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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.