How To Make A New House Look Historic: A Guide To Fitting into a Classic Neighborhood

Building a new home in an older neighborhood? Or just a fan of historic architecture? We’ve been working on historic homes for years now and have learned a few things along the way. If you’re in the planning stages of building a new historic home, we’re going to share a few tricks up our sleeve.

The composition of a historic home elevation is like a painting. There’s a few key elements which lays the track, but then the creativity happens in between the rails. We’ll break it down for you like this.

The Canvas – Shape and Massing

The overall shape of your house defines what happens in between the edges. What would you like to paint on, Donatello? Is it a square (one story), rectangle (two story, or maybe if you turn it - a really long ranch style), a triangle (a home with really large gables) or is it multiple canvases strung together (potentially a U-shape with a courtyard, eh)?  Once you’ve defined the boundaries we can move on to the meat and potatoes of the painting (or house :)).

The Medium – Siding, Doors & Windows

Now that your canvas is defined and the shape (or what designers call ‘the massing’) is set, we get to decide on the siding. A designer-mentor-friend of mine always said that a great design doesn’t need more than 3 ideas. I love that philosophy. So, how does that relate to your siding? Well, let’s start with what you like. Are you a fan of brick? Stone? Clapboard? Board and Batten? Pick one to three options. Next, you should probably walk up and down the street you’re building on and see what’s there. What styles do you see? What kind of siding do they use? Take all this into account. Decide whether you want your house to blend in or, well, not so much.

The doors and windows are crucial to the theme of your house. Research the historic style you’re leaning towards and see what they generally used. You don’t have to follow it, but at least you know what the historical precedent is. The front door can really create a lot of emphasis towards the style of the home, so choose carefully.

The Brush Strokes – Accent Details and Trimwork

Have you ever seen one of Claude Monet’s paintings in person before? See below. It’s amazing, because when you view it from across the room the composition looks so smooth, fluid and calming. But when you walk up close you’ll see the huge brush strokes and so much detail with a swatch of this color and of that. This is how we approach the design of a home. We want the experience of seeing the home to differ at various angles and depths.

The brush strokes I’m referring to are your trim and accent details. How much detail do you want? Some people love intricacy and expression through a lot of detail while others want more of a clean line, simple form approach. I think there’s places for both, but it all depends on the surrounding context and obviously, your taste.

For the trim, do you want to frame your windows and doors? Do you want to highlight the separation between one siding material and another? Or maybe do you want to go all Picasso on it and create a pattern that wraps your whole home?

As for accent details, you can get super creative with these. Options can include a cornice (the detail at the top of the elevation just under the roof eaves), corbels (beams or brackets that you tuck under the eaves), limestone window sills and lentils, a unique design in the gables (the peaks that are usually the attic area above the livable space), and large fascia or bargeboard (the vertical perimeter of the roof line).

The Frame – Roof and Eaves

A painting many times is only as good as its frame. It does what it says… ‘frames’ the piece and draws your eye to it. The roof and the eaves are often times an afterthought, but I really think it’s a staple point of the design of your home. Decisions to be made are things like the size of the eaves, exposed rafter tails or boxed in soffits, and the roofing material. Let’s break it down further.

Eaves and Soffits

Frank Lloyd Wright brought emphasis to his homes by designing massive cantilevered eaves. What’s going to be your approach? Maybe it’s large overhanging eaves but with exposed rafters to create a craftsman style look. Or, you could go the opposite way and have no eaves to create a more Tudor feel.


The roofing material is the gravy on top (quite literally) when designing any historic home. Typically, asphalt shingles are the go-to product because of pricing and accessibility. But if you have the spare change, metal roofing, clay/concrete tiles, and slate are all fabulous additions and will create that historic feel you’re looking for.

Building a new historic home isn’t always easy, but the visual payoff (and generally the ROI) will reward you handsomely. We’re designing historic homes all over Nashville and we’d love to help you with your next project. To get in touch, click here