Regional Home Designs Blur as Styles Mix and Migrate

Can you spot the difference between a New England Saltbox home, a Dutch Colonial, and a mid-century modern home? And, if so, can you still buy such a "pure-bred" new home?

A state-of-the-art house designed like a lake house complete with a waterfront entrance.

Outdoor room by Lennar at Claybourne at The Lakes, Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., by Bassenian/Lagoni Architecture.

Are there regional variations in new home design?

Definitely! In fact, it’s easy to make some obvious generalizations.

Think West Coast and you envision the Beach Boys, white wine, and homes that are Spanish in style, open, volumetric, sculpted and fun. The above photo at Claybourne at The Lakes exemplifies this vision.

Historically, homes in the East have been more formal, sophisticated, and even aristocratic, with a “I wish I lived on the Main Line” vibe. In the Midwest, homes feel comfortable, traditional and, well, homey, with a “Honey, I’m home — what’s for dinner?” feel.

Accurate to an extent, but today’s regional home design concepts and origins are a whole lot more complicated.

For example, the Spanish style in California and the West Coast may have been born out of the San Diego Exposition in the early part of the last century, but the design has since evolved into variations from Spanish Colonial to Monterey to Spanish Eclectic, according to Dave Kosco, senior principal and director of design at Bassenian/Lagoni Architecture in Newport Beach, Calif.  “The fact that our climate resembles the climate in areas adjacent to the Mediterranean,” Kosco adds, “has also led naturally to a Mediterranean influence.”

Long viewed as the nation’s source for new home design inspiration, the West Coast in general and California in particular are blessed with a gentle environment. “This has shaped how we live,” says Kosco. “California homes transition between indoor and outdoor living seamlessly. We include courtyards and outdoor living rooms that integrate into the overall floor plan. Great room plans also dominate, providing a larger living space rather than formal and informal living areas.”

In California, floor plan innovation is often driven by high land costs and the need for higher density designs, efficient use of square footage and more creative indoor and outdoor living solutions — ideas that have been emulated in other areas of the country.

Design Becoming More Homogenized

Design everywhere is becoming more homogenized, says Barry Rutenberg, president of Barry Rutenberg and Associates in Gainesville, Fla. “Today we travel more, read more, surf the Internet. Architects, especially during the downturn, have traveled more, worked in other areas more. We have commonalities. Florida design was once more unique than it is today.”

Still, Rutenberg says, we do have some discernible regional and sub-regional home designs. But, they don’t follow state lines. They more often follow cultural boundaries and environmental differences. For example, he explains, mountains and coastal areas tend to define themselves and have some uniqueness. “Florida design is not so much Florida design as it is coastal design — Florida [housing] products will work across the Carolinas.”

Moreover, Rutenberg adds, no area has just one style. “In Charleston (S.C.) you see homes just like those in Charlotte, but in other areas you see the heavy influence of old-time Charleston. Even within Tennessee, you probably have more than one product type.” In addition, design interpretations differ. Texas has a different interpretation of Spanish style than does Florida.

Texan Elizabeth Falconer, president of Struhs Companies in Fort Worth, agrees. Texas design does have a special regional feel, but the style has some diverse roots.

“Texas has never been one to fawn over California,” says Falconer. “We’re a stubborn lot and we have our own style. I call it Texscany — a little Tuscany (Italian or Mediterranean), a little Texas Hill Country style and a little Mexico. It might have tapered columns like in Tuscany, but it won’t have the barrel tile roof. It will have a standing-seam metal roof. And, there is a lot of use of regional stone and brick. It draws the elements from three different styles, but, oddly enough, they work well together.”

Home plan orientation, however, depends on the city. Fort Worth homes have front-entry garages. Dallas is an alley-loaded garage market. And Houston homes have detached garages. None of these markets have the same floor plan designs, Falconer adds. “The only thing consistent,” she says, “is that, while we have had master suites down for years, now we’re also seeing in-law suites downstairs — expanded guest rooms with their own bath and sizeable closet.”

Home Styles Migrate Across the Country

Midwest design is not necessarily unique either, maintains Steve Moore, senior partner in BSB Design in  Des Moines, Iowa. “Certain styles gravitated to this area over the last 80 years, mostly from the East, and have become the historical context. You see a lot of what we call Farm House design, also some Colonial, some basis in Craftsman — certainly the craftsman cottage bungalow. You also see modifications of the brick Georgian style and some, limited elements of the Victorian style that was once popular in the Midwest.”

A typical Midwest home would have horizontal siding, fairly wide trim around the windows, a front porch, a medium-sloped roof and a centered, six-panel entry door balanced by rooms on either side. Prairie designs will have stone on the entry, like stone piers, a mix of siding widths, two or three different exterior materials and a heavily crafted entry door. The roof slope will be shallower with deep overhangs and the windows will have a mutton pattern.

Today’s Midwest home designs also borrow ideas from the West. The Midwest was always a very traditional floor plan market, very straightforward, says Moore. Formal spaces, like the dining room and parlor, were always toward the front of the home with the entry off the foyer and there were a few informal spaces at the back of the house. But in the last five years, he says, there has been a move away from this design. “Most families today live informally. As a result, we’re seeing formal spaces go away or we make them flexible so that the space can serve as parlor, den, secondary bedroom, library, or a small media room.”

Home design in the Northeast tends to be even more traditional, more conservative, with more historical references in the architecture, according to architect Victor A. Mirontschuk, of EDI International in New York, N.Y.

Exterior design in this market, he says, varies from Pennsylvania to Connecticut. “Bucks County (Pa.) would have something pretty traditional, with a lot of stone mixed with siding. In Connecticut, you have steeper pitched roofs, a little more trim, the use of brackets and more ornamentation in the elevations. The Hamptons look — cleaner lines and shingle style — has also migrated into Connecticut.”

Like the Midwest, the Northeast has been influenced by design ideas from other parts of the country, says Mirontschuk. “Floor plans here have been quite regimented. Now, we’re seeing more open plans.”

Eastern builders are also dabbling in the use of different materials on home exteriors, he adds. “There is a lot of vinyl siding, but now we’re seeing more cementitious siding boards because they are more durable. Builders are also going to larger trim. Homes had small four-inch corners and small fascia. It was out of scale and not proportioned. So builders have been going to larger, beefier trim that goes back to what was done historically. And, instead of just the typical lap siding, we’re seeing board and batten styles that emulate some of the older designs.”

Because the market is getting older, builders in the East are doing more master bedrooms down on the first floor, both in single-family homes and in townhomes. Often, especially in single-family homes, builders will also have flex space on the first floor that could be a guest room for elderly parents or a study. But one trend that hasn’t migrated to the East is the trend to having closets off the bathroom. “Here they want the closets separate,” Mirontschuk says.

Home design does vary from region to region, but as we move through the new millennium, those distinctions are becoming less clear.

Roy Diez is a freelance writer and marketing professional specializing in the architectural, building and construction industry. He is a former editor-in-chief of Professional Builder magazine.

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