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The Modern Estate
Architects' Design Challenge

DesignChallege_MainImage.jpgRenovate or Tear Down? Is it oafish to demolish an old house? Four noted architects discuss the virtues and pitfalls of remodeling the dwellings of yesteryear—so poor in amenities, so rich in character.

Many a bulldozer has been seen in our neighborhoods of late, and it’s common to see large crews of construction workers tearing homes apart, stanchion by stanchion, and depositing the remains in oversized dumpsters. But is razing the residence on a property and building anew the right choice for homeowners and their design team, or is renovation more desirable? We asked four of the region’s most accomplished architects for their perspective on this very relevant issue. Neil Hauck, of Darien; Doug Wilk, of Rye; Jeff Kaufman, of Westport; and Cormac Byrne, of Greenwich, offer the insights they have acquired in dealing with this challenge over many years of practice in this history-laden region.

When “Soul” Trumps Bad Plumbing
By Neil Hauck
Founder, Neil Hauck Architects

It has become a trend in southwestern Connecticut, where my architectural practice is based, for people to buy a house not because they like it, but because they admire its site and location. (Settlements in this region date back to the 1600s, so most of the prime building lots have already been developed. Those that remain are often unsuitable for building because of problems like their irregular topography or the existence of wetlands.) Once the house is theirs, they plan to tear it down and construct a new one.

Despite the neighbors’ laments when a venerable house is torn down, it’s not always the mark of a philistine to want to start anew. Most residences built between the end of World War II and the early 1980s lack character. Some are poorly constructed, and most are not very energy efficient. And though many houses built in the late 1800s and early 1900s are rich in character and architectural detail, they are often less than adequate for the lifestyle of their current owners. They frequently lack sufficient storage space; have outdated kitchens and baths (if they haven’t already been renovated); have antiquated mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems; and are poorly insulated. Some have low ceilings and far too few windows, limiting natural light and ventilation.

Some of these inadequacies can be corrected easily; others require more serious surgery. In the end, the cost of correcting a house’s inherent problems can exceed the cost of tearing it down and starting over. Furthermore, by starting from scratch, the owner can commission a house with just as much (indeed, sometimes more) architectural character and detail as the one being torn down, plus get modern amenities... and achieve a result that is tailored to his or her individual lifestyle. It is easy to see why so many projects are teardowns.

But the decision is not always so clear-cut. Sometimes the existing house not only has character but also functions well. Perhaps a previous remodeling has brought an older home up to modern standards. Sometimes the “soul” of the house is so strong that the thought of destroying this repository of collective memories is nearly unbearable. And maybe tearing down is simply out of the question from an
economic standpoint. In situations like these, the architect’s challenge is to determine how to deal with altering and/or adding to the existing structure.

The right approach when the house is rich in architectural character is to alter/add in such a way that the additions integrate seamlessly with the original structure. But if the existing house lacks character, the architect must effect a metamorphosis... a transformation of the structure into a new entity.

I am often called in to evaluate whether an old house should be remodeled or demolished. I always begin by evaluating the following five items: (a) the client’s wish list, (b) the existing structure’s character and/or integrity, (c) its physical condition, (d) local ordinances regarding zoning, health, and conservation, and (e) the client’s construction budget

Some of my colleagues are “trigger happy.” They would rather design a new house than struggle to remodel an old one—and often, remodeling is a struggle. However, if a house has integrity, I believe one should make every effort to work with it. But the decision should be arrived at only after carefully studying all available options.

On one of my recent projects, the interior of the existing house, built in the early 1900s, functioned well, but my client wanted to expand it to accommodate a growing family. A previous remodeling had been done without a great deal of sensitivity to the existing house, butchering the original Colonial roof lines in the process. We began our work with a series of schematic studies of the various available options, and determined that by altering the roof lines, we could add the additional bedrooms on a third floor. The result not only accomplished the client’s building program but transformed the style and character of the house in the process. In the end, the cost of the remodeling was less than half the cost of tearing down and building anew.

What Makes an Old House Worth Saving?

By Douglas Wilk
President, Mitchell Wilk Architecture

To live in a highly desirable town in Westchester or Fairfield County, families are often stuck with buying a house that does not appeal to them, for, as Neil Hauck has pointed out, undeveloped land in these communities is largely nonexistent. And so they have to decide whether to renovate this less-than-satisfactory house or tear it down. How can they figure out which is the best option?

Assess the house’s potential. If an existing house has positive characteristics like high ceilings, authentic details, and a nice floor plan with good flow, it may make sense to maintain the house’s allure and integrity through a renovation. In many cases, a creative architect with a thorough understanding of code issues can enhance a home and maintain its charm.

Homes less capable of being altered to satisfy modern-day needs typically have small rooms, lower ceilings, and shallow roof pitches. Other negatives: poorly designed and constructed details, outdated mechanical systems, and minimal natural light. Reworking and rearranging an existing home to achieve larger rooms with updated adjacencies, cohesive rooflines, and larger windows requires significant reframing. But integrating new framing with existing framing can create conditions in which much of the house must be altered to accept the new loads, in order to meet today’s stricter structural requirements. If significant alteration is necessary, the result may be the removal and replacement of many of the very finishes and details that the homeowner sought to preserve.

Recognize the power of local ordinances. In many towns, renovating a certain percentage of a home mandates updating the entire home to meet current code. Houses in flood zones may need to be raised; small bedroom windows will require enlarging openings for fire-escape purposes. Inserting bathrooms in tight spaces is often unachievable, because codes now require minimum dimensions in front of fixtures and headroom above them.

If you plan a significant addition to your home, make sure that local codes do not prohibit such an expansion. All towns limit house sizes and have property setback rules. If the current house is located near a property line or seems particularly large for a parcel of property, expansion capabilities could be restricted.

Consider the financial implications. Naturally, cost is a critical factor. Sometimes, modifying the original home is the most efficient financial avenue. Be careful, however: Renovations can be as costly as starting from scratch. If the renovation process requires significant retrofit work, it may be more time-consuming than building anew. Labor costs are usually the single most expensive budget item.

And consider the fact that renovation and building a new home will have different effects on your property tax. Generally, renovations result in a lower tax burden than building a new house. However, what’s considered a renovation varies from town to town. In some instances, a project that the homeowner considered a renovation was assessed as new construction by the authorities.

Visualize the look of the finished house. Keep in mind that a house is not isolated unto itself. Take time to imagine the final design of your house and how it will relate to its surroundings. Can a renovated home’s style, massing, and street orientation optimize the house’s relationship to the site it is set upon? If not, maybe building a new home is the better option. Proper site consideration, along with thoughtful attention to the factors mentioned above, will allow for a better architectural result, and hence a greater return on investment.

Zapped by the Zoning Laws

By Jeff Kaufman
Owner, JMK Architects

Would you rather live in a house with no history or a house that has a past—a house with an inherited patina, a house built by hand, its beams and floorboards hand-hewn by an individual, not mass-produced by some corporation? This old house might contain materials that are no longer available—wood that has been killed off in a blight, perhaps, or wood that’s now so rare that you can replace it only by paying a premium. Not only that: If you tear an old structure down and build a new residence, zoning regulations may restrict the new house to a smaller footprint.

Remodeling, rather than replacing, a house like that is clearly the best option. But homeowners are rarely presented with a decision that easy. Consider the situation of one of our clients, whose 1960s residence, a stripped Colonial typical of that time, had no redeeming qualities other than its location. And the ceilings were only 8 feet high (our client wanted 10-foot ceilings). And the contractor told the owner that he would save $30,000 by tearing the house down and building a new one with the 10-foot ceilings he desired.

Like almost everything in the home-building process, though, there were complications. The old house was exempt from current zoning standards, because it had been “grandfathered in” when new regulations were passed. The client found that if he tore his house down he would have to abide by the current zoning regulations, which mandated a reserve septic area, larger side and rear yards, and conformity to a wetlands code that didn’t exist when the house was built. He would actually wind up with a new house almost 2,000 square feet smaller than the house would be under the proposed renovation!

And so the homeowner chose a cunning renovation over a teardown. He even got higher ceilings in the process—at least in most of the house. Here’s how that goal was achieved:

About a third of the first floor in the old house lay a step down from the main floor, so the ceiling in that portion of the home will be able to rise to 10 feet. Also, since the architect’s design compromise with the town allowed the removal of about 40 percent of the existing house, the owner will be able to get 9-foot ceilings in 40 percent of the first floor. Now, it’s true that in rooms like the kitchen work area, the dining room, the bathrooms, and the closet areas, the rooms will stay at their 8-foot ceiling height—but the majority of the entertaining spaces will become 9 feet high. This achievement will come at an additional cost to the homeowner, however, because the contractor will need to work around the portion of the house that stays as is, bracing the floors and walls while new floors and walls are being built. But... the second- and third-floor ceilings will rise to 10 feet in height!

Another complexity—a complexity that can lead to ingenious solutions—is figuring out how best to site the house on its lot. It does matter where, on the property, the house is set. These days there’s a (popularly deplored) trend toward building large, grand houses; often that’s because that is the only option the zoning regulations give the owner. But there is nothing negative about a very large, formal house—as long as it sits back on the property and has, as its entrance, a front yard so deep that the new house doesn’t look as if its mission is to take tolls because it’s so close to the road! (A small house at the curb is far less intrusive than a large house on the same spot.)

Sometimes, to gain square footage, the solution might be to erect a series of structures on the lot. When our firm designs a project, we take into consideration New England farm architecture—the way farms in our area harmoniously site the various buildings on their land. Thomas C. Hubka’s book Big House, Little House, Back House Barn (University Press of New England) shows readers how, by building a series of attached structures, they can obtain a maximum amount of square footage—and yet the scale and proportion are pleasing. These structures will blend in with the neighborhood, fit the lot correctly, and spare the owner the feeling that he is coming home—absurdly, in his neighborhood—to the Taj Mahal.

Our firm took the series-of-small-buildings approach for the replacement for a 1,500-square-foot house (right out of Father Knows Best) built in the 1940s on two acres. It had no significant architectural value, but it did have character, and it blended well with its neighbors. According to the regulations, the property would support a 12,000-square-foot house. We designed an 8,500-square-foot house that would use the original 1,500-square-foot structure as the family room.

But the plan didn’t work out. Because the old house was set close to the road midway between the property’s boundary lines, we could not use it as the family room; we needed to move it off to the side of the new structure, and the moving cost was prohibitive. (Moving the structure would be more expensive than building a family room from scratch.)

Again, the town had a major influence on the owner’s decision. We originally proposed putting the new house as far off the road as we could. By being moved back 50 feet or so, the new house would “read” smaller and seem more in scale with the neighboring houses. But the town’s new conservation-commission regulations had changed the required wetlands setback from 35 feet to 85 feet. That meant that the new house had to be sited closer to the road, making it seem out of scale with the streetscape.

In most towns, a variance would have been encouraged, but in this town, the owner was told that nothing could be built in the setback. This, however, is not the state’s interpretation of the code; according to the state, a setback is an area that should be carefully fringed in, but not treated like a wetland. Getting into a legal battle with the town would only have prolonged the building of the house—possibly for over a year.

In the end, we redesigned the house to have the same square footage—but alternate materials and different architectural features helped keep the scale down. The owner had wanted to respect the past and the neighborhood by keeping and using the original structure—but frustration with the town’s rules eliminated that option.

Practical Considerations

By Cormac Byrne
Principal, JFMP Architects

You’d be wise to ponder these practical matters before you decide whether to raze or remodel.

Local regulations. In some instances, zoning rules make it advantageous to remodel an older house rather than razing it and building a new residence. Your house may be “grandfathered in” as an “existing non conforming” structure, meaning that it is exempt from current zoning regulations as long as you remodel it, rather than demolish it. If you tear it down, you may void that exemption, and current, more restrictive zoning laws may prohibit you from replicating the old house’s footprint, square footage, or deficient setbacks.

Aesthetic and historic preservation. While many homes in New England are worth preserving from a historic and architectural viewpoint, very few are actually registered (and therefore required to be preserved). The homeowner’s decision typically turns on whether it makes sense—emotionally or fiscally—to preserve a beautifully constructed home that was designed when the family’s needs were different.

Older homes typically lack the kinds of living room today’s families expect—an eat-in kitchen, a family room, and a spacious master suite—and the infrastructure usually needs updating for the 21st century. On the other hand, these structures are often full of character and fine workmanship, as well as materials that are impossible to replicate today.

Budget. It generally costs less to renovate than to build a new house. Still, there is a point at which the remodeling becomes so extensive and costly that it would have been wiser to tear the house down and build anew.

Figuring out a realistic budget for a renovation requires intense focus on all the details—by both architect and homeowner. Clients must accept the fact that some compromises will have to be made, and that if the budgetary benefit of a remodeling is to be realized, the finished home may not contain everything they had hoped for. (For instance, ceiling heights in older homes are lower than those currently built into a new home. To raise ceilings in a renovation can be prohibitively expensive.)

Most design stumbling-blocks are foreseeable, and the architect should outline them before the client decides whether to renovate or tear down. Still, unforeseeable issues can come up as the home is opened up for renovation. I typically advise clients to add 5 percent to 10 percent to their proposed budget as preparation for such contingencies.

Timing. Remodeling can take as long as building a new house. Selective demolition, tying new construction to old construction, ensuring that all the remodeling work is up to code, and seeing that the junction of new and old is as seamless as possible, can be very time-consuming.

The bottom line. Extensive renovations are not for the weak of heart. Still, given good advice from contractors and architects, a concerted effort by the team to work with the existing structure, and the homeowner’s understanding that some compromises will have to be made, the result can be both spectacular and satisfying. New construction is generally a much more controllable process, since there are fewer unknowns. The scope and budget of the project can be much more clearly defined, and the construction issues (there are always issues!) should be much more manageable.

When considering whether to remodel or build anew, work with an architect and contractor as early in the process as possible and explore all of the possibilities on paper before making the ultimate decision.

Hilton Vanderhorn
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