In the film "Prizzi's Honor," Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner played hitmen (or hitpeople, to be politically correct) assigned, in parlance, to rub each other out. When Nicholson fell in love with his nemesis, he had a rather pivotal conversation with himself, ruminating, "Do I ice her; do I marry her? Do I ice her; do I marry her?"
When the time comes to decide whether to raze or preserve a cherished property, there are factors, like those in Nicholson's dilemma, that run the gamut from practical to emotional - and everything in between.
According to Amy Gardner of Bethesda, Maryland's Gardner Mohr Architects LLC, we live in different houses now. “People are living in housing stock which, whether from the turn-of-the-(last) century, pre-war, post war, 1950s or ‘60s – anything up to the ‘80s, doesn’t fit their lifestyles.” What’s more, they are “energy hogs,” Gardner observed, noting increasingly clients are approaching the firm with critical questions about saving or demolishing outmoded family homes.
Lowering the Boom
In the so-called boom years, Gardner recalled, about a 15-year period from the early 1990s into the first part of this decade, it was very common to see an older home in the greater D.C. metropolitan area destroyed, often by a builder to start a custom home on the order of 5,000-7,000 s.f., depending on site and zoning. Today, Gardner said, and even with problematical older homes, “We have a lot of clients come to us and say, ‘I love my neighborhood, the schools; I really don’t want to move. We’ve been looking at houses to buy and we’re not finding any place that’s better than what we have, and want to look at options to renovate and meet our family’s needs.’”
Aside from aesthetics which may involve poor configuration of space, and citing issues that may include antiquated mechanical systems, rotted siding, inadequate wiring (more common in turn-of-the-century homes), poor insulation, deteriorating roofs, movement around window openings, inferior HVAC systems and/or any combination of the aforementioned elements, which is often the case, Gardner said the decision to renovate vs. tear down and start over on the same lot is often painstaking – and highly expensive. “We can be talking hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she affirmed, maybe even something close to the cost of purchasing a new home. But, there are also different levels of renovation.
“Homeowners generally have to think about their long term goals when doing a thoroughgoing renovation,” Gardner explained, with “thoroughgoing” meaning the existing fabric of the house is maintained. “The money in – where the homeowner may not be able to get that money back out for quite some time, like if they were to turn around and want to sell that house – those values plus the renovation values are high enough that they really wouldn’t be able to sell right away.”
Gardner also indicated that in the firm’s purview, and considering sustainability factors which are naturally key in building issues today, “the most efficient use of materials are the ones you don’t throw out.” To that end, the architect believes in identifying the characteristics, qualities and strengths of the structure’s existing elements, keeping them and building on them to create something more attuned to contemporary sensibilities.
What’s Old Can Be New Again
Conceding that sometimes, especially at the outset of a project, the decision to save a house is something she considers an act of faith, Gardner, who is also a faculty member at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, explained that preserving can have different facets. “Preserving can mean anything from saving the foundations of the foundation wall and building from there, or all the way to preserving a house largely intact and doing a kind of interior renovation, to preserving the house intact and doing a complete gut of it with an addition, along with providing all new building systems and finishes,” she said. In the last iteration, you essentially get a whole new house without having completely torn down the one that was there.
Noting that the firm starts every project in this vein with an energy audit in order to understand the performance of the house and its systems, Gardner said at times she and her partner utilize the services of a structural engineer as well. The structure itself, a barometer of other failures (a cracking foundation wall could indicate possible water infiltration), is a good prognosticator of time and cost. That said, and even with the proverbial roof falling in, mitigating circumstances such as one that arose with a Gardner Mohr client a few years back involved a 1920s era bungalow, about which Gardner said “a sanity check would have indicated the house be torn down.” The foundation, however, was discovered to be comprised of 20-inch thick granite walls, and demolition alone would have been exceedingly difficult. “That was the tipping point for the decision-making process about preserving that house,” Gardner affirmed.
Also identifying current lot and zoning issues as major factors in the decision to retain and renovate, Gardner said because zoning laws are not static, on occasion people tear down and try to fill out the zoning envelope by building something as large as they can, which makes for an odd and cumbersome proportion between the house and the site. In the example of a current client in Bethesda undergoing renovation of a mid-century home they’d considered razing, Gardner said because of zoning, if they tore down the home, they could not rebuild with the same north/south orientation that has served the homeowners well. “While that may not sound like a big deal,” she explained, “right now it’s ideal for passive energy strategies, and they would lose that advantage.”
The Greening of the Girders
If one does decide to let go of a house and desires to do so within sustainable parameters, deconstruction is a green-friendly alternative to demolition, where depending on the deconstruction category, reusable and code-abiding materials from the building such as flooring, lighting fixtures, paneling, plumbing, bricks and lumber are stripped and can be donated to charity, precipitating a tax write-off.
“We believe in saving what we can save,” Gardner said about renovating vs. razing. “We believe in the fabric of the neighborhood and trying to preserve that, and, overall, I think there’s a kind of cultural value in trying to preserve these places.”
Photography by Celia Pearson