Traditional vs Modern Architecture – What’s the Real Difference?

If you’re a fan of home renovation and design shows, you’re probably used to hearing the words ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ almost as often as ‘flip’ and ‘curb appeal.’ They’re perennial terms in the home design lexicon.

However, their widespread use has also lead to a lot of misuse, with many people using ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ as catchy substitutions for ‘new’ and ‘old. When it comes to buying or building a home, this invariably leads to some confusion, since traditional and modern take on entirely different meanings in the world of architecture.

We won’t give you a full architecture 101 – that’d take far more words than would comfortably load on this page! But we will lay out some of the main differences between the two styles in the interest of clearing up some misconceptions.

What is a Traditional Home?

If you were to do a Google search for ‘traditional home’, you’d likely find some wildly different interpretations. After all, ‘traditional’ is a loaded term. To many, it’s just a fancy way of saying old and a traditional home means one built in the 20th century or earlier. It can also be a lifestyle term, saying more about the home’s inhabitants rather than the home itself.

Let’s be clear: when we’re talking about traditional homes, we mean the architecture and design sensibilities.

So what is a traditional home? In short, it means any home influenced by a historical style of architecture. Here in Ontario, you can find tons of different traditional styles sprinkled throughout the province, including buildings inspired by Victorian, Craftsman, and Colonial styles.

Each style has its own story and defining features. But like many aspects of our culture, Canadians like to blend parts of different styles together, resulting in a mish-mash of homes that all count as ‘traditional’.

The most popular features of traditional architecture include a grand entrance complete with a porch and columns, a high, pointed roof with one or more gables, symmetrical windows with shutters, and a textured exterior made from brick, stone, or wood.

Traditional homes are usually large, with many small rooms to accommodate large families (which was the norm back in the day). This was desirable back in the day; open floor plans weren’t really a thing yet. So traditional homes typically require renovation to bring them up to speed with our present-day preferences.

While they don’t have open floor plans, traditional homes boast tons of charm and ambiance. Traditional styles were all about elegance and fine details. Victorian homes are instantly recognizable by their handcrafted wooden gingerbread (or vergeboarding). Gothic homes often have pointed roofs and ornately-detailed windows. Traditional homes feel warm and lived in, like there’s a story to be told about each little nook and cranny.

What is Modern?

Modern doesn’t necessarily mean ‘new’. The modern architecture movement sprang up back in the 1920’s and hit its stride in the 1950’s and 60’s, so some modern homes are almost a hundred years old at this point. However, the style has become synonymous with futurism.

The style emerged as a response to the stuffy design sensibilities of the traditional homes. No longer were some satisfied with hand-carved wood and pointed roofs. Modern architecture is all about doing away with unnecessary details and letting the actual basic structure of the house shine through.

The tell-tale traits of modern architecture are clean lines, flat or low-sloped roofs, and an untextured exterior. Modern homes take advantage of technologically advanced building materials like metal and concrete, and embrace natural lighting with large windows.

What About New Homes That Look Traditional?

Whether these homes count as traditional or modern is up for debate. On the outside, many newly-built homes draw inspiration from traditional styles – big porches, high roofs, and a combination of wood, brick, and stone exteriors (or synthetic materials that resemble them).

However, open up the doors to a present-day home and you’re likely to find features of modern architecture, like an open floor plan and plenty of natural light.

Architecture purists may argue that a traditional home is one built during the era where those homes were in style. If you see it that way, traditional-looking suburban homes of today are neither traditional nor modern. But you could also say they fall under the scope of either traditional or modern.