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Thursday, August 18, 2022
Arch-i-text: Understanding New Traditional design

In several of my past columns, most recently in my series on infill builds, I referred to the New Traditional school of design.

However, I have really not elaborated on the approach this group of architects employs nor the work that results. This is something I’d like to correct this week.

On page 725 of her seminal book on American residential architecture, “A Field Guide to American Houses,” Virginia Savage McAlester describes talented New Traditional architects this way: “… they understand classical principles and architectural style well enough to subtly alter or rearrange elements to create New Traditional home designs, not copies – houses instantly familiar yet subtly different from the homes that inspired them. Architectural historian Vincent Scully describes this as a 'conversation across the generations.' ”

To do this well, is a great deal more difficult than one might at first think.

The architect must, in part, be an historian who is intimately familiar with the parameters of the architectural style as evidenced by built heritage. They must possess an expert knowledge of the materials and methods used in the period construction of the style. Further, all of the forms and elements associated with a particular style must be clearly understood and at their creative ‘fingertips’.

Although, as most of the Arch-i-Text’s regular readers will know, I have a relatively high bar when it comes to describing any particular designer as “talented,” my standard moves even higher for those working in New Traditional.

Keep in mind that the intent here is not to produce an exact replica of a home that would have been designed in the past. The objective of these architects is to design a modern expression of an historic style which conforms in every particular to the established criteria of that style.

The result is a house that looks and feels correct because it conforms to stylistic parameters but, upon closer examination, has been deftly adjusted to provide modern livability, often with materials that may not have been available during the historic period it represents.

To use a simple example, we are designing a classic five-bay, ranked Georgian (think of the McFarland house). The window openings on a period house would have been relatively small because the imported glass panes from England were a standard small size. Even 12 over 12 panes didn’t produce a large sash.

By maintaining the scale, proportions, ranking and so on, we may choose to make our openings somewhat larger, filled by a 12 over 12 window wherein each pane is slightly higher and wider, thereby producing a window that looks correct but provides enhanced sightlines and improved interior light.

Done well, New Traditional designs are the best way to bridge between yesterday and today.