Drawing Conclusions

In the simplest possible terms, the best remodeling results from a carefully calculated mix of good old work and appropriate new work.

By Bob Vila | Updated Nov 5, 2013 8:20 PM

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Home Renovation

Photo: sfgate.com

If you’re following the logic of this book, the time is approaching for the design work to begin. My hope is that by this point in the process you feel as if you know your house pretty well. You’ve identified historic elements, structural liabilities, and have a feel for the house’s character and vintage. Presumably you also have a grow­ing list of needs and desires you want fulfilled in the remodeling you’re contemplat­ing (though we’ll explore that list in the next chapter in more detail).

You may also have begun to hear, to your surprise, a previously unrecognized sound, a chorus of sorts that, as in the plays of ancient Greece, can help guide and inform the action in your own little drama. From time to time, as you think about changing your home, these voices sing in harmony about your obligation to the past. They may remind you that this house was there before you arrived and probably will survive you and generations of others after you. Do the right thing is one refrain you may hear. Even if you’re not hearing the voices (yet), there are other instructions that other remodelers before you have heard and disregarded at their peril.

Develop your plans on the basis of a thorough under­standing. Conduct your physical investigation and recognize the style of your house. Try to see your home in context, identifying both its location in time and where it fits in the development of your neighborhood and town. Lear about other, similar houses from local historical societies, museums, or reference works from your book­store or library.

You’ve heard the advice before, you’ll hear it again. But do listen to it: Save quality workmanship. Most old plaster, hardware, doors, windows, floors, and many other elements are probably worth keeping. Even if you think some­thing is hopeless, get a second opinion. Countless remarkable resurrections have been accomplished, often at a cost less than that of reproducing or even simply replacing the original.

If the first contractor you contact has an attitude about saving the old (Geez, that’d be a lot of trouble), maybe you’re talking to the wrong person. One caveat, though: Something that is old isn’t by definition better. Bad craftsman­ship, even if it’s old is, well, just bad craftsmanship. Good work in poor condition is probably worth conserving; shoddy work isn’t worth much, whatever its vintage.

Old isn’t always better. But when you are stuck, look behind you: The ghost of the builder is there to help. One way to consult the departed builder/designer is to consider what were his or her original intentions. Your close examination of the house will have given you some understanding for how the place was originally used, its degree of finish, its patterns, symmetry, detailing, and so on. Refer to that knowledge in making remodeling decisions.

Even if so many changes have been made over the years that knowing what the designers or builders had in mind is difficult, it’s often possible to identify what they didn’t intend. A good example of this is interior brickwork. In apartment build­ings, brick was commonly used to construct the party walls that divide one building from another and then was covered with plaster.

In the same way, chimney stacks are traditionally of brick that, except for the vicinity of the firebox and mantel, was camouflaged with layers of plaster. Yet in recent years, many walls and chimney breasts have had their plaster coverings removed and the brick and mortar left exposed. The builders almost certainly would be embarrassed to have their masonry work revealed for all to see: their intention was for the regularity of the plaster to obscure the rough masonry. But in an historical irony, we have come to value the signs of the handmade, even when it’s poor workmanship. Think about the original context before making such changes.

Don’t try to make a house something it never was. Don’t try to make the Victorian look Colonial. Don’t try to make solid middle-class housing into a man­sion fit for a robber baron. Recognize what you have, respect it, and work with it.

A challenge to any remodeler is the mixture of times that are (or will be) evident in the remodeled house. If you are restoring a period house to its orig­inal appearance, the challenge is to do it with absolute fidelity. But most of us, how­ever, want to make our houses suit our needs.

Changes made over time add a fourth dimension: there is no one date and, in fact, there could be several dates of significance. Among preservationists there is a consensus that later changes can have equal validity to original construction. Good workmanship may have been followed by better workmanship. We’ve already dis­cussed saving good old work, but don’t let any one era dictate all your decisions. Modern conveniences are essential to most people. Even if you’re remodeling a house that is only a few decades old, the technology has changed and you will prob­ably be updating kitchen appliances and adding bathrooms. Perhaps you’ll be mod­ifying heating and cooling systems. Respect the evolution of your home as you go about changing it. Consider all the earlier changes as equal until proven otherwise; then decide what works for you and what doesn’t.

At this stage, you should also be developing some kind of informal formula that you can use to help you make decisions about your renovation. We’re not talking about an unbreakable law of nature that dictates, “Yes, you can do that,” or, “No sir, no way.” It’s subtler than that. There are variables to be factored in, per­sonal and architectural and economic considerations.

In the simplest possible terms, the best remodeling results from a carefully calculated mix of good old work and appropriate new work. On the face of it, the for­mula is just simple arithmetic. But there’s an overlay, too.

I don’t believe every homeowner needs to be slavishly consistent to the orig­inal configuration and detailing of the house. I don’t take a purist’s approach. How­ever, the straightest road to a bad remodeling job is to pay no attention at all to what you’re starting with.