Exteriors: Housing Styles Explained

Having trouble explaining exactly what you want in a new home or remodel? If so, it could be because a typical house rarely expresses a single architectural style. Getting back to basics will help.

By Greg Cook


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Colonial house
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Colonial Style

    This residential style is considered one of the most popular in the history of the United States. Characteristics:

    -- Usually two or three stories with high-pitched roof
    -- One or more dormers
    -- Massive chimney or chimneys
    -- Narrow clapboard siding (sometimes brick)
    -- Double-hung, multipane windows (usually in pairs) placed symmetrically on both sides of a central front door
    -- Decorative crown over front door supported by pilasters or columns

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Cape Cod Style

    Cape Cods were first built by English colonists who came to America in the late 1600s. Colonial Revival Cape Cods became very popular in the 1930s. Characteristics:

    -- Steep roof with side gables, chimney usually on one end
    -- One and a half stories, with one or more dormers on the half story
    -- Sided with wide clapboards, wood shingles, or brick
    -- Centered front door, most often plain, but sometimes with portico
    -- Hardwood floors and center hall floor plan
    -- Multipaned, double-hung windows with decorative shutters

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Contemporary Style

    Contemporary designs are not defined by a single shape or style. One reliable clue, however, is the presence of large, tall panes of glass. Characteristics:

    -- Natural siding materials such as wood or stone
    -- Odd, irregular shapes
    -- Plain, lack of ornamentation
    -- Open floor plan
    -- Cathedral ceilings and exposed beams, or flat roofs

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Cottage Style

    Small, informal houses may be called cottages, although historically, cottages could be quite large. They often are sited in garden settings, with window boxes and trellises. Characteristics:

    -- Tall, peaked roof
    -- Masonry chimney
    -- Meandering walkway to the front door
    -- Large, multipane windows
    -- Wood siding (often shingles)
    -- Surrounded by flowers and climbing plants

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Craftsman Style

    Craftsman style, an early 20th-century favorite, exemplifies the Arts and Crafts movement emphasizing simple forms and natural materials. Characteristics:

    -- Low-pitched gable roof with exposed rafters, decorative beams, or braces under the gables
    -- Wide, welcoming porch supported by massive columns
    -- Wood, stone, or stucco siding
    -- Double-hung windows often grouped in threes, with the upper sashes divided into two or three panes over a plain lower sash
    -- Open floor plan, built-in cabinets, shelving, and seating
    -- Organic colors and the use of natural materials such as river rock

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Farmhouse Style

    There are various farmhouse styles, but this unpretentious version can be thought of as a simplified Victorian. Characteristics:

    -- Asymmetrical plan with dormers and gables
    -- Either shingle or metal roof
    -- Tall windows
    -- Wraparound porch with some Victorian detailing
    -- Lap siding with simple moldings and trim

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Federal Revival Style

    Federalist architecture has its roots in England. It was favored in America during the late 1700s and early 1800s, although you'll see Federalist details in many homes today. Characteristics:

    -- Large and graceful two-story brick with massive chimneys
    -- Centered front door often sheltered by a portico and topped with a fan-shaped transom light
    -- Dentil moldings in the cornice and fan-shape or elliptical gable windows
    -- Palladian windows
    -- Oval rooms and recessed wall niches

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Georgian Revival Style

    The Georgian style is often confused with Federal. Georgian homes were popular in the U.S. from about 1715 to 1780 and are more angular than Federal. Characteristics:

    -- Brick or wood sided, symmetrical and square in shape
    -- Centered front door, often with flattened columns on each side and a decorative crown above
    -- Medium-pitched roof with a chimney on each end
    -- Minimal roof overhang
    -- Five double-hung windows or dormers across the front with 9 or 12 panes in each sash

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Greek Revival Style

    By the mid-1800s, Americans identified more with Grecian architecture than British. Greek Revival mansions became common, especially in the South. Characteristics:

    -- Square, with tall double-hung windows on each side
    -- Shallow-pitched roof
    -- Front-facing columned portico, usually supporting a triangular pediment
    -- White clapboard exterior
    -- Decorative pilasters
    -- Dentil moldings and a heavy cornice

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International Style

    The International style is often explained by the phrase, "less is more." It uses industrial materials and emphasizes free-flowing spaces and lack of clutter. Characteristics:

    -- Flat roof and large expanses of glass, including glass block
    -- Neutral palette, simple geometric shapes
    -- Constructed of steel and concrete, which enables open interiors
    -- Clad in white stucco or wood, rarely brick and mortar
    -- Tubular steel railings around porches and decks

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Postmodern Style

    Postmodern style, popular in the 1970s and '80s, takes traditional motifs and reformulates the design using modern materials. It often exaggerates familiar forms in a playful way. Characteristics:

    -- Contemporary look and feel
    -- Large windows, often stair-stepped in placement
    -- Bold shapes and colors
    -- Angular, but can include oversize half-round windows
    -- Informal look appropriate for a beach house

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Mediterranean Revival Style

    The heritage of the mission churches built by Spanish colonialists in America lives on, especially in the Southwest. It's also called mission or California mission. Characteristics:

    -- Clad in adobe-like stucco
    -- Flat or low-pitch roof with clay tiles
    -- Balconies with black, wrought-iron railings
    -- Often built around access to an inner courtyard
    -- Deeply shaded porches and dark interiors
    -- Terra-cotta pavers

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Ranch House Style

    Ranch houses became popular in the 1950s and '60s when land was cheap and families wanted an economical house in the suburbs. Characteristics:

    -- Single story, with a low-pitched gable end or hipped roof
    -- Usually rectangular, but can be L- or U-shaped
    -- Long and low to the ground
    -- Sliding glass doors leading to a patio
    -- Attached garage, simple open floor plan
    -- Plain, lack of ornamentation

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Shingle Style

    This Victorian variation has its origins in the 19th century when it was built as a vacation home along the shores of New England. Characteristics:

    -- Continuous shingle cladding on all exterior surfaces
    -- Free form, rambling architecture
    -- Stone chimney
    -- Wide porches, asymmetrical massing, dormer windows, half turrets
    -- Lower portion may be clad in heavy stone

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Southern Colonial Style

    Colonial homes were as popular in the Southern colonies as the North, but the Southern version had the chimneys at the ends instead of the center. Characteristics:

    -- Steeply pitched gable roof
    -- Symmetrical in shape, with centered front door
    -- Multipane, tall, double-hung windows
    -- Narrow plan, often only one room deep
    -- Wide, welcoming front porch
    -- Tall foundation walls to protect against moisture damage

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Spanish Colonial Style

    Also known as Southwestern, this style goes back to the early Spanish influence in the southwestern United States. Characteristics:

    -- Massive masonry walls made of rough-cut stone blocks, or wood-frame walls covered with stucco
    -- Muted earth tones of red clay or ochre on exterior
    -- Small windows
    -- Large, ornate wooden doors
    -- Low, flat roof

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Tudor Style

    Tudor homes seem reminiscent of childhood fairy-tale castles. They became popular in the U.S. in the 1920s and '30s, then again in the '70s and '80s. Characteristics:

    -- Steeply pitched roofs with wide gables and massive chimneys
    -- Brick and stucco cladding, combined with stone trim and door surrounds
    -- Tall, narrow, casement windows with multiple panes
    -- Larger Tudors feature wood and stucco half-timbering

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Victorian Style

    Although there are many 19th-century Victorian architectural styles, the one that usually comes to mind is Queen Anne. Characteristics:

    -- Steep gable roofs
    -- Lacy ornamental woodwork (gingerbread)
    -- Tall, narrow windows
    -- Turned columns, turrets, and porches
    -- Decorative wooden brackets, patterned shingles, clapboard siding
    -- Combinations of up to eight exterior colors on the same house (hence the term "painted lady")

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