Monday, October 6, 2014


I always cringe at those real estate listings for older homes that read, “Completely renovated,” “freshly modernized,” or even “restored from top to bottom”.  What this usually means is that the seller has slapped up a truckload of flimsy crap from the local home improvement emporium--maybe some vinyl windows, a kitchen full of particleboard cabinets, and a quick coat of paint--and walked away whistling. This, for some people, constitutes a “complete renovation”.

While it’s sometimes hard to distinguish faddish design choices from timeless ones in the context of one’s own time, it’s easy enough to pick out the future offenders that are disfiguring perfectly good houses right now. Leading the pack are vinyl replacement windows--those bright-white, clumsily proportioned abominations that afflict so many houses these days, whether modern or traditional. 

Anyone who’s ever groaned at the sight of a fine old Victorian house refitted with shiny aluminum windows can well understand how these vinyl units will be regarded in a decade or two. They’re an especially ill-suited replacement for the intentionally slender and delicate aluminum windows found in most Ranch-style and modernist houses from the postwar years through the Eighties.

Clumsy, doughy, and white--vinyl is a far cry
from the slim-lined windows Rancher architects
had in mind.
It may sound strange to lament the loss of aluminum windows in an old Rancher, but then again, during the 1950s and 60s, it seemed inconceivable that someone might want to preserve the old wooden windows in a Victorian houses. This was, after all, a style of architecture then just barely above contempt, and nothing about it seemed to warrant the slightest effort toward preservation. Today, save for a minority of mid-century design aficionados, many people ironically hold postwar houses in the same regard. 

If energy conservation is the motivation for replacing original windows (and note that it’s practically never cost-effective to do so for energy reasons alone), it’s still better to replace window types like for like--double-glazed aluminum for single glazed aluminum, and so on. Better yet, put a fraction of this money into insulating your attic, and you’ll get a much bigger payback.

Vinyl windows aren’t the only glaring anachronism being foisted on older postwar homes these days, though. It’s just as shortsighted to “upgrade” older, modernist-era homes with molded six-panel doors, elaborate door casing, crown molding, ornate kitchen cabinetry, or rustic Italian tile. All of these materials have a proper place, but seldom will that place be found in a mid-century home, whose very aesthetic was based on clean-lined simplicity. 

Yes, this used to be a Rancher.
In any house, from any era, it’s all the disparate original bits and pieces--doors, windows, moldings, lighting fixtures, finishes--that add up to the integral whole which we call a period style. And experience proves beyond a doubt that an older house whose original style remains intact ultimately retains more value than one that’s been “renovated”, “modernized”, “upgraded”, or otherwise molested.

 Is all this just academic nitpicking? These days, a reasonably well-informed consumer won’t think so. Thanks to the vast wealth of design knowledge only seconds away on the Internet, home buyers are becoming ever more sophisticated about what constitutes a quality improvement, and what’s just trendoid rubbish.


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