An old house just feels different. You know it when you see it, and it’s why we love them!
About the Episode:
I love old houses, as you know. And living in an old house is very different from living in a newer one. It’s more than just the layout and architecture that separate the historic from the modern. Old houses are different right down to the studs. So what makes and old house feel so special? I’ll tell you!
In this episode, you’ll hear:
- The 7 things that distinguish an old home from a new build
- All the things about windows, because I do love me some old windows!
- How to tell when a new house is TRYING to be old
And so much more!
Follow me on Instagram @FarmhouseVernacular!
Hello and welcome to the Vernacular Life Podcast, where we talk about anything and everything that goes on in our turn of the century of folk Victorian, Kentucky vernacular home. I am Paige, your host as usual. And today we are talking about some differences between old houses and new houses.
Now this of course could be a very, very extensive conversation depending on what you’re talking about and depending on who you’re talking to, because some people love old houses. Some people hate old houses. Some people think old houses are just a big headache, but either way there are some very clear differences between old and new houses that I think are worth discussing.
So obviously I love old houses. I just love the way they feel. I love the way they look. I love how interesting they are. I love how much personality they have, how much character they have, how unique they are. I could go on and on waxing poetic. And they’re not the same as modern houses.
You can just tell when you walk into a new house versus when you walk into an old house. There is something that’s different. There is some quality to being in that old house that is not the same.
I always start these kind of things thinking, “Oh, we’re going to make a list of about five things that are different between old houses and new houses,” and then I start writing my list and it’s always a lot longer. So today we actually have seven things that are different between old houses and new house houses. There are more differences depending on how nitty gritty you want to get in terms of historic windows and foundations and crawlspaces and things like that, but these to me are kind of large, very visible, noticeable differences between new houses and old houses.
And I think a lot of these things are design features that new houses trying to look old kind of don’t get quite right. They don’t quite hit on all of these features of old houses. So I’m kind of hoping that by talking about some of these that I’ve seen, that if someone wants to build something new, if someone wants to try to recreate an old house, maybe you can keep these things in mind. And then we can have new houses that feel as wonderful and cozy as old houses.
The first thing, and we’ve talked about this before, is open concept versus closed concept. So closed concept, I think is kind of the easier one to define. And then open concept is sort of just the opposite. So in closed concept, each room is a defined space. It has four walls, it has doorways, it has kind of a defined footprint. It has a very clear area. The rooms are separate.
A lot of times in these old houses, they were separated by doors so you could put doors between the rooms and closed them off. But closed concept is really centered around each room being separated and having its own purpose or its own kind of defined space.
And old houses had this a lot in terms of they had parlors where you would entertain your guests and they had dining rooms and the different bedrooms. And they had porches and they had sitting rooms and withdrawing rooms and all sorts of places like that that were actually defined and separate.
Now the difficulty with closed concept is that things can kind of get a little tight if you have a lot of people over. So if you have 30 people in a house and you have all these separate individual rooms, things get a little bit squished and you end up with pockets of people all over the house, not really in a central area.
Old houses of course figured out how to get around this with the use of pocket doors. And those doors were huge and you could open both of them and they would kind of turn two closed concept rooms into one slightly larger room. I find this completely fantastic because you still get all of the benefits and the wonderfulness of closed concept houses, but you don’t have to have it all the time. You have options. And I love options.
Now, if we talk about open concept, it’s pretty much the opposite of closed concept in which you will have one space that has very little delineation between areas that serves multiple functions. So you might have a kitchen that flows into a dining area that flows into a family room. And so all in all, the room might be 15 feet wide and 35 feet long, but it’s serving two or three or four different purposes.
And as far as I can tell, this really started to become popular roughly in the 1950s, when you kind of had the ranch houses come about. That was sort of when the kitchen stopped being tucked away in the back of the house where the kitchen didn’t really need to be hidden anymore because people weren’t really hiring out cooks like a lot of the cooking was done by the family.
And so it was a lot more desirable to have that cooking area and that eating area and that entertaining area kind of closer together. So if you have people over, they can all kind of interact and they can all mingle and they can all have a great time. And then it really went nuts I would say, in the ’90s, 2000s, 2010s when you start to get these great rooms with these vaulted ceilings and these huge sprawling kitchens that it go from kitchen to dining room, to living room, to family room, to game room, to foyer, and then back again.
And for some situations, especially if you entertain a lot or if you just really like how open it is, open concept can be really, really nice. It can be really tastefully done. It can be really beautiful. I love my dramatic colors, so I love having all of my rooms individualized so that I can make each room have its own personality.
The other thing that I find kind of interesting about closed concept versus open concept is I find it much easier to place furniture in a room when there are four corners or when there are more corners, as opposed to just kind of open walkways. So this is something that’s really different between old houses and new houses.
And I think even a lot of these kind of modern farmhouse designs, they incorporate a lot of this open concept in with the farmhouse layout. So a kind looks farmhouse-ish on the outside, but has the open concept on the inside. And for some people, again, that works really, really well because you want the flexibility and the flow of the open concept, but you want something a little more traditional on the outside.
Unfortunately, I don’t think they ever quite get it right. I think they’re always a little, a little bit off, like not quite right on the exterior, just because old houses weren’t built with open concept in mind. So if you build a house with open concept in mind, it’s just not going to look quite old because that’s not how old houses were built.
The second to biggest thing that I see all the time, and to me this is one of the hallmarks of a good renovation or restoration or a good build or a bad build, is stacked windows. What do I mean by stacked windows? Okay.
Well, houses from before about 1930 had something called balloon framing, and that means that the studs that make up the walls of the house run from the foundation pretty much all the way up to the roof in one continuous board. If you’ve ever heard that fire travels really fast in old houses, this is part of the reason because there is a continuous stud cavity from the basement or crawl space all the way up into the attic.
So if you get fire in that stud cavity, it can just race all the way up the house. And then while it’s racing up the house it actually is open to the joists on the second floor so that fire can just go right up the walls into the second floor and it spreads really quickly. So they don’t do this anymore. They do something called platform framing, which I am not a construction expert, but basically you build the first floor.
You put a platform on top of it, and then you build a second floor. So you have lot more freedom about where you place the windows. The reason that windows were stacked in some of these older houses was because you had those continuous studs. And a lot of times those continuous studs were on load bearing walls. So you don’t necessarily want to cut into a bunch of the studs on load bearing walls.
You want to keep as many of those intact as possible, but in this house, for example, the windows were about two stud cavities wide. So you only needed to cut a stud in the middle in order to make room for a window. So rather than cutting that one stud, putting a window in, and then going up to the second floor and shifting it over a foot and having to cut a different stud, when you stack the windows, you’re basically cutting out the same stud. So you’re weakening the house in the same place, in the same way. So instead of cutting into multiple load bearing studs, you’re just cutting into one and it leaves the wall overall stronger.
That’s kind of the technical reason for doing what they’re doing. But the result is that if you look at old houses, most of the time the doors and windows are stacked perfectly on top of each other. Sometimes you might see a house that has two windows on the first floor and one window on the second floor, but in general, you will see in these wooden houses windows stacked directly over each other.
Now with platform framing, you don’t really have to worry about interrupting one load bearing stud. You can put in headers, you can do all sorts of things to make sure that the wall is strong enough. So you can put windows pretty much wherever you want, but if you kind of take your windows stamp and start to just stick in windows all over the place, it can just look not old because old houses had those stacked windows and doors.
So if you’re trying to emulate something old or you’re putting in an addition on an old house and you want to try to match what the house looked like as much as possible, make sure those windows are in line, make sure those windows are stacked.
And I think this is a pretty much dead giveaway of when something is a new house versus an old house. Honestly, this is the primary thing that I see that’s “wrong” with a lot of modern farmhouse designs, is their windows are just, they’ll just be off by like six inches. And I’m like, “Guys, if you could just take that window and just ehh it over just a little bit, it would look so much better.”
But in addition to being stacked, a lot of times there wasn’t a huge variety in the size and kind of dimensions of the windows. Unless you get into something like a Queen Anne Victorian, or sometimes a craftsman where different size windows are really a feature of the house where you have stain glass and you have arched windows and you have all these kinds of different windows that sort of embellished the style of the house, for a simple farmhouse like this we basically have, let’s see, three sizes of windows originally in this house, if you don’t count the pantry window, but the pantry window’s kind of a fluke.
So we have tall windows on the first floor. We have windows that are the same width, but shorter on the second floor. And then there’s one specialty window that had to be a different size just because of where it is in the upstairs hall. And when you’re looking at the size of these windows and particularly the proportions of these windows, they are typically tall and narrow.
A lot of times in modern houses, windows are wider and shorter and it’s so you can put furniture underneath them. So that the half the window isn’t blocked by a couch or a table or a desk, they didn’t really worry about that in old houses. So a lot of times these windows narrower and taller, as opposed to wider and shorter.
So if you’re choosing windows to put back into a house and you want them to look a little bit more historic beef up the size, make those puppies taller and a little bit skinnier so you have like a nice tall, narrow window. I think for reference, ours are roughly 72 inches by 32 inches on the first floor. And they’re 66 by 32 on the second floor.
Going along with the balloon framing, because that didn’t just apply to the exterior walls that also applied to the interior walls, is that a lot of times these houses had stacked layouts. So the layout for the first floor and the layout for the second floor would have a lot of walls in common, if not all the walls in common. This house is pretty much the same layout upstairs and downstairs. We have doors in a few different places compared to upstairs and downstairs, but as far as the size of the rooms and the layout of the rooms, it’s pretty much identical.
And it’s because all of those walls that are on the first floor run all the way up to the second floor. Now, again with platform framing, this was not really necessary anymore. This isn’t how you have to build the anymore. Because as long as you aren’t putting too heavy of a room in the middle of a span and everything’s properly supported, you can pretty much have rooms wherever you want.
But again, if you’re trying to make something feel a little bit older, if you’re walking into an old house and you’re looking for that kind of intangible thing, that’s like, “This is old and I can just tell,” one of the things is that it’ll be very similar upstairs and downstairs. There may be slight differences or one room might be split into two, but for the most part, you’re going to have the same upstairs and downstairs.
Now the fourth thing, we’re still on windows and walls and doors and things. It’s because I think these are some of the biggest features of a house that just immediately to me say that’s old or that’s new. And with old houses, you can have windows on all four sides of the house. A lot of times with modern houses or with subdivision houses, they tend not to put windows on the sides of the house because your neighbor’s right there.
And you just want a little bit of privacy. You want to make sure that nobody can see you. It’s just nice to have no windows there and you don’t have to worry about it. Old houses didn’t think about this, especially for a house like this that existed kind of before electricity. This house was not electrified originally. It wasn’t electrified until about the 1930s.
So they relied on all of those windows for their natural light during the day, the more windows, the more light and the easier it was to walk around and do things inside the house. It is roughly 4:00 PM right now and I have a few lamps on just because I’m a lamp addict. I love them and I love looking at them.
But if you look around the house, I mean, you could read, you could sew, you could bake bread, you could do pretty much anything you needed to with how much light is in this house naturally, because the way it’s situated means that any time of day there’s at least one room that is super bright and well lit. When we lived in our 2015 suburban house, there were no windows on the sides. And there was one room in particular on the first floor in the front that had two windows only, and they faced one side of the house and they were under a porch.
And that room was perpetually dark all times of day. There was never a time of day where that room was really nice and bright, but we really don’t have that issue here, even the kitchen and the dining room, which are kind of on the dark side of the house, they’re still plenty bright enough that you can be in them and you can be working in them throughout the day with no issues and with no additional light, kind of another perk of having windows on four sides is that you can open them and you can get wonderful cross breezes in the middle of summer, if you happen to want to do that.
And I think this is kind of how they dealt without air conditioning, especially in our location because our house happens to sit on top of a hill so it very rarely gets hot enough that it actually is horribly uncomfortable. It might be a little bit uncomfortable, but there’s only about two weeks out of the year where it’s just so unbearably hot and there’s no wind and you just have to hide inside with the air conditioning.
Most of the time we have a breeze kind of whipping up over the hill or coming across the land or coming across the road. And if we have all of our windows open, we can make sure that there are windows open on opposite sides of the house and get at the most fabulous cross breeze.
You wouldn’t think that, that would cool you down as much as it does, but considering how shady our yard is and how much that helps cool the air off. And then you run all that air through the house. It just, it’s wonderful.
And then of course you get all the wonderful smells of the nature in the country and everything. And at this point I’m just waxing poetic, but having windows on four sides of the house is a huge thing. And if you’re going to build, if you want to make sure that something looks kind of old fashioned, put windows on all sides of your house.
This fifth difference, I guess it’s kind of tied in with the sixth one, but we’ll start with the fifth one. And it’s that the rooms were adaptable. A lot of times I see very specified floor plans for new houses. Whereas this is the formal living room and this is the game room, and this is the theater room, and this is the family room, and this is the den, and this is the living room and there’s just kind of this laundry list of very specific rooms that fill specific purposes. And while there a thing wrong with that, and if you have the budget and the inclination and that’s the kind of house you want to build, knock yourself out.
What I think happens is on average, we spend less time in each of those rooms because they only serve a specific purpose. So say you have basically five different versions of a family room. Maybe you have a game room, maybe you have a den, maybe you have a movie room and you spend one fifth of your time in each of those rooms. That means that you need five times the space. You need five times the area to fulfill all of those purposes.
And that means that you’re heating that much space. You’re cooling that much space. You’re paying to build that much space. You’re cleaning that much space. You’re maintaining the tidiness of that much space. You have five times the area to work with. And even though it’s nice to have those dedicated areas, the result is that there’s just a lot more maintenance and cleaning and upkeep associated with them.
So what I think happens in older houses is that they’re kind of more adaptable. We don’t have all of these specified rooms. So instead you see things like furniture on wheels that can be moved around. You see things like pocket doors that can turn a gentleman’s and parlor and the lady’s parlor into a one big ballroom. Today because building has gotten so cheap, you can kind of have whatever you want. And I think when you have whatever you want, you don’t kind of come up with clever solutions to use what you actually have.
So I see these old houses and I know that some of them are used for … some of the rooms are bedrooms, and then they could be a parlor, and then they could be a sick room, and then they could be a funeral room and then they could be a dining room, but they just adapted their houses more for what they needed instead of making the house inherently have all of those features.
And of course, I’m talking more about normal scale houses. I’m not talking about mansions and manors and the very, very wealthy and elite houses. Those of course, much like today, they have all sorts of amenities and fanciness and conservatories and all of these kinds of things. But for your average house, I think there was just a little bit more focus on making the house adapt for what you need it to be instead of building the house with every feature and amenity in mind.
And kind of going along with that, houses were smaller. They were just not as large. This house is somewhere over 1800 square feet, maybe between 1,800 and 2200, something like that, and it’s a pretty good sized house. But if you can imagine the kind of families that lived here might have had … well, I know the man who lived here had six children. If someone said that they were raising six children in an 1800 square foot house today, we’d be like, “What? Really?”
I had a friend in elementary school who was one of eight and they had probably a 5,000 square foot house because each kid had their own room and they had their own bathrooms and they had playrooms and they had all sorts of amenities, which is perfectly fine. And again, knock yourself out. But that’s just a different way of thinking from these older houses. The thing about smaller houses is they kind of force efficiency.
When you don’t have as much space to work and you have to get very clever about how you’re storing things and how you’re coming up with these solutions and where people are sleeping and how much stuff you have it kind of forces you to think a little bit more simply than some of these large houses where you can have literally everything you want all the time.
And I don’t necessarily know that one is better than the other. I personally like having less house to clean. I’m not a particularly good housekeeper to begin with. I’m not very consistent about it. I’m working so hard. I’m trying, but it’s not something that comes naturally to me. So the idea of having to keep a 5,000 square foot house clean, there’s no way.
There’s absolutely no way. But when things get smaller, when the houses get smaller, they tended to make use of every little bitty space everywhere, and I find that really, really charming. I find that a wonderful feature of old houses. So again, if you’re trying to make something feel a little bit old, see if you can go more efficient, but not necessarily bigger.
Now, the last thing that I think is very different about old houses is they were built so that the outside looked good, as well as the inside. They wanted to of fit a certain style on the exterior, and then they made the interior work around that. And because of that, I think it creates a lot of interesting little places to go. Most old houses have just charming areas, just hallways and nooks and pass throughs and seating areas and trunk rooms.
And they just have all of these little places that are just kind of unusual and good places to stop and good places to put a chair so you could sit and read a book, and I just don’t find that new houses have quite as many of these little destination places as older houses do.
Some of this, I think comes down to open concept versus closed concept, because with closed concept you have a lot more corners. And so you have places to slip a chair or a little table or a small settee or something to make that little area a destination in your house.
And I think having those places to go really just contributes to the house’s feeling cozy, because it’s very welcoming to walk into an old house and to see this little nook kind of tucked away from everybody that’s really too small to do anything with, but someone has found a desk and a chair to sit in there. And that’s a wonderful place to check emails or to write letters, if one is inclined to write letters.
And a friend of mine who recently moved into an 1850s house actually pointed this out. And she had not really grown up in an old house or being familiar with old houses. And then she became friends with me and I was like, “Hey, welcome to my world.” And she just moved into this beautiful Italianate. It’s just wonderful. And she said, “There are so many good nooks to sit in.”
And I’m like, “Yes, that is what an old house has.” That is the magic of an old house, is that it kind of invites you to sit and walk through it and perch in places and kind of experience the house as a whole, as opposed to just moving from room to room. So a lot of these things, there’s no reason that you can’t do them in new houses.
think they’re not done because we kind of get caught up in being able to have everything in the new house. We can have the master bedroom and we can have the huge bathroom and the walk in closet. And when you have that kind of luxury, I guess, to pretty much put whatever you want in a house, you’re going to lose something, I think in that forced efficiency and kind of the weird inefficiencies that pop up in old houses, strange walls and closets and things like that. And I think a lot of that is the charm of an old house, and I happen to personally love it.
So I hope you are an old house lover or at least an old house appreciator, even if you’re not one who wants to live in that old house, but as always, I thank you very much for hanging out with me and chatting about old houses. One of my favorite topics. Loved having you here, and I will see you next time. Bye.