Victorian or Colonial revival? Modern or contemporary?
Even if you're just curious, knowing the style of a home can be helpful for buying, selling, remodeling or decorating.
Deborah Burns, executive director of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said many homes have easily identifiable styles -- a Colonial has a symmetrical facade, a small portico and a center hall, and a bungalow has a central roof dormer and a foundation made with patterned concrete blocks. But she also cautions that not all resources offer the correct information, and not all homes have a set style. It's hardest to pin down suburban homes, she said.
"If you get into suburban home developments, I'm just not sure style was paramount in the design," Burns said.
Burns said some real estate agents will incorrectly assign a home style based on one particular element, such as the window style or roof. This is because many homes are now built in a way that mixes elements of varying styles and cannot be clearly defined.
"The homes don't necessarily conform to any single style," Burns said. "That's not to say they all don't, but most don't. A brick split-level home isn't necessarily a Colonial style. I think builders felt free to borrow elements from styles they liked."
If you're curious about your home's style, Burns suggests checking town or county resources first. Residents of the Ashton Heights neighborhood in Arlington, Va., for example, have a complete design guide provided by the county's Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development. The guide identifies the historical neighborhood's common styles: Colonial revival, Tudor revival, American foursquare and bungalow. The guide offers breakdowns of each type, along with tips on renovations to anything from windows to walkways.
Burns also said her go-to style reference is "What Style Is It: A Guide to American Architecture," by John C. Poppeliers, S. Allen Chambers Jr. and Nancy Schwartz, calling it "the single most referred-to book for American architecture."
Having a bungalow or Victorian-style home can guide interior design decisions, including window treatments and furniture. Lisa Adams of Adams Design in Washington said a home's exterior is often a good indicator of a homeowner's taste.
"If they are design-conscious, there is a reason they've selected a house," Adams said. "Usually people are relatively consistent in their preferences. If you live in a Colonial with antique furniture, that's your style."
"Modern is all about positive and negative," Adams added. "The windows are sort of piercing through the exterior. The walls and cabinetry are very minimalistic. It is very geometric, and you have to pay attention to the geometry. Color is a factor, but you don't want it to overwhelm."
Adams, who worked for an architectural firm before becoming an interior designer, said she enjoys working with all of the common styles.
Some of her favorites?
"I love the Cape Cod, and I lived in a Georgian house. Even Gothic revival is charming. And who wouldn't love to live in a Victorian?"
Lisa Adams, along with architect and designer Charles Almonte of Silver Spring, Md., offer their take on some of the styles found across the United States.
Smaller windows, a pitched roof and a front porch are characteristic of this early 20th-century style, Adams said.
"The interior of the space tends to be more first floor, very little second, and tends to be dark because you have a front porch covering the windows. For the design, you have to take that into account. It's very pretty."
Near a beach? Bungalow-style homes are commonly found by the water, Adams said. "Everyone has a front porch so they can be outside, and you want it to be dark inside if you've had too much sun."
If that's the case, Adams said, homeowners may need extra lighting -- floor lamps, recessed lighting and desk lamps.
Contemporary homes are "all ceiling and glass, like homes in Los Angeles," Adams said. Contemporary homes built with large glass windows are often meant to take advantage of a good view, she said, so it's best to choose furniture in a sleek, minimalist style, as opposed to bulky pieces that might block those views.
"You have to make sure the furniture has very clean lines," Adams said. "You are not usually putting a lot of patterns on top of patterns."
A contemporary home, Adams said, is not to be confused with modern. Modern houses, commonly built in the mid- to late 20th century, are geometric, symmetrical and lack ornamentation.
"Modern architecture has a crisp, clean and tailored feel," Almonte said. "My personal preference, though, is more toward a simple modern style. … There is a fine line between classic modern and trendy modern."
Calling it "a nod to Americana," Almonte said this nationalistic design movement began in the late 1800s, when Americans celebrating the Centennial felt nostalgic and patriotic. The style, he said, is formal but not stately or imposing. Colonial revival homes are usually rectangular and symmetrical, with double-hung windows and a pediment over the door or a small portico with columns.
Traditional Cape Cod homes, originating from England in the 17th century, are square, one or 1½ stories, with steep, gabled roofs. "Cape Cod houses were not so fancy," Adams said.
The kitchen is the focal point of many Cape Cod homes, Adams said, where families would congregate around the fire to keep warm in the cold New England winters. These homes also commonly have bedrooms on the first floor. Variations, she said, now often have additions that make them asymmetrical.
This style, with its origins in 18th-century Britain, is very formal and stately, Almonte said. Brick is the primary exterior material, with moldings for embellishment. "Some might say it's 'oppressive' because of its connection to the British monarchy," he said. "The style gives off a feeling of security and protection."
Born from a revival of medieval-era style in the 18th century, Gothic revival homes have "a lot of elements that give it more of a gingerbread frill," Adams said. "It's pretty. I would expect wood paneling and exposed beams. It would be relatively dark. You might expect a huge fireplace in the entrance hall, with benches around it, and a banister made of iron."
Gothic revival homes lend themselves to heavy and ornately carved furniture and dark fabrics. To lighten this style of home, Adams said, it's common to paint paneling white or modify the windows and lighting to help brighten and illuminate the space.
Federal homes are intentionally extravagant, Adams said. The late 18th-century style typically features a center hall, a Palladian window, an arched and columned door and a high ceiling.
Federal homes were built by those who wanted to show off their wealth, Adams said, but borrowed the basic structure of a Georgian home.
"They are spending their money, and they want to show it," she said. "They are just grand. It's supposed to be imposing."
Almonte had a simple definition for these single-story homes with rectangular shape and low rooflines: "nondescript."
"They have no particular character or defining features," he said. "The style is inspired by the Prairie style, but unfortunately this is the stripped-down version of the Prairie. It has no embellishments."
Adams said ranch homes, first built in the 20th century, are practical for aging adults and families with young children.
The style is defined by the ornamentation of the prosperous Victorian era (mid- to late 19th century), including curved towers and spindled porches.
Victorians are decorated "pattern on pattern, texture on texture," Adams said.
To furnish the interior of a Victorian home, Adams said, she would pull from elements of the time period, but it is not a style to base a whole room on. "Most people couldn't live that way. And that's true with all of these styles."