How should a modernist live in a traditional town?  In an area abundant with beautiful older homes, a more modern residence can often look out of place.  Even though they may wish to express their inner modernist, many homeowners are concerned that a modern design won’t fit within the general atmosphere of their traditional neighborhood.  Oh my, what will the neighbors think?!

As architects, we are trained to be sensitive to a building’s context and surrounding environment and not to simply design in a bubble.  For this reason, when a homeowner is looking to do a new modern house or remodel within the confines of a traditional street, we approach it with a comprehensive view of the immediate neighbors on the overall block, and the general character of the neighborhood at large.

Here are some tips on how to build a modernist home in a traditional neighborhood:

Know your Boundaries

Before starting any project, it is important to establish what is legal or allowed within the specific neighborhood.  The Washington area is filled with historic districts, neighborhood associations, and HOAs.  These can often come with very particular guidelines about the exterior design of your home, including roof pitches, window sizes, etc.  So before you get too far down the path, clearly understand the parameters in which you are able to create your design.

Respect the Rhythm of the Street

If you want to fit in, start by getting to know your neighbors.  What is the average size of the houses on the street?  Is there a particular orientation of the windows?  Do they have front porches?  Once you understand the general characteristics of the surrounding homes, you can then replicate these design cues within the modern architectural vocabulary.  Fitting in is often more about scale and proportion than whether you have cedar shingles and a bracketed roof line.

Define your Palette

When people think of modern homes they often imagine structures of concrete, glass and steel.  These materials can come across as cold or commercial.  We recommend looking to your neighborhood for inspiration.  Familiar materials, such as siding or stone, can be used in new and innovative ways with distinctive detailing that invokes a clean, modern look.  This fresh approach can simultaneously set your house apart while integrally weaving it into the material palette of the streetscape.

Go Wild Inside

Sometimes the true essence of a design isn’t revealed until you step inside the home.  Thoughtful small tweaks to a traditional façade can hint at more dramatic style choices within.  A unique floor plan, open space and modern materials can be what surrounds you every day within your home, even if it is only hinted at to those who pass on the sidewalk outside.

Photo credit: Katherine Ma, Studio by MAK

A version of this article was originally published on washingtonpost.com.