Robert Swatt, FAIA, agrees. His firm, Swatt | Miers Architects in Emeryville, Calif., transformed a tired 1970s house in San Francisco’s South Bay area while reusing the foundation and two-thirds of the framing, including the pitched roofs. While out-of-character for the modernist firm, the angled roofs worked well for the new solar panels, he says, and the combination of pitched and flat roofs added up to something fresh. “By putting our own architectural language with an older language, we created something we never would have come up with had we started from scratch. It was a happy surprise,” Swatt says. “It cost a lot of money, but for the owner it was an ethical issue, not a cost issue.”
Other clients cling to shreds of familiarity, making the decision easy. One couple Jameson worked with spent $1.5 million reworking the awkward interior of a developer McMansion. Although they could have built a one-of-a-kind home for the same cost, the owners were attached to the place they’d inhabited for 20-some years. “All of a sudden the soul of the house would have been different,” Jameson says. “Some houses fight like crazy the idea of being renovated; others are very welcoming to it. Houses have their own voices.”
Boston architect Jeremiah Eck, FAIA, has similar feelings in regard to houses. “There’s a kind of spirituality to a house that remains if you save it,” he says. “On occasion, we’ve done heart surgery on houses. I think when you’re done it feels better, like you’ve respected the historic nature of the place.”
Beyond that sixth sense, the world is looking at value in a new way, Eck says. People are focusing harder on what they have. And if money was the driving force in the old economy, it’s also the driving force in the new one. “In the old days there was more leeway about how you approach this,” says Eck, founding principal of Eck | MacNeely Architects. “You can’t get away with it anymore; clients are laser-focused on this stuff.”
But, in his view, a house has to be worth saving. That means stoutly built, and with good siting, massing, proportion, and detailing. Nineteenth- and early 20th-century houses often fulfill those requirements, Eck notes, but all bets are off on more recent structures. “In about 20 years we’ll have a huge stock of houses that will require forensic architecture” when it’s time to remodel. “We’ll be fixing things rather than starting with a unique slate.”
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Austin, Texas, already faces this dilemma. It’s a city that never attracted much money, and even architecture with provenance tends to be thinly built. David Webber, AIA, principal of Austin-based Webber + Studio Architects, found himself fighting on the wrong side of the issue a few years ago when a bungalow he was trying to save from demolition turned out to have single-walled construction. “There were no studs, so if you removed the wood siding the house would fall down,” Webber says. The owners subsequently tore down the house, and a local architect designed a new one on the lot. “The house that replaced it will have more historic value in the long run,” he says.
In a complicated endeavor, every now and then a clean solution presents itself. When Webber designed a large addition to a house a few years ago, the contractor counseled that it would be cheaper to tear down and rebuild. Webber disagreed. The issue was neatly resolved, however, when the house was sold and moved off the lot, clearing the way to build his design as a new house. The clients were thrilled to avoid dealing with the problems of adding to an old house, Webber says, or the guilt of throwing it away.
That house did end up costing more to build new than to enlarge. Contractors often aren’t studying the details early enough in the process to give clients accurate information, according to Webber, and they’re focused on the easiest way to get the job done. “With the foundation of an average house costing around $40,000 and the framing $60,000, it’s rare that it makes sense to start over completely,” he says. “Even if the construction is poor, you can use the foundation.”
Milwaukee-based Johnsen Schmaling Architects saved roughly 25 percent of construction costs by taking that approach to a 1970s bilevel tract house a few years ago. The owners didn’t need more space, just more light, storage, and outdoor connections. Principals Sebastian Schmaling, AIA, and Brian Johnsen, AIA, uncluttered the floor plan, added window walls, inserted two cantilevered storage volumes, and popped up the roof with a dramatic clerestory, all while using its boxy footprint, plumbing core, and main perimeter walls.