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Carlisle: Combining Old and New

Architect Jeremiah Eck talks about the challenges of updating a historic house

In trying to give our 155-year-old farmstead one foot in the past and the other in the future, architect Jeremiah Eck faced the same challenge as many homeowners—how can a house be simultaneously old and new? It's a subject that Eck has addressed often over the years, both in his designs and in his recent book, The Distinctive Home: A Vision of Timeless Design. Eck points out that our ancestors would not have understood it as a problem. "The idea of distinguishing the old from the new is really a 20th-century invention," he says. "In the old days, they would have just added on and made changes as needed." Here are some of the things he considers when planning changes to a venerable house.

Think About Reapportioning Space

"Often an old home can give you what you need, if you look at it carefully," says Eck. "It's a huge mistake to start adding rooms before analyzing what you have." For example, many old homes have claustrophobic kitchens and formal dining rooms that are rarely used; the two can often be combined for a more open cooking and living space, without the expense of an addition. "In Carlisle we concluded that the existing barn could give us the major living space," says Eck, "and that the old house would work for a number of smaller private spaces, like bedrooms. The kitchen ell was the glue that would hold it together, and that had to be built new."

Balance and Proportion Are Key

"Unless you're trying to re-create something historic, you don't need to mimic the old house," he says. "But you do need to consider the existing roof slopes, siding materials, windows, and color. The new part should hold its own but also look like it belongs to the old." For Carlisle's revised ell, Eck retained the traditional one-and-a-half-story height of a New England connector but on the inside opened up the space with a loft ceiling. The ell's exterior combines traditional clapboard and board-and-batten siding, set off by a bold overhang that announces the modern mudroom entrance. The most conspicuous new element is a 4-foot-wide-by-8-foot-tall window in a shed dormer. "It brings in a major amount of light and creates a big, bright space," says Eck. "But at the same time its visual language recalls traditional dormers."

Consider the Site

Eck notes that the farmers who built the Carlisle house considered wind patterns, the movement of the sun, the location of the road, and access to fields and forest. "But the Carlisle site has changed considerably over time," says Eck. "Once the house was in a big field by itself; now it's next to a main thoroughfare, and the neighbors' homes are close by. In the past the house was oriented to the road, but now we need to take full advantage of the quieter backyard." That's why the new master bedroom addition, the only major change to the home's existing footprint, is located on the back, sheltered from the road, in a tranquil garden setting.

Take Inventory

"I like to think of an old house as a database," says Eck. "The information in that database — shapes, materials, siting — is what you build upon. And when you're done, it's like a new suit of clothes: The person is still there, but with new stuff that fits."