Seven mis­takes to avoid when ren­o­vat­ing older houses

The Prince George Citizen - - At Home - Sheila KIM

Dig­ging into your home’s past can be fun, but it can also help you make aes­thetic de­ci­sions and avoid costly mis­takes. Ar­chi­tect Anik Pear­son re­calls a New York client who wanted to in­stall a pool in his base­ment. She re­ferred to his­tor­i­cal maps of Man­hat­tan that showed where all the wa­ter­ways, wet­lands and hills ex­isted, and dis­cov­ered a river un­der­neath the town­house.

“They poked a hole in the base­ment and sure enough, there was run­ning wa­ter. The river was still there.”

Not re­search­ing the his­tory

You can aid the ren­o­va­tion process by con­duct­ing your own re­search ahead of time. Look at old maps from your lo­cal his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety or on­line through the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey, ed­u­cate your­self about which ma­te­ri­als are right for your home’s cli­mate and set­ting, and visit a mu­seum that has pe­riod rooms based on your home’s era. Look back at the real es­tate list­ing, if you can, be­cause many agents of older prop­er­ties in­clude a back­story and own­er­ship his­tory. There are also books – such as Vic­to­rian Ar­chi­tec­tural De­tails by A.J. Bick­nell & Co. and The Amer­i­can Builder’s Com­pan­ion by Asher Ben­jamin – that show his­tor­i­cal prece­dence, pro­por­tions, mold­ing shape used dur­ing spe­cific eras, and style dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion be­tween, say, Vic­to­rian gin­ger­bread and gothic re­vival.

“All of those styles have a spe­cific lan­guage that has been recorded care­fully in these books,” Pear­son says.

Try­ing DIY

In this age of HGTV shows and YouTube tu­to­ri­als, many home­own­ers con­sider by­pass­ing a pro­fes­sional for what they think are easy cos­metic al­ter­ations. But mis­takes can cost them more than an ar­chi­tect’s fee. A com­mon ex­am­ple is when home­own­ers try restor­ing curb ap­peal with quick-and­dirty fixes, such as power-wash­ing a stain or paint­ing over an ugly house color.

Strip­ping or re­mov­ing paint is es­pe­cially an area to ex­er­cise cau­tion: Al­though in newer homes it’s safer be­cause mod­ern paints don’t con­tain harm­ful sub­stances such as lead, old paints can con­tain such sub­stances. But sim­ply ap­ply­ing a new coat shouldn’t be a prob­lem for DIY­ers.

“Cos­metic im­prove­ments that don’t af­fect any sys­tems are usu­ally safe DIY projects,” says Naomi Miroglio of San Fran­cisco-based Ar­chi­tec­tural Re­sources Group. But “if fin­ishes need to be re­moved or walls opened up, it should be left to a pro­fes­sional.”

She points to re­plac­ing faucets in bath­room sinks, typ­i­cally an easy DIY project in newer homes, as an ex­am­ple of what not to do in older homes.

“Of­ten the cutouts in the porce­lain for the faucet and knobs are at dif­fer­ent di­men­sions than cur­rent faucet as­sem­blies. One has to look for sal­vage pieces or cus­to­morder them.”

Miroglio also rec­om­mends leav­ing elec­tri­cal and plumb­ing work to the pro­fes­sion­als be­cause of the safety risks.

Adding pris­tine, new el­e­ments

Many own­ers of older homes will ei­ther re­fin­ish the orig­i­nal el­e­ments, such as the wood­work, or in­stall re­pro­duc­tions. Jux­ta­posed with the worn de­tails, how­ever, these pris­tine copies or gleam­ing fin­ishes can look out of place. Worse yet, some of the ma­te­ri­als used in dec­o­ra­tive re­pro­duc­tions lack the qual­ity and dura­bil­ity of the orig­i­nal ma­te­ri­als.

“Some con­trac­tors think it’s more trou­ble to save dec­o­ra­tive pieces than work around them,” Miroglio says. “You might have four beau­ti­ful col­umn cap­i­tals and one bad one. They’ll sug­gest re­plac­ing them all to look the same. Of­ten it’s a cheaper ma­te­rial in­side like Sty­ro­foam.”

Or, she adds, they’ll strip and re-stain the wood floors, re­sult­ing in an overly pris­tine ap­pear­ance that’s lost a lot of char­ac­ter. In­stead, she rec­om­mends re­tain­ing some of the aged look.

“It’s ar­rested de­cay: You stop it from de­cay­ing but avoid mak­ing it look brand new.”

The el­e­ments could be his­tor­i­cal fin­ishes or ob­jects that aren’t in per­fect con­di­tion, such as light fix­tures with a worn me­tal fin­ish, wood trim that shows signs of wear and crack­led paint on a ceil­ing light medal­lion.

“We’ve even seen lay­ers of peel­ing wall­pa­per and ex­posed plas­ter kept in­tact with a clear coat­ing ap­plied,” Miroglio says.

Ar­chi­tect Adam Zim­mer­man of Zim­mer­man Work­shop agrees: “Noth­ing looks worse than an­tique de­tails di­rectly ad­ja­cent to poorly done new ones that are de­lib­er­ately try­ing to match. The new will high­light how di­lap­i­dated the old re­ally looks.”

He of­fers a trick to avoid this: “Let’s say you have his­toric base­boards and you de­cide to build a new wall. We might bor­row the base­boards from rooms in other parts of the home for the wall. Or, if you have to mis­match within the same room, use sim­i­lar style and scale, and then break old from new so that they’re not in di­rect con­tact. It al­ways comes down to the de­tails.”

In­stalling vinyl win­dows

Older, un­ren­o­vated homes aren’t go­ing to win any awards for en­ergy ef­fi­ciency. So many home­own­ers tar­get those drafty wooden win­dows for re­place­ment. But ar­chi­tects cau­tion against choos­ing mod­ern vinyl op­tions.

“Even though a wood win­dow will cost a lot more than vinyl or alu­minum, the wood is worth the in­vest­ment be­cause it can sur­vive a hun­dred years,” Pear­son says. “Vinyl clad won’t last for more than 10 or 20 years, and me­tal clad is bet­ter than vinyl but in arid cli­mates.”

Look­ing at it from a preser­va­tion­ist stand­point, Miroglio ar­gues: “It’s al­ways more sus­tain­able to keep some­thing rather than re­place it. We work hard with home­own­ers to un­der­stand how you can weath­er­ize wood dou­ble-hung win­dows. Maybe they just need new putty.”

Tip­toe­ing around tech­nol­ogy

Im­ple­ment­ing mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, such as home au­to­ma­tion, is a hot topic. For­tu­nately, the na­ture of WiFi means there’s no need to re­wire the house or in­stall high-tech de­vices out in the open.

“There’s no rea­son a ther­mo­stat has to be in plain view. You could keep it in a closet and use a hid­den sen­sor that no one sees,” Pear­son says.

You can also find re­place­ments that func­tion in a mod­ern way but look old­fash­ioned.

“There’s a mar­ket for this type of prod­uct now,” says Fauzia Khanani of New York’s Stu­dio For. “Great brands are mak­ing prod­ucts with mod­ern tech­nol­ogy and a his­toric look, such as light switches.”

Shops in­clud­ing Re­ju­ve­na­tion and House of An­tique Hard­ware carry re­pro­duc­tion push-but­ton light switches with dis­creet dimmer func­tions, for in­stance.

Be­ing afraid to re­move walls

Ar­chi­tects are di­vided on the idea of open­ing up his­tor­i­cal homes. But older floor plans can clash with mod­ern-day liv­ing, and a well-ren­o­vated and ex­panded kitchen, for ex­am­ple, can in­crease the value of most prop­er­ties. And an open con­cept might serve some fam­i­lies bet­ter than a com­part­men­tal­ized lay­out. “It’s im­por­tant to work with the orig­i­nal spa­tial or­ga­ni­za­tion, but some his­toric struc­tures didn’t orig­i­nally have kitchens. They were ad­di­tions,” Miroglio says. “Such ar­eas are ripe for adapt­ing, and the kitchen as the cen­ter of a house is re­ally big.”

“It’s per­fectly ac­cept­able to knock down walls,” Pear­son says, but this also can go be­yond a kitchen space. “There is a his­tory of peo­ple al­ter­ing struc­tures, adding on wings at dif­fer­ent times. We’re just one step in a larger pic­ture. What’s im­por­tant is that the struc­ture isn’t be­ing torn down but reused.”

If you ex­pect to sell the home in the fu­ture, keep in mind that “value is di­rectly con­nected to things like square feet, kitchens, and room and bath­room count,” Zim­mer­man says.

“Re­duc­ing any of those on pa­per – like the house size or num­ber of bath­rooms – would cer­tainly work against you. These are mar­ket­ing stats prospec­tive buy­ers read be­fore even de­cid­ing to view a prop­erty.”

Khanani warns that it’s pos­si­ble to go too far in the hunt for an open con­cept. In older homes, “each room had a spe­cific func­tion and there was a tran­si­tion, whether doors or a thresh­old.” She adds, “There is some­thing about each one of those spa­ces that made it unique, so tak­ing that away takes away some­thing from the house.”

Adding square footage

Most ar­chi­tects agree that ad­di­tions, when done with care, are ac­cept­able. But not all ad­di­tions are taste­ful. Khanani points to a Vic­to­rian in New York’s Hud­son Val­ley that she re­cently ren­o­vated.

“There was an awk­ward ad­di­tion that was func­tional but looked like an ap­pendage and not part of the orig­i­nal de­sign in­tent,” de­spite it stylis­ti­cally match­ing the fin­ishes and de­tails of the rest of the house. And its place­ment at the side of the house made it vis­i­ble from the street. Khanani re­moved it en­tirely, and there un­cov­ered a beau­ti­ful bay win­dow with a win­dow seat, which she re­stored.

Then, to re­claim the square footage lost, she de­signed an ad­di­tion on the back side of the house that was about the same size as the pre­vi­ous ad­di­tion.


In a Vic­to­rian house ren­o­vated by Stu­dio For’s Fauzia Khanani in New York’s Hud­son Val­ley, a new ad­di­tion re­places the pre­vi­ous one, but at the back of the prop­erty to pre­serve the orig­i­nal de­sign.

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