Fabulous Faux

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At first glance, it looks like a meticulously detailed 19th-century rehab. Upon closer inspection, Brian Pennings' home reveals a new custom home clad in vinyl, composites and seemingly every engineered building innovation. Only the beveled-glass mahogany front door and stone veneer of the exposed foundation is real.

March 01, 2005



Vital Stats

More Information

At first glance, it looks like a meticulously detailed 19th-century rehab. Upon closer inspection, Brian Pennings' home reveals a new custom home clad in vinyl, composites and seemingly every engineered building innovation. Only the beveled-glass mahogany front door and stone veneer of the exposed foundation is real.

I like to call it my 150-year-old new house," says Brian Pennings, the proud homeowner as well as designer, builder and president of W. Pennings & Sons based in Kalamazoo, Mich.


The inspiration for this project was the August 2003 find of a 1.8-acre parcel in Plainwell, Mich., in a neighborhood dotted with homes dating back to the mid-1800s. The lot included a rare 180-foot frontage of the Mill Run channel hand-dug in 1856 to power downriver mills.

Pennings had toured traditional neighborhood developments and "was drawn to the older-style homes." He jumped at the chance to buy, subdivide and keep a corner for himself and his wife as well as a corner for his wife's parents. He carved the irregular, roughly triangular lot to capitalize on the river view while sharing a 60-foot driveway with two other lots with a duplex and another home yet to be built.

Additionally, the home would be a marketing vehicle and design showcase. Pennings' home, along with two whole-house remodels, were entered in the June 2004 Parade of Homes held by the Home Builders Association of Kalamazoo.


"We wanted to build a showcase home that would blend in with the surrounding neighborhood," says Pennings, who set out touring local historic homes and shooting photos of his favorites. Pennings' favorite turned out to be Italianate, an architectural style new to him but not for long, as traditional features converged on the drawing board as his design study progressed.

One of Pennings' challenges was bringing history alive using modern materials. Pennings says he wanted the look of an old home but didn't want the maintenance of an old home. "Everything synthetic we could use, we did — particularly on the outside."

Engineered architectural products have made great strides in terms of style, performance and durability, but Pennings nonetheless had to mask their limitations to achieve the desired effect. For example, he chose a 3-inch vinyl siding with a good reputation among historic commissions nationwide, but he packed-out the window trim board to hide the siding's telltale J-channeled edge — a dead giveaway of a non-wood exterior.

Pennings veered from tradition to create a floor plan with a contemporary mix of open volume and privacy. The semicircular sitting room showers the main floor in simulated divided light from the east. A see-through fireplace helps wrap the adjacent reading nook in cozy intimacy. Pennings put the master suite, with private deck, on the second floor. He also designed an in-law/guest suite and kitchenette on the main floor. Rather than close the suite off from main floor's visual flow, Pennings lowered the entire wing three steps and buffered it behind an angled hallway and shared laundry. He then gave the universal-designed guest quarters a stairless entry through the rear.

The old home ambience pervades the new plan through the details. Exterior Italianate themes repeat inside, such as the kitchen's five-piece crown molding and brackets on custom cabinetry chosen to match the exterior. The house is cable-ready and wired for digital networking, but modern conveniences are discrete. AC outlets are tucked into the baseboard; antique pushbutton electric switches and restoration doorknobs and hinges completed the effect.


The design exudes a visual reality outside and through an interior where engineered elements complement country oak floors, custom wood cabinetry and other natural details, down to the railing spindles and newels imported from Italy. The overall effect is that of a warm, old house with in a new-house plan.

Inside and out, the design delights — even passers-by. "People passing by the site kept stopping to ask us how old the house was," says Pennings. "They thought we were remodeling, which was one of the most rewarding aspects of this project. We accomplished our goal of making it look like a 150-year-old home."

Success came in the Parade of Homes as well. More than 1,500 prospects toured the house and Pennings was "pleased...considering we were about 10 miles off the beaten path, and the highway used to get there was under major construction at the time," he says.

The local newspaper featured the house on the front cover of a follow-up insert. As a result of the Parade of Homes and subsequent news feature, Pennings has received dozens of inquiries and adds, "we are still getting jobs as a result of a parade project from 2003, so the exposure goes on for a long time."

Next up for Pennings: finishing an upstairs bonus room. He'll then bask in the light of his cherished eastern elevation while pondering a finished basement or screened-in a deck before the next Michigan winter returns.




Vital Stats

Location: Pennings Residence, Plainwell, Mich.

Builder/Designer: W. Pennings & Sons, Kalamazoo, Mich.

Construction started: December 2003

Home Completed: June 2004

Home type: Custom single-family detached

Buyer: empty nester with extended family borders

Square footage: 2,700

Lot Size: irregular; 60' road frontage; 220 feet at its widest

Price: $600,000–$700,000 for a comparable custom

More Information

  • The Italianate style rose to prominence from the 1830s to the 1870s before being replaced by gingerbread Victorian.
  • "Probably 60 percent of what we do is remodeling," says Pennings, whose company has a local reputation for "remodeling homes of all ages." In addition to new homes, Pennings' stock in trade is remodeling in the $200,000 to $400,000 range.
  • What's old is new: antique restoration doorknobs, hinges and pushbutton light switches (below).

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