“You can get a good gut feeling for the house’s condition if you start at the bottom, looking at the foundation for damage and water infiltration,” Schmaling says. “Then you move up to the wood frame, checking for mold and rodent damage. Once you’re above ground, everything is game. All four sides are load-bearing so we open it up as much as we want to.” The firm has performed these major interventions several times. Even with builder fees inflated to work around existing conditions, costs typically have been 25 percent lower on gut remodels than starting from scratch, Schmaling says. Invariably, though, there are trade-offs. On a similar project under way in Ann Arbor, Mich., the clients wanted exposed concrete floors. “We had to tell them that the existing floor framing would not support the additional weight of the concrete, and we couldn’t reframe economically with stiffer joists,” he says. “We found a beautiful white-washed oak floor that is the same ephemeral light color of concrete. You just need to find alternatives.”

Seattle architect Nils C. Finne, AIA, is working on a new 4,500-square-foot house in Boston where the rough framing bid is close to $100,000. So from a purely financial perspective, it’s smart to start with the viable parts of a house’s skeleton, if you can. With a specialty in highly crafted furniture and interiors, Finne urges remodeling clients to rein in footprint creep because there’s more freedom to invent when you’re not struggling with the budget. “We’re working on three new houses at the moment, and I’m fighting for my cabinet and tile budgets,” he says. “A lot of the renovation work is different from that point of view.”

One of the hardest jobs architects have is helping clients visualize what they’re buying. In Finne’s experience, remodeling also helps clients clear that conceptual hurdle. “I think it’s somewhat easier when you can walk through the spaces and wave your hands around,” he says. And while a renovation can be more design-intensive than new construction, the difference isn’t significant for Finne. “We go in beforehand and cut holes in the ceiling, peer up with flashlights, trying to figure out what’s going on as best we can,” he says. “It generally bears out what we think, although sometimes we have to do pretty intensive revisions.”

clean slate

Indeed, there’s a tipping point on every ambitious project. Architects are weighing the limits of what exists against what they want to achieve. And the minute they start fiddling with bits and pieces, it often makes sense to take the building down. Berkeley, Calif., designer Fu-Tung Cheng once wasted five months trying to make a sprawling, cheaply built house with complex roof lines work with the clients’ program. “After awhile you’re pushing it uphill,” he says. Cheng has learned to call a spade a spade. “I have torn down parts of houses and saved just one area that was remodeled 10 years ago, and lived to regret it. It was like a gnat you couldn’t get rid of.” Sometimes, he believes, conservation is best served by reusing the materials to build something people respect.

Other circumstances conspire against a house’s long-term survival—a deeper understanding of environmental context, for instance. Asked to add 1,000 square feet to a 2,500-square-foot house on Little Round Bay near Annapolis, Md., Dynerman dismantled it and designed a new one farther from the water’s edge, a move that helped reduce runoff into the Chesapeake Bay for decades to come. The old house also happened to be poorly planned, along the lines of, “What were they thinking?” Only the utility room had a water view, Dynerman says.

In the remodel-or-rebuild puzzle, the starting point is always the question, “Can we make this work?” Compatibility to program and context is the equation that needs to be solved. But when clients really want brand-new, Dirk Denison, FAIA, principal of Chicago-based Dirk Denison Architects, advises them to sell their perfectly nice house and buy a suitable lot or a small house with low intrinsic value. The same is true when, say, they’re hoping to save the updated kitchen in a structurally mediocre dwelling. “I suggest selling the house. Then you don’t have the inconvenience of renovating a house you’re living in, and you can recoup the cost,” he says. “That should always be on the table.”