A “New Old” Approach to Duplex Designs

BIG HOUSE, LITTLE HOUSE, BACK HOUSE, BARN

A Traditional Approach for Duplex Designs
by Michael C. Connor, 
Founder and CEO, Connor Mill-Built Homes

“Big house, little house, back house, barn”—this rhythmic cadence was sung by nineteenth-century children
as they played. It also portrays the four essential components of the farms where many of them lived.
The stately and beautiful connected farm buildings made by nineteenth-century New Englanders,
with its origins located in Maine, stand today as a living expression of a rural culture, offering insights
into the people who made them and their agricultural way of life.

I’ve given much thought as to how to configure the Burnt Mill duplexes and keep them in the context of historical architecture so that they can be a legitimate part of the overall story and beautifully grace the landscape. In many developments that feature both single family and multi-family offerings, a duplex becomes a connected version of two similar or even identical plans. That feature alone tends to relegate them to the status of poor stepchild to the more impressive and customized single family units, the result being that the expectation is that they will be cheaper to buy. While it is true that multiple units sharing a common site will yield a premium regarding lot value, everything else about the multi-family units diminishes their perceived value.

In attempting to downplay the effect of devaluation due to the identical presentations that are typical in duplex design, I have thought of a way to configure a more conventional building massing that would look like a single family house, but would utilize the very different massing configurations of house and attached barn. A number of houses in the Connor Mill-built Homes catalog have just such a configuration and so it seems to make sense that we might use those two distinct configurations to create two distinct living units. The first would be a living unit in what is primarily the main house, while the second would be living space developed in the “barn” portion of the plan. By differentiating the two distinct living areas we create two units, each defined by a different architecture related to their historical uses. The house side commands a good price from those clients who prefer to define their living space by the more conventional parameters of a whole house, while the barn side appeals to those clients who might see living in what would appear to be a converted barn to be a more adventuresome and creative approach. What I also find appealing is that not only does the “converted barn” living space offer a very different architectural palette to work with, but the sizes of units (house larger, barn smaller or reverse) allows us to market two different products.
The marketing epiphany in all of this came from a book I recalled that was written some thirty years ago that celebrated the very unique architecture of the connected barn, an architectural concept that originated in Southern Maine around 1830, and became a prolific farmstead building practice for the next 80 years or so, spreading throughout the northern tier NE states. But to this day it remains a steadfast marker of agrarian architecture and the best examples are still found throughout the rural Maine landscape.

The book is called “Big house, little house, back house, barn”. It was written by an architect, Thomas Hubbard. 

The title refers to a ditty that children used to sing about the connected farmsteads that they grew up in. What I like is that the concept gives us credibility through authenticity while offering us a number of different ways to configure our duplexes. But on the marketing side, we also have an opportunity for yet another newsworthy concept that relates to our theme of honoring and respecting something closely aligned with the history of Maine. Many small towns in the area are well aware of the book and how it relates a former agrarian culture to its evolving architecture, and many are proud knowing that the style originated in their towns in another era. I see terrific marketing potential in using the concept of the Maine connected barn to justify an architectural style that can use that architectural configuration to a different purpose while honoring the original. In one of those inexplicable strange coincidences, a friend recently had dinner with the publisher of the book who was familiar with our work and asked if it could be arranged that he meet with me. I’m envisioning that perhaps we could even get the author to endorse our efforts to utilize an old architectural style indigenous to the area, for a new purpose.

We have several houses that already lend themselves nicely to the configurations needed to accomplish the duplex designs anticipated. Presented here are a few of our homes that can easily be modified, and floor plans that illustrate how a duplex designs might look.

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