Old House Design Features – Don’t Allow Them to Disappear
This column has been laying in the weeds of my head for months. Every now and then, it pops its head up. Yesterday was one of those days when once again my lovely wife had to get out of the car before I could pull it into the garage. Luckily, it wasn’t pouring down rain.
Galadriel, a character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s amazing trilogy Lord of the Rings foreshadowed this column when he said: “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two-and-a-half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge.”
Too many amazing things about homes are becoming myth. I’m going to try my best to keep alive much of the hard-earned knowledge discovered by past architects, builders, and master craftsmen. You and I are stewards of this information and some of us have done a deplorable job of caring for it so it’s available to the next generation.
Why Are Garages Too Small?
Why would one have to get out of a car before it’s pulled into a garage? Simple. Most garages have become too narrow. How can you expect to get out of a car when only 24 inches of space exist between the side of the car and the inside wall of the garage? At the very least, this should be four feet. Even then, you’ll discover it’s not enough space when things are stored on that same wall.
Did you grow up in a house with an attic filled with your parent’s treasure and memories? Most architects and builders kicked those to the curb decades ago as prefabricated wood trusses became the belle of the ball. Guess what? You can have a full attic with real steps leading to it all made possible by the same company that makes the roof trusses! You’ll eliminate the need for that monthly fee you now pay for offsite storage.
By any chance do you recall those summer days at your grandparents’ home when you watched from an open window raindrops from a summer rain shower dance in a puddle in the driveway? You stayed dry during the shower because of the generous roof overhangs up above. Builders of old discovered overhangs kept a house dry much like an umbrella works for you. It’s shameful roof overhangs have become passe’.
Perhaps you were lucky enough to grow up in a house with a large front porch and a smaller back one. Why do you think these were put on just about every house 100 years ago? One reason is builders and architects realized they helped keep doors bone dry. Relaxing in the gently swaying porch swing was a simple side effect.
Do you have a dim memory of a magic secret panel in a bedroom closet? Did you have the courage to see what was behind it only to discover the tub faucet and drain pipes? How convenient would it be to have one now, even if it was disguised by a mirror in a bathroom? Why have plumbers allowed this handy access panel to get tossed aside like so much jetsam?
What about window seats? These simple design features were as common in older homes as ketchup is at a cookout. The best ones were like the one I had in my first home. The seat in my first home was hinged. It created a delightful storage area or it makes a wonderful place to hole up during an indoor game of hide-and-seek.
Did you used to send plastic army men on secret missions using the laundry chute? Why would architects snub their noses at these marvelous features in a home? Access could be had both on the first and second floor in most old homes. Yes, I know that laundry rooms were, for the most part, moved up to the first floor of modern homes. Clever planning can make laundry chutes a reality in modern homes.
Converging pocket doors in older homes transformed two large connecting rooms into two separate ones should privacy be needed. The great news is you can still do this and the hardware for modern pocket doors is superior to that of old. The doors won’t jump off the track and you can even get soft-close mechanisms that work like your kitchen drawers.
A big bugaboo and sore point with me is foundation height. Drive through an older home in your city and you’ll soon discover that the first floor of many homes was 30 or 36 inches up in the air. This was by design for any number of reasons. I do autopsies each week for homeowners who suffer from basement and slab leaks because their homes have been built too deep into the ground.
While not a widespread feature in older homes, I’ve seen my fair share of small secret spaces created between rooms or back-to-back closets. These all had a discrete access panel or small well-concealed door. They made for inexpensive safes or places to squirrel away certain valuables. It’s easy to create these hiding places in new homes.
You can see photos of many of the above features as well as in-depth descriptions of how to create them on my website. I also have other great design and construction features that the space here didn’t allow. Go to: