What is Transitional Architecture?

This contemporary farmhouse is an example of transitional architecture by KGA

It’s modern. It’s traditional. Transitional architecture is a fresh take on classic style. Here’s what you need to know about design that captures the best of both worlds.

If you’re searching for a way to articulate how you envision your next space, you’re not alone. Whether you’re remodeling by taking your home down to the studs, or starting completely anew and building your dream house from scratch, settling on an aesthetic can be daunting. Plenty of people feel their tastes don’t belong in any single category. If your vision lies somewhere between charming craftsman and modern minimalist, it can feel downright overwhelming to make style decisions. But worry not, there’s a name for that multifaceted look you love: Transitional. 

Originally built in 1937, this remodeled classic Tudor seamlessly blends old with new to create a fresh, transitional style.

Transitional Architecture, Defined

At its heart, transitional architecture is a mixing of ideas from the modern and traditional styles. Traditional, or classic architecture tends to rely on balance and symmetry—natural forms with straightforward proportions and structure. Traditional homes lend themselves to compartmentalized living spaces, more maximalist details such as rich millwork and textured materials, and a familiar, friendly aesthetic. Modern architecture, on the other hand, leans on sleek lines, angular dimensions, open concepts, and a minimalist aesthetic. These homes feature less divided space, skewing more airy and multi-use than quartered off.

In a blending of concepts, transitional design riffs off the classic foundations of traditional living while allowing for a more modern use of space inside. This might manifest as traditional exterior aesthetics like brick, shutters, and gabled rooflines with an open-concept interior where the kitchen, living, and dining rooms anchor the layout as one cavernous space. Modern finishes and sleek materials might be seamlessly juxtaposed with crown molding (a very traditional element) that reads more simple, less ornate. This trend is all about adapting historic, familiar design to modern lifestyle needs and tastes. It creates a bridge between past and present that caters to both sensibilities. “Transitional design uses the best of both worlds,” says KGA senior architect Travis Hendrix. “It’s taking what we’ve lost on the traditional side of things and what we’ve gained with the modern, and hybridizing that.”

A calming neutral color palette and tongue and groove wood ceilings add transitional flair to this primary suite.

Why It’s Trending

Simply put, we’ve outgrown the way we used to design houses, but it’s difficult to completely abandon that which makes us feel nostalgic and comfortable. “As humans we are attached to natural patterns,” Hendrix says. “We have a desire for natural forms; there’s a level of rationality inherently built into traditional design.” But, he says, humans have evolved in how we use space. People today have a greater proclivity to multitask: For example, cooking dinner while watching the news while helping the kids do homework at the table. Entertaining tends to stem from the kitchen, which is where people gather, making a combined kitchen-dining-living format a huge plus for ease of mingling. This requires open rooms that flow easily into one another, with minimal visual barriers. Today’s homeowners want space that allows us to do all the things we want to do simultaneously and efficiently, rather than having to move from space to space to space for different purposes.

Once full of small, dark rooms, we completely opened up this 1960’s ranch style home by raising the roof and eliminating several interior walls to create an open-concept floorplan for the kitchen, dining and living areas.

More and more, modern lifestyles also hinge on the idea of “bringing the outside in.” People want to blur the line between outdoors and indoors to create a more organic, natural feel in their surroundings and give the illusion of more space, especially in structures that rely heavily on geometric, constructed shapes. In modern homes, that might translate to an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling glass windows or multiple tiered outdoor decks from the roof down. A transitional design might incorporate a distilled take on those elements: larger windows for more light, if not an entire glass wall, or pocket doors that open onto a vast backyard patio. “People want a space that’s better for them psychologically,” Hendrix says, and transitional design provides just that. It lets us create dwellings that mesh with our modern lifestyles, but pay homage to the familiar, homey character of classic residences.

Multiple sets of French door make it easy to access outdoor living spaces, both covered and uncovered.

Why We Love It

What’s not to love about having your cake and eating it, too? Transitional architecture lets you enjoy the timelessness of traditional design without sacrificing the function of a space more suited to our modern lifestyle. As architects, we appreciate classic forms; there’s a reason, after all, that houses have been built a certain way for many, many years. Plus, classic architecture brings an element of friendliness, familiarity, and warmth to a home. On the flipside, modern architecture is also appealing in its calming functionality and clean lines. But, as Hendrix says, “the material choices and minimalistic aspects of modern architecture can sometimes feel cold or sterile.” That’s why we often land somewhere in the middle with a transitional slant, where we can incorporate elements from both styles in a fresh way. We can breathe life into longstanding design traditions with updates and tweaks that bring the whole look into the here and now.

And, it doesn’t have to be a ground-up endeavor. There are ways to take your existing traditional home into more transitional territory. Got a brick exterior? Painting the brick is a way to freshen up the entire feel of the house with a facelift that still lets the classic bones shine through. Adding a sunroom or enclosed patio is an easy addition that plays to the indoor-outdoor affinity of modern lifestyles. Even simplifying your home’s color palette and changing out some materials for sleeker surfaces can help revamp a faded design into something more transitional. “We’re recycling ideas, kind of like we do with fashion,” Hendrix says. “This is something we see as a mainstay going forward for the next few decades.”

Exposed wood beams help create the illusion of higher ceilings in this remodeled penthouse condo in Denver’s Wash Park neighborhood.

Our Transitional Work

Not sure where to start? Many clients begin to hone their vision with a Pinterest board or simply come to the table with images that appeal to them. From there, our team will work with you and your builder and interior designer to execute a transitional design that captures your unique tastes and lifestyle needs. Here are a couple of examples:

The Contemporary Farmhouse

Simplicity and functionality were the driving ideas behind this award-winning custom home at the Colorado Golf Club in Parker. With an exterior that blends both modern siding and more classic natural stone, the 6,000-square-foot home straddles a traditional aesthetic (gabled roof) and a modern one (modular layout with pods linked by flat roof connectors). The result is a transitional style that also showcases the hallmark of bringing the outside in. Multiple French doors on one side open up to the back patio, which in turn spills directly into the native Colorado prairie grasses. The spacious and symmetrical great hall invites endless natural light, and centers around a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace. Again, the fireplace is a traditional element with a fresh, updated take in its see-through construction and a cutout window. The home was designed for livability, with a nod to modern sensibilities and an appreciation of traditional character.

The Historic Tudor Cottage Remodel

The owner of this classic Tudor in Cherry Hills Village had fond memories of the house when he purchased it. He’d spent time there as a child and felt sentimental toward the historic home. So, our team set out to restore it to its former glory on the outside while bringing the inside into this century. The outcome: a sleeker, warmer, more organized home, both inside and out, that’s conducive to the way we use living and entertaining spaces today.

The exterior remains true to its traditional roots—the portrait of a classic Tudor with its roofline, dormers, arches, and a revival of its original color palette. But subtle changes add transitional flair. For example, we transformed the covered patio into a sunroom that seamlessly blends the original arched posts and beams with expansive glass windows framing glass French doors. The whole thing opens to the new pool patio. The sunroom pays homage to the historic architecture, but functions in a more modern sense to blur the lines between outside and in with the glass surrounds. However, it falls short of completely modern style in that we didn’t merely create walls of glass; there’s more substance and detail to the dramatic door and window openings, rendering the overall result somewhere between a historic and modern aesthetic.

Ultimately, transitional architecture is the embodiment of a happy medium. It’s both modern and traditional; sleek and warm; nostalgic and functional. While it may be tricky to articulate, KGA is here to help guide the vision, whether you’re renovating or building fresh. Because in the end, we all deserve the best of all worlds in the place we call home.

For more ideas on transitional architecture and remodels, see this midcentury ranch remodel, this modern rustic new build, and this penthouse condo remodel.

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