Designing Outbuildings for Historic Homes

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There is a seemingly endless list of accessory buildings that have been used in conjunction with residences throughout history including carriage houses, barns, tool sheds, potting sheds, detached kitchens, garages, and privies. While the original uses may no longer always be relevant, these often-simple structures can be adapted to serve a multitude of modern uses beyond traditional garden and tool storage including personal home offices, workout rooms, media rooms, pool cabanas and art studios.

If you are not lucky enough to already have a historic outbuilding in your yard, you may be considering purchasing a ready-made shed from a home improvement store. However, these T1-11 or vinyl sided sheds are rarely compatible with the style of historic homes and may even be prohibited by local historic preservation design guidelines. For historic homeowners, a custom-designed outbuilding may be the better answer to meet storage and additional space needs, possibly even providing an affordable alternative to building an addition to a home.
When planning an outbuilding to complement a historic home, there are several basic design principles to consider:

  • Keep the outbuilding visually subordinate to the main building. This means that the outbuilding should complement the main building, but not overshadow it in size or detail.
  • Make sure the size of the outbuilding will both meet your intended use and look appropriate in your yard.
  • The outbuilding should mimic the overall form of the main building. This is most easily done by using a compatible roof shape, slope, and soffit overhang.
  • Consider the sizes and placement of doors and windows to ensure that you have room to move equipment in and out, have adequate light and ventilation, and allow wall space for shelving or other storage. In addition, consider how the doors and windows will look on the most visible elevations of the building.
  • Duplicate finishes, materials and details from the main building such as siding type, roofing materials, soffit details and window and door type and trim. However, copying elaborate details and columns from the main building should generally be avoided due to the less public, more utilitarian nature of outbuildings.
  • Keep colors of the main building and accessory building compatible. Paint with either the same paint scheme or a complementary palette.
  • Plan the outbuilding location carefully. Make sure the building will not block desirable views (or will block undesirable ones), is not in a flood prone part of the yard, is easily accessible for the intended use, meets local zoning setbacks, and does not interfere with mature trees and landscaping.

A carefully designed and placed outbuilding can be a focal point in the yard, providing an attractive backdrop for landscaping as well as meet many uses. For more information about planning an outbuilding, as well as design ideas, go to

Posted on June 4, 2008 12:48 am

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