Old House Additions aka Builders Aren't Architects!

Alien ships have landed. At least it appears that way when you look at some of the additions on millions of old and historic homes across America. Plopped onto our homesteads are some of the most curious and seemingly disconnected structures imaginable. Homeowners, builders, not-for-profits and yes, architects are responsible for these extraterrestrial designs. The good news, many additions are done well with careful consideration of the homes original architecture. The best examples pick up massing and detailing from the main house and are placed in a sensitive and pleasing way.

The big debate between design professionals is whether an addition should look like it's always been there. According to South Bend, Indiana architect, John Mellor, "When designing an addition for an older house with character, you don't want it to overwhelm the original structure. The size of the addition should have proportions, materials and detailing that mimic the character defining features of the house." Mellor, like many preservation minded architects, works closely with homeowners to come up with designs that have context but don't create a sense that the addition is original to the house. To put it less delicately, they're not creating a lie.

On the other side of the debate there are many architects, contractors homeowners and even historic preservation commissions that don't agree with this concept. They believe additions should look original. I don't agree and neither does the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. A ten step preservation guideline that has been around for nearly 40 year is the Secretary of the Interiors Standards for Rehabilitation. While not the bible of preservation it has been a faithful guide for preservation design professionals and the preservation trades. Number nine and ten of the Standards address the issue at hand.

9. New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall not destroy historic materials that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment.

10. New additions and adjacent or related new construction shall be undertaken in such a manner that if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.

The most common mistake is enclosing an open porch. This is usually done to add living space within the existing structure. The problem with this approach is that open porches were never intended to be part of the interior living space. The foundations are generally piers instead of continuous foundations and the approach drastically alters the look, texture and footprint of the house. Doing this also contributed to the demise of many central city historic neighborhoods. When people sat on their open porches they saw what was going on around them. Hiding behind walls or on backyard patios made it less likely folks saw the negative things changing their neighborhood.

Sadly, builders design the majority of additions and new houses. While I'm sure a few of them  are actually are good designers, most are not. Hiring an architect to design a new space may cost anywhere from 7 to 15% of the project cost, but it's worth every penny. Many homeowners complain that if they pay an architect, they'll get less square footage. Mellor puts it like this, "Quality not quantity of space is the key. Today the cost per square foot to build an addition is rising which makes it all the more important to plan space around the homeowners needs. Design challenges are what architects are trained to solve." A good preservation architect will create a design with more usable and efficient space for about the same price as a builder designed addition with lots of wasted square footage.

Architects have to take the lion's share of blame for rarely being involved in residential design. The lure of large commercial and institutional projects as well as the architecture community's lack of marketing their valuable services to homeowners has essentially taken the architect out of house design. This has created an environment where it seems the most redeeming architectural feature of new homes and additions are lots of square footage, vaulted ceilings, three car garages and beige vinyl siding. The alien mother ship has landed.

Reviving the original

An interesting and helpful blog post. I'm delighted to report that one of our neighbors recently de-enclosed the front porch of their craftsman bungalow, with wonderful results. Apparently the addition--probably from the 1960s or '70s--was undertaken in keeping with #10 of the Standards above. 

Most architects have NO training in traditional architecture!

Since at least the 60s, few architecture schools in North America have provided ANY training in traditional architecture.  As a result, very few architects understand the language of traditional architecture or know how to work with an old home.  If you are looking for help adding onto an old house, your only choice is to check out the portfolios of various architects, building designers, and remodeling contractors and search for someone who knows what (s)he is doing.

Previous owners aren't architects either

Our 1919 bungalow* has two additions, one to enclose/extend the back porch and one on the side (from where the dining-room window used to be, to the back of the house) to provide an interior stairwell to the basement.

They're both fairly old (the stairwell addition has the same faux-rock block foundation as the house, while the back is new enough to have flat cinderblock, but still old enough to have proper 3" cedar siding). I'm told by longtime neighbors that both were largely owner-built.

Fortunately, they're both pretty straightforward, other than the roof on the side addition is tucked up a bit strangely under the side gable of the main roof in back. But our low-end working-man's bungalow is far from being a museum, so it mostly just adds to the character. Because frankly, if our house hasn't already been butchered a bit, we'd be too intimidated to do any amateur restoration.

(* The one I and my husband talked about in the Wichita painting seminar: little Craftsman, currently vinyl-wrapped.)

garage alien


I could not agree with you more. I have a great example of the alien. We live in a 1920's bungalow neighborhood. A neighbor decided to build a new detached garage, instead of looking around the neighborhood at examples of detached garages, they build a suburban garage with one of those huge single  doors. The most ironic thing is that the new garage is seperated from the adjacent house with a small hedge row and the garage facade is bigger than the adjacent homes front facade.