connector 

An effective way to design a compatible home is to find a common theme throughout the three-dimensional composition of the local houses. Below, a distillation of neighboring post-war homes led to a modern elevation with a similar protruded front that has a single opening with a long-recessed volume behind it. 

Tips on How to Design a New Modern Home in a Historic Neighborhood - Photo 4 of 5 - Compilation of the front elevations of the historic homes in the neighborhood and the resulting modern elevation of 'Link.'

Compilation of the front elevations of the historic homes in the neighborhood and the resulting modern elevation of 'Link.'

Don't Forget the Importance of Craftsmanship 

Architectural compatibility covers more than just how a building looks, but also how it works, what it stands for, and how it's put together. Louis Cherry focused on reinterpreting the Arts and Crafts movement by using local materials in his home that was the subject of a lengthy court battle.   

Tips on How to Design a New Modern Home in a Historic Neighborhood - Photo 5 of 5 - Louis did much of the woodworking in the house, including the fabrication of the  white oak stair treads. The ironwork was crafted by Alex and Gio Welding. A Glo Ball pendant by Jasper Morrison for Flos hangs in front of the staircase.

Louis did much of the woodworking in the house, including the fabrication of the white oak stair treads. The ironwork was crafted by Alex and Gio Welding. A Glo Ball pendant by Jasper Morrison for Flos hangs in front of the staircase.

The contextual design strategies above are used in historic neighborhoods, but can also be applied to all modern infill homes. Understanding composition, character, community, connections, and compatibility is critical to successfully enriching existing neighborhoods while introducing another chapter to their history.

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