When you think of a typical American house, what do you see? Perhaps white-painted clapboard siding with contrasting shutters; a covered porch with room for a few rocking chairs; a tall chimney made from old brick or stone? In other words: a classic farmhouse.
Over the past century, as an industrializing America shifted away from agricultural industry, the term "farmhouse" has evolved from its literal meaning—a home built on a farm—into a broader architectural signifier. "It suggests a more humble, vernacular interpretation of American historical styles from the 18th and 19th centuries—whether they be Colonial, Greek Revival, or Victorian," explains architect Gil Schafer, whose award-winning firm, G.P. Schafer Architect, specializes in restoration and historically-inspired structures.
Read on for a primer in the principles of farmhouse style—there's a lot more to it than whitewashed wood and rustic decor.
Function defines form
Many of the farmhouse features that we now think of as charming, decorative elements were actually designed with specific purposes in mind: Porches acted as mudrooms for shedding dirty workwear before entering the house, for example. The overlapping pieces of wood used for clapboard siding were extra-effective at keeping out wind and moisture. A large center fireplace could heat both the lower and upper stories. Dutch doors let airflow in while keeping farm animals out. A gabled roof with a 45-degree pitch was easy to frame and maximized height.
It's all about simplicity
Today, architects like Schafer who specialize in farmhouses live by that same creed—even if the home's inhabitants are far likelier to be tending to emails than to crops. "We're always thinking, 'What would a farmer do if he were building this?' Would he have gone to the trouble to make that elaborate molding or an overly complicated roofline'" says Schafer. "Having the discipline of thinking like the person who built the house that inspires you is a great way to give your design a kind of authenticity."
Simplicity rules on the inside, too. Think wood, plaster, or gypsum board on the walls; for flooring, wide-plank boards in "straightforward" wood like pine and oak rather than "fancy" mahogany or walnut, says Schafer. "If there’s paneling, it’s probably wainscoting of beadboard, v-groove, or flush-jointed boards versus a lot of raised paneling, and more painted wood than natural stained wood."
"Farmhouse" doesn't have to mean "plain"
Even though a proper farmhouse is rooted in simplicity, "that doesn’t mean that it is lacking elegance or refinement; rather, those qualities come from the proportions, scale, and simple details that characterize the style," says Schafer. As an example, he points to his own home in the Hudson Valley: Greek Revival, but in the manner that a local 19th-century builder would have interpreted it. "The more academic high-style architecture of the time was simplified out of necessity to match the financial resources and carpentry skills available to a farmer or person building a house in a village or out in the countryside," he notes. "What might seem naïve is actually a skillful distillation of a more complex idea."
There isn't just one type of farmhouse
While New England, the Midwest, and the South might be home to the most common examples, you can find countless different interpretations of farmhouses across the country. "In California, for example, you find them with vertical board and batten siding and simplified Victorian details," explains Schafer. "In Texas, there are farmhouses built out of that wonderful limestone fieldstone that breaks the East Coast mold of being a house type built primarily of wood."
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