10 Home Exterior Fails You Should Know About

Elva Mankin

When she’s not roasting terrible suburban homes on her blog McMansionHell, Kate Wagner studies architectural acoustics as a graduate student in the joint acoustics program at Johns Hopkins University and Peabody Conservatory. She’s worked extensively as a sound engineer, with expertise in recording engineering, product development, and research. Thinking about […]

When she’s not roasting terrible suburban homes on her blog McMansionHell, Kate Wagner studies architectural acoustics as a graduate student in the joint acoustics program at Johns Hopkins University and Peabody Conservatory. She’s worked extensively as a sound engineer, with expertise in recording engineering, product development, and research.

Thinking about redoing the exterior of your home after a bit of HGTV fever? While it’s unrealistic to expect architect-level work from people like your Aunt Sue, who wants to paint everything contractor gray in a fit of Fixer Upper passion, there are some common exterior mishaps that can easily be avoided. In fact, relatively simple exterior changes can breathe new life into a house, though it’s a fine line between CPR and suffocation. In the words of architect Mies van der Rohe: “God is in the details,” but, then again, so is the devil.

10) Shutters to Make You Shudder

Look closely and you’ll see that the shutters on this house are all too small for the windows and are tacked on without hardware.

Contrary to popular belief, not every window needs shutters. Shocker. Proper shutters should at least appear large enough to cover the entirety of the window when shut (as that’s, you know, the whole point of shutters). Shutters should be avoided on double-mulled windows, picture windows, bay windows, and most dormer windows. Can’t afford to replace the shutters? Simply adding shutter hardware is a little detail that goes a long way.

A home with properly sized shutters.

9) Mismatched Windows

This house has several different window shapes, sizes, and muntin patterns.

Houses with several different shapes and styles of window can appear sloppy, especially if they have differing muntin patterns (muntins are the little pieces that separate panes of glass in windows). Some muntin patterns are endemic to certain architectural styles, hence why “Prairie” muntins should be avoided unless the house is of the Craftsman, Arts and Crafts, or Prairie style.

Here, consistent window stylings make for a proportionate and well-designed home.

8) Invasive Plants

While you may think that that English Ivy or Japanese honeysuckle might be a good idea for your garden, the damage done—to local ecosystems and native species—by these and other invasive species costs the U.S. an average of $120 billion a year. There are several lovely native alternatives to most invasive species, plus, since Mother Nature has tailored these plants to be able to thrive in your local ecosystem, they are often hardier than your run-of-the-mill garden-center petunias. Good gardening starts with you! (I believe in you.) Check out the USDA’s database of invasive plants before you buy.

7) Ill-fitting Columns

The way this pediment appears barely perched upon these narrow, tall columns is making me uncomfortable.

In our techno-savvy world, we tend to forget the original purposes of things. The original purpose of columns is, well, holding things up; a column should look like it can realistically hold up that which it is carrying. Columns that are too thin or short can create a visually unstable (a.k.a. “this porch appears on the brink of collapse”) exterior, and columns that are the wrong style or too grandiose can look dorky or cartoonish.

Fortunately, we can learn a lot about proper column size and placement from the Greek Revival homes of yesteryear.

6) Portico Woes

This house has a totally unnecessary portico that disrupts both the flow of the roofline and the horizontal rhythm of the front facade.

Related to ill-fitting columns are oversize porticos (a covered entry-porch), which can dominate and darken the facade of an otherwise lovely home. The two-story entry portico is so 2006, and that’s where it should stay.

If you’re going after a tall entryway with big drama, a two-story front porch offers the same monumentality while also providing a useful exterior space; it will break up an otherwise monolithic mass into a well-proportioned, stylistically consistent entryway.

5) Dorky Dormers

Eliminating the dormer is the first step to balancing out this home’s asymmetrical facade.

Dormers (windows projecting from a roof) are lovely for breaking up a roofline. Unfortunately, oversize dormers can make the upper part of a home seem bulky or hulking, and undersize, erratically placed (“afterthought”) dormers can make a front facade seem unbalanced. Windows on dormers should take up about three-quarters of the dormer’s face. And unlike your socks on laundry day, your dormers should match each other!

An adorable Cape Cod with correct dormer shape, size, and placement.

4) Troublesome Transoms

A transom window (a window placed directly above a door) should be proportional to the front door above which it sits. Though the oversize transom was popular at the height of the housing bubble, it is a look that is quickly becoming dated.

Fortunately, an oversize transom can be rectified by adding a portico, cutting through a too-tall entryway—that way you can still keep your two-story foyer interior while going for a more classical exterior entry.

3) Stick-On Style

A house exhibiting the “cardboard effect”—bland colors can make details appear two-dimensional and “stuck on.”

Architectural foam details were especially popular in the ’90s and 2000s, but they age poorly and tend to clutter an otherwise simple front facade. Sometimes, removing particularly ornate or busy details can help modernize a front facade (especially if the entire house is clad in stucco board). Fortunately, a fresh coat of paint can often give dated details new life:

A house made from similar materials, appearing much more modern after a fresh coat of paint.

2) Cladding Catastrophe

The myriad of colors, patterns, and textures on this house makes it look like it was designed using MS Paint.

The front of your house shouldn’t be treated as a coloring book where every wall is a different color, pattern, or cladding—having more than two or three types on exterior surfaces looks busy and chaotic. While this is likely to be a problem on more modernist builds, it’s a look that’s quickly becoming tacky and overdone.

A modern house relies on simplicity and can be elegant without being busy. “Less is more,” Mies van der Rohe said.

1) Tyrannically Trendy:

This sweet little minimal, traditional house has been ruined by a careless and oversize tudor dormer addition.

Fixer Upper ushered in a craze of remodeling postwar suburban homes such as ranches and Cape Cods. While some of these homes are deserving of their makeovers, the pervasiveness of this type of flipping is leading to the spoiling of many pristine 20th-century homes under the guise that their architectural style is something to be “fixed” rather than embraced. Often, the perpetrators of these flips have no idea what they’re getting into. Painting brick may freshen up a home for now, but unlike natural brick it will require yearly maintenance.

A midcentury-modern home is turned into a hulking pseudo-craftsman monstrosity.

Overdone exterior remodels burden these little homes with oversize porticos and porches. Key architectural details such as picture or corner windows are carelessly removed, and period interiors are destroyed rather than embraced. Not every old house is “bad” or needs to be fixed, and these trendy updates will only need to be replaced as each trend fades.

The recladding of this home freshens it up while maintaining its original details, such as the picture window.

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