When it comes to restoration of old houses, one can find everything from the ridiculous to the sublime. My personal feeling is that restoration doesn’t have to be historically accurate down to the last detail, but it does need to be respectful of and integrate well with the general style of the house. Far better to save a still-solid structure with a rich story to tell, than to have it decline due to the cost of meticulous restoration, or functional incompatibility with modern living. “Modernization” that is inconsistent with the style and era of the house however, detracts from the overall harmony of the home, reducing its overall appeal and potentially reducing market value. There is a balance to be struck.
Restoration for modern living:
A perfect example of where modernization often fails is in the use of stock kitchen cabinets in a period kitchen. Most of today’s off-the shelf cabinets are designed for rooms with eight foot ceilings, but many older houses have ceilings much higher than this; 10 to 12 foot ceilings are not unusual. This is part of the charm of an older house, and usually also part of a system designed for strategic airflow in hot weather. Certainly, one could see the advantage of high ceilings in a kitchen then, where the heat generated can rise well above the occupied space.
If you study pictures of old houses you will see that, commonly, the builders took full advantage of the available height. The result is a graceful and functional extent of cabinets ending near the ceiling and crowned with decorative molding of some sort.
Replacing these old beauties with the modern version of kitchen wall cabinet results in an awkward empty space between the cabinets and ceiling – a clear mismatch between the design of the room and the new appointments – as well as a loss of available storage. It almost never works well visually. And, while old cabinets can present their challenges – with sticky drawers and sagging doors – with a bit of patient reworking the end result is something far more beautiful and enduring than anything you can buy today.
I once bought old cabinets someone had torn out during a remodel to put into a new house we were building. Refinished, they were lovely, and gave instant character to the room they were in. They were also cheap. Dirt cheap. My siren song.
If you can’t afford custom cabinets, and they are admittedly a big bite, there are alternatives to producing cabinets with the right height and proportions that lie somewhere between “off the shelf” and fully custom. Stacking stock cabinets to get the desired height, and then fitting with a single unifying door over the front and adding crown molding at the top, is one option. One can have cabinet doors fabricated fairly reasonably – especially if you’re willing to go with paint grade woods – and they can make all the difference in the final outcome.
In any case, kitchen cabinetry is one place where cheaper is likely to cost far more in terms of lost aesthetics than it will save. Just a little more thought and a little more effort, can reap rewards far in excess of the additional investment.
Another don’t is alteration of the footprint or roof line in a manner that disrupts the overall proportions of the house.
We all have a general idea of what we want to achieve functionally with an addition or interior renovation; a good architect can bring those aspirations to life and integrate them in a successful manner. You should budget for this. There are far too many “do it yourself” additions out there that never should have happened. And it shows.
For example, the roof pitch of a modern ranch home is typically fairly shallow – perhaps 5 on 12 – whereas the roof pitch of an old Victorian is much steeper. Stabbing on an addition with a markedly different roof pitch will create an instant eyesore, and not just from the viewpoint of the historical purist. Anyone can see that the house has been spoiled by an addition that isn’t compatible in proportions and finish.
The same is true of window replacements. How often have you seen graceful old, double-hung windows – again often part of the airflow management system original to the house – ripped out and replaced with horizontal aluminum sliders? Usually with some ugly, mismatched siding scabbed in to fill the space below the new, shorter, windows.
You may gain energy efficiency, yes, but you lose EVERYTHING else. There are better ways to deal with those issues. Really, if you aren’t willing to work within the constraints presented by an old house, then why buy an old house to begin with? You have to love it for what it is. And then make it the best version of itself.
Mind you, I’m all for mastering those aspects of construction and refinishing you feel capable of tackling. For some, doing it yourself is an integral part of the journey. But, if you aren’t an architect or an experienced designer, the chances that you can develop a design that will be really successful are pretty marginal. And even if you can, an architect can do it better.
Consider also how much you really know about structure. There is far more to designing an addition than sketching out what you want your room to look like. Tying an addition in to the original building requires consideration of not only the overall design but also load bearing structural elements and other factors. This is the last place you want to get in over your depth.
Don’t be that guy…
A few years ago, contractors were renovating an old building in Vicksburg, MS and cut into some floor joists, perhaps intending to open up the interior space – we don’t know. However, this created a serious instability in the structure. Apparently, things were fine for a few hours, but then the building began to evidence signs of distress. Shortly thereafter, the building collapsed entirely, taking part of the wall of the adjoining building down with it.
Fortunately, nobody died, which seems quite miraculous when you look at photos of the site. Apparently, they had just enough forewarning to get out in time.
From the second picture you can see how the joists were seated in the brick wall; they were designed to fail in a way that would not exert pressure against the outer walls. Perhaps the end result would have been even worse than it was if not for that small detail. The point is, every structural detail deserves informed consideration. This is why you need to engage a professional, before you start altering structural elements. (And I think it’s fair to note that a contractor’s license may not be sufficient evidence of expertise. It’s critical to get the right professional, and to do your research on any contractors to whom you entrust the safety of your structure, and that of your family.)
Clearly you can’t just go around cutting into things willy-nilly. Unless you’re either very, very lucky, or have very, very good insurance. Preferably both.
In any case, you don’t want to be that guy. Particularly not with your own house. Picture that conversation with your spouse. “Honey, about the living room? I’ve been thinking we might have a patio there instead….”
At least consult with an architect and get a quote. They may also save you money on the construction itself that will offset their consulting fees. You don’t know if you don’t ask. Money well spent generally.
If you’d like to read more on the building collapse, there is an interesting discussion at worldofdecay.blogspot.com.
Restoration pictures obtained from worldofdecay.blogspot.com.