SAVVY

Adding on to an ex­ist­ing house can be tricky. These ar­chi­tects dealt with pre­vi­ous bad ad­di­tions, cramped lay­outs, and set­back re­quire­ments.

Old House Journal - - Design - BY MARY ELLEN POL­SON

Fac­tors to con­sider, hid­den ex­penses, and sage ad­vice from three ar­chi­tects.

WHETHER A HOUSE is on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter or is sim­ply from an ear­lier era, a host of fac­tors must be con­sid­ered even be­fore in­ter­view­ing a con­trac­tor or ar­chi­tect about build­ing an ad­di­tion. Site con­di­tions, ma­te­ri­als, bud­get, and how the new will re­late to the old are is­sues as im­por­tant as the pro­gram for use of new space.

The first is cost.

Ad­di­tions to his­toric houses are typ­i­cally more ex­pen­sive per square foot than those on newer homes. “If we’re talk­ing about a his­toric house, we’re talk­ing about his­toric ap­pear­ance, ma­te­ri­als, and char­ac­ter,” says David Heide of David Heide De­sign Stu­dio. “There’s noth­ing ba­sic about that. Ev­ery­thing [the owner] is try­ing to do with re­gard to their house has to be cus­tom made. Each time you work with an old house it’s unique.”

Even a mod­est ad­di­tion to an old house can be ex­pen­sive. “The cost that comes with some­thing like this is in the at­ten­tion to de­tail,” agrees Howard L. Miller of The John­son Part­ner­ship. Al­though the re­model on p. 66 was not even 100 square feet, “it cost a bunch of money be­cause we car­ried over the de­tails of the house.”

Old houses are also sub­ject to more con­cealed con­di­tions than are new ones. Ex­am­ples in­clude bro­ken ridge boards (look for a tell­tale sag in the roofline), rot­ten floor joists, and ob­so­lete wiring and plumb­ing. All must be ad­dressed be­fore new con­struc­tion can be­gin, says ar­chi­tect San­dra Vitzthum. “Quite of­ten, ren­o­va­tion can be more ex­pen­sive than build­ing from scratch.”

It’s help­ful to have an ar­chi­tect or builder who is ex­pe­ri­enced in ne­go­ti­at­ing with lo­cal agen­cies re­gard­ing set­backs and the zon­ing and build­ing is­sues that come up.

A good ar­chi­tect or con­trac­tor will talk about bud­get from the be­gin­ning, and once the ini­tial plans have been thrashed out, will in­ter­view con­trac­tors and get es­ti­mates for the scope of work, says Miller. From there, the bud­get can be ad­justed up or down de­pend­ing on what the owner can af­ford or wants to do.

Since older houses in cities and towns are of­ten built close to­gether on lots that no longer con­form to mod­ern sub­di­vi­sion reg­u­la­tions, “the first thing we do is look at the lot lines, the size of the lot, and de­ter­mine what the lim­i­ta­tions are, in­clud­ing any height re­stric­tions,” says Heide. “Any re­spon­si­ble ar­chi­tect should do that be­fore the first meet­ing.”

It’s also help­ful to have an ar­chi­tect or builder who has ex­pe­ri­ence ne­go­ti­at­ing with lo­cal agen­cies to re­solve build­ing or zon­ing is­sues posed by a his­toric project. In Seat­tle, for ex­am­ple, many houses in older neigh­bor­hoods were built 3' from the prop­erty line. Now the re­quired set­back is 5', but “there’s a cer­tain amount of ac­com­mo­da­tion in the Seat­tle city code,” says Miller. “If the house was al­ready built at 3' feet from the prop­erty line, they will let you ex­tend your house at the old 3' set­back.”

Whether you work with an ar­chi­tect or not, it’s a good idea to find a con­trac­tor who is fa­mil­iar with old-house is­sues. “I’m al­ways im­pressed with a builder who, be­fore they even start the ad­di­tion, says ‘this ex­ist­ing floor is out of plumb by an inch and a half,’ ” says Heide.

A good con­trac­tor will un­der­stand the im­por­tance of lev­el­ing the floors be­tween

the orig­i­nal part of the house and the new one. “They plan for it,” con­tin­ues Heide. Since old houses are rarely plumb, “some­times it’s a com­bi­na­tion of lift­ing one side and low­er­ing the other.”

Arm your­self with knowl­edge to de­cide what el­e­ments of the ex­ist­ing house you want to keep, es­pe­cially when deal­ing with a builder “who may have good in­ten­tions, but prefers to rip out the old be­cause it’s less trou­ble,” says Vitzthum. “Plas­ter should be kept if at all pos­si­ble. It’s ac­tu­ally more sound dead­en­ing than Sheetrock, and it’s an all-nat­u­ral ma­te­rial.

“Quite of­ten a con­trac­tor will say, ‘You’ve got to rip out the win­dows and walls and in­su­late’, but what they don’t tell you is that two-thirds of a build­ing’s heat is lost through the roof. It makes so much more sense to leave the walls alone and put all of the ef­fort into in­su­lat­ing the at­tic,” es­pe­cially in colder cli­mates.

Fi­nally, be will­ing to dis­cuss with your ar­chi­tect or con­trac­tor some of the in­ti­mate de­tails of how you ex­pect to live in the new space. Be ready to talk about money, pri­vacy, and even par­ent­ing as well as your rea­sons for ex­pand­ing the ex­ist­ing house. Some­times a smaller ad­di­tion or sim­ply re­ar­rang­ing ex­ist­ing space can solve your is­sues with less fuss.

Bear in mind that the scale of any ad­don should be ap­pro­pri­ate to the orig­i­nal scale of the house. “You don’t want things dis­pro­por­tion­ate,” says Heide. “One should let the house tell the story of its evo­lu­tion. But from our client’s per­spec­tive, if it’s seam­less, we’ve suc­ceeded.”

The builder may have good in­ten­tions— pre­fer­ring to rip out old ma­te­rial be­cause that’s eas­ier. Own­ers must be clear about what to keep.

A farm­house pantry tucks be­hind the kitchen; the stair­way leads down to a new laun­dry room. Ad­di­tions dat­ing to mid cen­tury made the din­ing room the dark­est in the house. IN­SET

OP­PO­SITE (be­fore) The garage and pa­tio were crammed into a minis­cule back­yard. (af­ter) Re­claim­ing space from a pa­tio and ex­tend­ing a ter­race and pavil­ion over a new be­low-grade garage opened up am­ple out­door space with sight lines to a lake.

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