How Do You Balance Style and Substance in Old House Remodels?

By: Mary Butler , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Musings, In The News, Old House History

On Sept. 26, I toured five homes as part of an “eco home tour” organized annually in my Colorado hometown. There were 14 homes on the tour, divided almost equally between new construction and remodels. As someone interested in old house renovation, I focused on remodels and visited homes built in 1928, 1955 and 1979. And, as I do each year, I began the tour with an expectation of being not only educated, but also inspired by great design and innovation.

I left the tour educated about solar hot water systems, geothermal heat pumps and top-notch windows. Unfortunately, I was not very inspired.

All the homes I visited were remodeled conscientiously. But none really made me wish any of the homes were mine. To put it bluntly, these remodels lacked style, warmth and personalization. They felt utilitarian and bland. There was function but no form.

I know it’s illogical to put beauty on such a high pedestal, especially when we’re talking about carbon footprints and the future of our planet. Still, I believe that when you put so much money, thought, hard work and time into a project, it should show. To me, that means more than dual-flush toilets and well-insulated walls and pipes or unattractive reclaimed tile flooring and flimsy (but free and reused) bathroom cabinets, with the worst door hardware you can imagine.

As I left these tour homes, I kept thinking: These are the houses that give green remodeling a bad name. If you want to live in an earth ship, then build one off the grid, with a composting toilet, solar oven, hydroponic garden and the works. Don’t retrofit your mid-century ranch to be one.

Am I snob? I think perhaps I am. The whole afternoon left me conflicted about how to balance style and substance.

Do I think every old house remodel should look like it could be featured on TV or in a magazine spread? Absolutely not: I know most people, including me, can’t afford those kinds of designer finishes. Though I also think it doesn’t hurt to watch TV shows or read magazines about home design to get ideas and discover your own style.

Case in point: Check out this $3,000 kitchen remodel in San Francisco, featured in Sunset magazine. It’s fun, funky and green. Homeowner Elba Borgen’s advice is priceless: “Know what you like, and don’t be afraid to pair pricey and bargain items.” I couldn’t agree more. Green can and should be beautiful.

Green can and should be beautiful. Refinishing and reusing funky old cabinets and furnishings for this budget kitchen remodel saved money and added style. Photo compliments of Sunset Magazine.

Green can and should be beautiful. Refinishing and reusing funky old cabinets and furnishings for this budget kitchen remodel saved money and added style. Photo compliments of Sunset Magazine.

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  1. 2 Responses  to “How Do You Balance Style and Substance in Old House Remodels?”

  2. Aug 29, 2011
    really nice kitchen they had some wonderful ideas
  3. Randall
    Aug 29, 2011
    I think some of the point of going green is to have a completely new looking style, for things to "look" green. Not necessarily look like something that is expensive, but in actuality is made of "green material." Most old houses in my opinion were made green...look at how long they've lasted - they weren't made of cheap material that would need to be replaced every 10 years.