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It's in the Details

Although architectural elements and details aren’t necessary for the structural needs of a home, these details often are what add character to a project and differentiate it from others. Mouldings, column wraps, trim and other details often are the deciding elements that transform a house from a forgettable cookie-cutter structure to a memorable one.

Elements and Material

John Seifert, third-generation owner of Seifert Construction, Mattituck, N.Y., does hands-on work with architectural elements and has seen them evolve throughout the years. Seifert works on new construction and remodeling projects. “I’ll build a 12,000-square-foot home from scratch on 10 acres beside the water or work on a home that’s over 100 years old and is getting renovated and an addition,” he says.

Seifert works in a coastal environment in New York state where there are a lot of older houses on the water. “We’ll get 30 inches of snow in the winter and have some horrible nor’easters,” Seifert says. “During the summer months, I think it’s the most beautiful place in the world but there are a few months during the winter where you’re like ‘Oh my gosh, hold on.’” Seifert found wood has a longevity problem. He got call backs within two years of installing wood elements with complaints it was rotting or not holding up. “We had to start using a substitute material and that’s where PVC came into place. They were starting to make it so it didn’t look chintzy and fake. The tradition of wood was not holding up,” he says.

“Up until a few years ago, PVC didn’t make a strong push in the market because it was considered ‘cheap-looking,’” he says. “With the homes we were working on, the owners didn’t want to go with a material that had the stigma of being cheap.”

PVC manufacturers heard demand in the marketplace for high-end looking products and started making historical mouldings and duplicating other elements that belong on a Victorian-style or a Dutch colonial home, which makes it easy to match the old and new while keeping continuity. “We could use PVC trim on these older buildings and people can’t even tell it’s [not wood],” Seifert says. “It’s not a problem to make the old and new flow well together.” Seifert’s facility also has equipment to take plain PVC material and form it to duplicate a moulding that was made 100 years ago.

Seifert, who is on the front line of building, noticed PVC’s potential before the architects did. “A lot of times I inform the architect there’s a substitute material that will withstand the test of time,” Seifert says. “Being the builder, I have a lot of input as to what materials hold up best and work in certain applications. I almost did a little bit of educating them. Once the architects started coming around to PVC, you start seeing it on their specs for the next home.

“The market is changing very rapidly,” Seifert says. “Especially with the Internet, my clients are very well informed. Sometimes they even ask things I need to research myself. It’s an ever-changing environment.”

Details Make the Difference

Steve Roth, an independent construction professional in Toledo, Ohio, buys homes, remodels them and rents them out. “I usually take the worst-looking home on the street and turn it into the best-looking home,” he says. One way he does that is by concentrating on the details.

“If you want to separate and market yourself and be different than the rest of the builders, show clients the details,” Roth says. “Quality is almost a given anymore. Everyone expects quality. But if you can give them little details they can relate to—they don’t have to be huge—that’s where a builder can separate himself. That little cliché “the devil is in the details;” I agree with that. The whole market is so competitive unless you have something different to offer.”

Some of the homes Roth is rehabbing are 100 years old. “I’m modernizing them and putting low-maintenance materials on to minimize callbacks while trying to keep the character of the house in the original state,” he says. Like Seifert, Roth also favors vinyl materials for ease of maintenance. “I’ve been getting away from wood,” he says. “The cost of vinyl is worth it to me to have the low maintenance.”

Roth has seen a resurgence in color. “The market has brought on darker colors that match the original style of a home,” he says. “You’re going to have to buy a color anyway, so if you can be selective in choosing the right colors other than white, along with complementary architectural trim, that will create a lot of curb appeal.”

Flavoring the Vanilla

“Most of us live in vanilla boxes. They’re pretty much all the same,” says Vicky Payne, Charlotte, N.C.-based host of “For Your Home,” a nationally syndicated television show focused on home remodeling. “If you really look at American architecture in houses, we went through a period in the ’50s, ’70s and ’90s where everything was built like track homes. You had your choice of four or five styles and your house was like your neighbor’s. When you go in and start to remodel these houses, the first thing you want to do is figure out a way to distinguish it from the neighbor’s. I think the best way you can do that is by adding architectural elements.”

Payne says columns in the front or a more interesting railing around the front porch can make a big difference in curb appeal, as can shutters or even changing the moulding. “There are always ways you can make the house distinguish itself among the rest in the neighborhood by adding more detail to the structure,” she asserts.

It’s important to keep elements to the correct scale and style of the house, she says. “If you listen, a house will tell you,” Payne says. “Your house has certain characteristics about it so you can’t make a ranch look like a Tudor but you can make the ranch more interesting. If you really listen and pay attention to the house and the lines of that house you can find exactly the type of element you need and bring it new life.”

Payne often references a book, American Field Guide to Houses, for inspiration. “Some people like to sit and read recipes; I like to sit and read through this book and look at the style of houses,” she says. “When you’re stuck and feel like you’re doing the same thing you did for the last client, it’s a good thing to get in there and refresh yourself and get reenergized about how to make a house different.”

Payne has studied homes from the 1920s and ’30s, which feature a lot of work with plaster and mouldings that was very labor intensive. Today, extruded products and modern manufacturing techniques make it easier to recreate ornate looks. “It allows the designers to recreate what we loved in the past or to look into the future and use elements in a different and unique way,” she says.

Payne is beginning remodeling work on her home now. She is downsizing from a 7,000-square-foot, 3-story home to a 3,000-square-foot ranch that was built 29 years ago and has had little work done since. She encourages her viewers to take labels off of the rooms and repurpose them to how the house best will work for a family and what is most functional. Payne follows her own advice. For example, the kitchen in Payne’s ranch is at the front of the house; she is moving it to the back to be near the patio and outdoor living area.

She also is incorporating details, such as mouldings. “We’ll be doing a lot of moulding detail in the living room, where the ceilings are 11-feet high and adding a lot of detail around the fireplace,” she says. “We’ll do a coffered ceiling and add a spiral staircase up to the attic, which will add dimensional look to the space yet be very functional. We’re taking a plain, tall, rectangular box and dressing it up with a lot of moulding to make it much more interesting.”

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