When Alan Dynerman’s clients outgrew their small 1890s Virginia farmhouse, he urged them to tear it down and build something new. They resisted, so he followed their wishes, adding living space almost double the size of the house and remodeling the old part. It wasn’t until the project was finished that the owners told him they regretted not taking his advice. “The wife wanted something old and rustic—that was her romance,” says Dynerman, FAIA, principal of Dynerman Architects in Washington, D.C. “But what they were saving had no merit; it was just old. The new part we did was more rustic, simple, and elegant than the old thing.”

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    Credit: Mark McGinnis/Munro Campagna

Whether to raze or remodel is a question architects routinely address. They’re weighing several pressures: money, time, resource efficiency. But clients often need more clarity these days, since that decision bumps up against increased environmental consciousness and financial caution. Psychology is a factor at play, too. Clients may idealize a home’s historic value, or resist tearing down a place filled with memories or where they’ve invested a chunk of money. Others want the slate wiped clean. They’re determined, at all cost, to have a house designed from scratch.

From an architect’s perspective, a tabula rasa has huge appeal: The only conceptual dialogue you’re having is with yourself. Remodeling is a far messier choice. No one knows for certain what lurks behind the walls until the demolition crew arrives. It also forces other difficult decisions, such as where to draw the line between old and new. You don’t want to leave something clients will regret. On the other hand, remodeling preserves some of a building’s embodied energy. It is more disciplined and nuanced, and it sets up a conversation across time. You’re digging into a past mindset and trying on new ideas, forms, and materials.

happy hybrids

Most architects enjoy grappling with a range of challenges, and they take the question seriously. “I take a lot of pride in the fact that our houses look brand new, but are not,” says David Jameson, FAIA, Alexandria, Va., who designs modernist homes on the bones of the Washington, D.C.–area’s aging housing stock. “Our inclination is not necessarily to show up and take the house out.” Practically speaking, he notes, it’s hard to scrape off a house on an urban lot. And while a gut remodel may not end up being less costly than ground-up construction, it might let you build something that zoning would not allow new.

It’s often speedier, too. “The first guy on the job is not the excavator, it’s the framer,” Jameson says. “Many framing guys do the selective demo work these days, because they have to tie the new part back into the old. It’s not the bull-in-a-china-shop mentality anymore.”

Artistically, a hybrid approach can result in an interesting “situational aesthetic,” Jameson says. When the existing footprint and the new program mesh, he relishes the opportunity to reinvent what’s there. An example is his award-winning Black White residence, originally a rambler with a hodgepodge of additions. He left the entire footprint intact, spent $15,000 to increase the load-bearing capacity, and added a second floor half the size of the first. “It allowed us to juxtapose a white stucco plinth with a glass volume and apertures of light that erupt out of it,” Jameson says, “and it created nice interstitial spaces. Reusing what’s there allows you to contemplate the house in a less efficient but more unique way.”