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Reasons to know your home’s architectural style

By Margaret Ely
Washington Post

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  • Definitions of style

    •  Bungalow: Smaller windows, a pitched roof and a front porch are characteristic of this early-20th-century style. Most of the living space tends to be on the first floor, and many are near a beach or other waterway.

    •  Contemporary: Contemporary homes are often built with large glass windows that are meant to take advantage of a view. These are a good fit for sleek, minimalist furniture rather than bulky pieces that might block the view.

    •  Modern: A modern home is not to be confused with a contemporary one. Common in the mid- to late 20th century, modern homes are geometric, symmetrical and lack ornamentation. The look is crisp and clean with a tailored feel.

    •  Cape Cod: Traditional designs originated in 17th century England. They are square, one or 1 1/2 stories, with steep, gabled roofs. Bedrooms often are on the first floor. The kitchen is likely the focal point and allowed families to congregate near the fire to keep warm in the New England winters.

    •  Georgian: This style, with origins in 18th-century Britain, is formal and stately. Brick is the primary exterior material, with moldings for embellishment.

    •  Federal: These homes are intentionally extravagant, traditionally built by those who had wealth but borrowing the basic structure of a Georgian home. The late-18th-century style typically features a center hall, a Palladian window, an arched and columned door and a high ceiling.

    •  Ranch: These single-story homes with rectangular shapes and low rooflines are stripped-down versions of the Prairie style, with no embellishments. These homes are practical for aging adults and families with young children.

    •  Victorian: The style is defined by the ornamentation of the prosperous Victorian era (mid- to late 19th century), including curved towers and spindled porches.

    Lisa Adams of Washington, D.C.-based Adams Design and architect-designer Charles Almonte of Silver Spring, Md.



Victorian or Colonial revival? Modern or contemporary?

Knowing the architectural style of a home can be helpful – and perhaps valuable – when you’re buying, selling, remodeling or decorating.

“The trend has gone away from that cookie-cutter style of home,” said Jessica Babington, an agent for Helen Adams Realty’s Birkdale office. “People are looking for interesting architectural elements, character and things that are unique.”

Identifying a home’s style can also help you create a stronger marketing plan if you decide to sell and draw out buyers looking for properties in that category.

If you’re building or remodeling, you can choose a style of architecture that best fits your lifestyle, location and community. Adding a few architectural features that fit the style you’ve chosen can make the home a standout.

Getting familiar with style of your own home might make it easier to choose decor that works well with the architecture.

That doesn’t mean today’s customers want to match the style on the outside to the design of the living space inside, whether it’s a new or older home. Open floor plans top almost everyone’s wish list, said Helen Penter, a broker for Allen Tate Company’s SouthPark office.

“You’ll see that very Southern Lowcountry front porch, she said. “That lends itself to historically accurate styles that we’ve seen in the South. They put that front façade on the house. The inside is more open.”

Many homes have easily identifiable styles – a Colonial has a symmetrical facade, a small portico and a center hall, and a bungalow has a central roof dormer, perhaps with a foundation made with patterned concrete blocks, said Deborah Burns, executive director of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

But not all homes have a set style. It’s often hardest to pin down suburban homes, she said.

“If you get into suburban home developments, I’m just not sure style was paramount in the design,” Burns said.

Real estate agents may assign a home style based on one architectural element, such as the window style or roof. In fact, many homes are now built in a way that mixes elements of different styles.

“The homes don’t necessarily conform to any single style,” Burns said. “That’s not to say they all don’t, but most don’t. A brick split-level home isn’t necessarily a Colonial style.”

A go-to reference for Burns is “What Style Is It: A Guide to American Architecture,” by John C. Poppeliers, S. Allen Chambers Jr. and Nancy Schwartz.

Burns calls this book “the single most referred-to book for American architecture.”

The range of styles available creates options for almost anyone, from the individual who prefers dramatic visuals or geometrics to the person who wants a home with a history and a story to tell.

“Modern is all about positive and negative,” Adams added. “The windows are sort of piercing through the exterior. The walls and cabinetry are very minimalistic. It is very geometric, and you have to pay attention to the geometry. Color is a factor, but you don’t want it to overwhelm.”

Adams, who worked for an architectural firm before becoming an interior designer, said she enjoys working with all of the common styles.

Some of her favorites?

“I love the Cape Cod, and I lived in a Georgian house. Even Gothic revival is charming. And who wouldn’t love to live in a Victorian?”

Having a bungalow or Victorian-style home can guide interior design decisions, including window treatments and furniture. A home’s exterior is often a good indicator of a homeowner’s taste, said Lisa Adams of Adams Design in Washington.

“If they are design-conscious, there is a reason they’ve selected a house,” Adams said. “Usually people are relatively consistent in their preferences. If you live in a Colonial with antique furniture, that’s your style.”

Karen Sullivan contributed to this article.

More home innovation news, videos, photos and more at Smarter Living.

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