design

Fancy a Farmhouse? Why This Modern Trend is Becoming Timeless

Architect Michael Higgins uses context and environment to refine the popular farmhouse style.

If you’ve been clicking on design websites, pinning on Pinterest or watching HGTV, you’ve seen farmhouse style take off, with designers and architects readily embracing the trend. Chip and Joanna Gaines’ HGTV show, Fixer Upper, virtually cornered the market on the look, making shiplap walls, reclaimed wood, barn doors and marquee letters de rigueur.

It’s a humble design that goes back a century or more—with simple, practical forms like gabled roofs and details like front porches.

Followed slavishly, or without context, the look could become just a trend. But done with sensitivity, farmhouse style is a design influence that has legs, says Arizona architect Michael Higgins. “The farmhouse is a traditional structure that was done long before Chip and Joanna had a show,” Higgins points out. “It’s a humble design that goes back a century or more—with simple, practical forms like gabled roofs and details like front porches.”

While the style has evolved over the generations to move from pasture to suburbia, it works best in certain settings, says Higgins, who specializes in residential work. “A good project responds best to context and environment,” he says. “A house needs to fit into its neighborhood and respond to the climate in which it is built.”

Photo By Michael Woodall

Higgins has done numerous variants of the farmhouse architectural motif and finds the homes fit best in older neighborhoods, where green lawns, tall trees and deep front yards complement and enhance the style. “I wouldn’t want to put a farmhouse-style home in a desert-landscaped community or one that is totally modern,” Higgins says. “It wouldn’t look appropriate.”

Higgins has recently completed two large farmhouse-style residences in a context that complements the look. Both are found in a neighborhood just north of downtown Phoenix that, before World War II, was largely agricultural, dotted with dairy farms and citrus orchards. After the war the area began sprouting ranch-style homes, but the old-fashioned flood irrigation—still in use today—kept the neighborhood looking lush and green, the streets lined with olive trees and towering Arizona ash. The two houses that Higgins designed were done for active families who had lived in their respective houses in that neighborhood for years, but wanted something fresh and new, yet familiar.

Photo By Michael Woodall

One of the homes that Higgins designed features a traditional exterior, favored by the husband, and a more contemporary interior, as preferred by the wife. The couple and their three children had lived on the property in an older ranch-style home for a long time and wanted the new dwelling to be built around the mature ash trees that they had come to love. Working with Phoenix builder Tim Mann and landscape architect Eric Gilliland, Higgins angled the new 6,000-square-foot home around the existing trees, adding extra space to the footprint with a second-level study and a media room set in a partial basement.

Photo By Michael Woodall

Gabled roof forms, a mix of shake and standing-steam metal for the roofing material, board and batten siding, brick wainscoting and tapered bungalow-style columns were used to signal a more traditional look for the exterior, as did the use of dormer windows, knee braces for eaves, a porte cochére, and cupolas that bring light into the center of the home. The tall trees, a vast lawn, curved flowerbeds and an open, barn-style ramada near the pool add to the look.

Photo By Michael Woodall

Inside, Higgins kept the detailing more simple and refined, with hickory flooring, a black ceiling in the living room, dark beams in other rooms, and a modern kitchen detailed with espresso-stained cabinetry that features frosted glass inserts. A few special touches include a bookcase that slides open to reveal a hidden study and a “man cave” in one of the garages, which also includes a dog-wash facility. Interior designers Kim Bouton and Barb Foley of Bouton & Foley Interiors suggested comfortable furnishings with modern lines and rich colors to keep things looking contemporary.

Just to make sure the farmhouse theme carried through, an old shed at the back of the yard was rehabbed and painted with the words “The Barn”. It now serves as the family’s chicken coop.

Photo By Ian Denker

A second farmhouse-influenced home that Higgins designed in the same neighborhood took the opposite tack—the house is more modern on the exterior while the interior features traditional elements. The new 5,000-square-foot home was designed for a couple with two daughters, who had previously resided on the acre-plus lot in a small ranch-style home for a decade.

Photo By Ian Denker

“The house has several wings,” says the architect of the new design. “We wanted it to look like it had been there for a while and had evolved with rooms added over the years.” Working again with builder Tim Mann, Higgins flanked the home’s recessed-entry courtyard with a garage volume and the wing for the main living spaces, locating the daughters’ rooms and a lounge in yet another wing. Gabled roof forms again help signal the farmhouse motif, as do standing seam metal eaves that shade double-hung windows. Crisp whitewashed brick as well as board and batten siding are the unfussy exterior materials, while detailing is kept to a minimum for a cleaner look. The home’s exterior chimney forms wound up resembling old-fashioned milk bottles, Higgins points out, noting that it was a “subconscious reference to the area’s old dairy farms.”

Photo By Ian Denker

Landscape architect Russell Greey created a gracious garden for the home that includes lawn areas, a stone-clad, raised pool and spa with a coping that doubles as extra seating for parties, and a split-rail fence planted with grapevines. A pool house with a covered patio and a covered outdoor dining area off the kitchen help enhance the home’s indoor-outdoor ambiance.

Photo By Ian Denker

Interior designers Kim Bouton and Barb Foley worked on this home as well, playing off the oak flooring and reclaimed wood beams with a French blue and white color palette, Shaker-style cabinetry in the spacious kitchen, and comfortable new furnishings that look like they’ve been collected by the family over the years. Interior design details include upholstered walls for the powder room, a red leather restaurant-style swinging door with a porthole window and penny-tile flooring for the pantry.

Photo By Ian Denker

Both new homes have served their occupants well, giving them modern living spaces and amenities with a traditional aesthetic. “I don’t restrict myself to one ‘style’ of architecture,” Higgins says, “but this idiom worked well for both clients and the location. In both cases, we didn’t erase the area’s history; we kept the scale and context of the existing, established neighborhood while making the most of today’s lifestyle.”

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