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Exterior Trim for Period Homes, continued

Drawing on Period Design

Although colonial reproductions are built every day throughout the country, most of those imitations fall short. They may have divided-light windows and a pediment over the front door, but they don't have the right details and proportions. By consulting old plans and keeping a lookout for good-looking old homes, my wife and I developed our catalog of 15 standard home plans. Once, while driving in a rainstorm, we spotted an especially attractive old home. We got out of the car and measured it up on the spot, while the agreeable but quizzical owner looked on. Our commitment to exact period details might be considered fanatical by some, but it has served us well.

The homes in our catalog range in size from about 1,500 square feet to 3,300 square feet. Many of the designs come directly from the Library of Congress, which maintains an archive of historic home designs. These originated during the depression as part of a WPA project to keep out-of-work architects employed drafting historic homes from around the country.

The old homes usually had small rooms divided by partitions and fireplaces, but most people don't live like that anymore, so we make the interiors as modern — or as historically accurate — as the clients want. What's more important to me and my customers is getting the home's exterior proportions correct. We also do custom designs, but I politely tell customers who want a soaring contemporary with skylights and clerestory windows to find another builder.

Precutting and panelizing require a degree of precision and planning seldom found in residential construction. For example, framers may have a dozen ways to build a cornice and overhang, but guaranteeing that the trim will fit and the home will have the correct proportions requires spelling out every detail. Our plans are very specific and include exacting shop drawings for the exterior and interior millwork. This guarantees that the pieces fit when they get to the job site. Until about a year ago, we did all of the drafting by hand, but recently we've switched to autoCAD, which has improved speed and accuracy. A full-time, in-house draftsperson runs the system.

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Historically accurate millwork assemblies, like this door surround (top left), are built in the author's cabinet shop. Pocket screws and glue provide a strong bond between the entryway pilasters and the attached bases (top right). Glued lock miters used in columns, corner boards, and pilasters prevent water infiltration and guarantee tight joints (middle). Dents, dings, screw holes, and other imperfections are filled with a low-density auto body filler that hardens rapidly and doesn't shrink (bottom).

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Caps and bases are assembled separately from the columns and fastened with pocket screws and yellow glue. The notches visible in some of these column bases will receive screen panels for a screen porch option (top). Stock bed moldings and a custom-made accent molding are fastened with more yellow glue and brad nails (bottom left). Installed at the site, a completed column has a clean, well-proportioned look (bottom right).

Framing and Roofing

Originally, homes like the ones in our catalog were timber framed, but we stick-frame to keep costs down and make finish work easier. Our goal is a traditional look, not totally traditional construction. Our framing is conventional — 2x6 studs, 2x12 rafters and joists, with plywood sheathing and subflooring. We don't use I-joists or OSB. Fiberglass insulation and vented roofs are the norm. Most of our homes have standing-seam or white cedar roofs to give them a historic look, but architectural shingles are also common.

For local projects, we do the framing and trim and sub out everything else. Our local crew consists of three carpenters. We have had as many as five projects in different phases going at once, but more commonly it's one or two at a time. For distant projects, we build panels that form the shell, and a local builder takes care of assembly. We have a 40x60 garage where we build the panels and a small cabinet shop for millwork.

Panels can be as long as 14 feet, but many are shorter. We use framing techniques similar to those of site crews, except that we build on large assembly tables instead of on a floor deck. We don't have gang nailers or cranes, but we do have a forklift for loading trucks and a large-stake body truck that we use for local deliveries. Both interior and exterior walls are part of the package, as are precut rafters and floor systems. Generally, it takes our three-person crew about three to five days to frame a house and have it ready to ship. Truck shipping for distances of less than 250 miles is included in our standard package price. When packages are going farther, we negotiate with a trucking company and include the additional shipping costs as part of the package price.

We label the panels and provide assembly drawings. Our goal is to make the process as painless as possible for the carpenters putting the house together. Still, when we're working with a builder for the first time, there are almost always some questions — I'd be concerned if there weren't. The builder generally wants to know what's included and how things are packaged. We hash things out over the phone. I try to screen builders as best I can, but it's the homeowner's responsibility to select the builder and contract for the home's assembly. We haven't had a problem yet — a couple of builders who assembled our homes subsequently bought their own packages for spec projects.