Stop Wrecking Old Homes


My New Plan

I have never been great at relaxing. I am told it is a thing people do instead of working, but typically I find the whole concept stressful. About a day and a half into my little 'staycation' I decided to do a little work of my own, I guess that is the reason to love what you do, or it could be in part because I am tormented by a world that keeps messing things up. I love the cottage I rent right now, but I know one day soon somebody will come along and wreck it.

A new owner will probably be charmed by it in the beginning, or more cynically they will like it because it sits on a great piece of land just across the street from the coveted and private Lake O. Even if the buyers are initially charmed by the place, they will eventually decide it is not conducive to life today (which always strikes me as truly amazing, when you consider that all these little old houses were designed to house much larger families than we tend to have now) and want to add on. Inevitably, the sweetness of the place will be lost as they either add an extra story that considers the house's scale not at all, or they add some whole new wing that causes the interior floor plan to become painfully disorienting. Every evening, as I make my way home and take stock of all the adjacent houses that have suffered one of these two fates, I day dream about how I would add space to my place, if I owned it. Perhaps I'll show my plans to my landlord someday, and he'll make a killing when he enacts them and sells, having preserved character and provided all the modern amenities at once. More likely, I'll keep the plans to myself, and keep sketching them out over and over again, as a cathartic release of the trauma caused by one more great old house affronted.

If the place were mine, and I needed more space I wouldn't even think of adding another story—at least not one above the existing one. I'd burrow my new wing into the brow of earth the house is perched on. It would be symmetrical with the gable already projecting from one end of the house, except that it would be at an acute angle with the existing body, to fit onto the irregularly shaped lot. My primary concern would be improving the way you enter the house. When people add on, they hardly ever consider that the size of the individual rooms of a house should be related to its overall size. It's very normal, even elegant, for a little 1,200 sq foot bungalow to have a tiny entry vestibule, but a 3,000 sq foot house merits something more than a square box. One of the problems specific to the northwest is that a lot of old house are one or more stories above the road and can only be reached by winding stone stairways. These entice the romantics, but even they begin to tire of them after the tenth time they haul groceries and a baby stroller and a piece of luggage up to their front door as if they were a porter leading an expedition up the side of Mt. Kilimanjaro. So the reasons my new wing would be burrowed into the earth are 1) I could preserve the existing height of the house, thereby preserving an important element of its character and my relationship with my neighbors; 2) I could bring its entrance hall to the street elevation , providing room for a more gradual interior ascent; 3) I could have room within the new footprint for a a very elegant, ample entry with a designated closet and half bath, neither type of room being of the sort that require being flood with natural light.

The best parts of this burrowing plan, outside the great entry are 1) I could seal off the stairs running up to the front porch from the street and turn that into a very long veranda for more varied types of entertaining (it's always a little strange to hang out right at your front door) and 2) Without altering any of the exiting floor plan, I could add a master suite on the main level of the house, that could be connected to both the new veranda and a private section of the back yard. In all, I'd have added about 1,000 square feet comprised of two walk in closets, an entry vestibule, a formal stair hall, a large, airy bedroom and one-and-a-half baths. It's a simple, sale-able plan that keeps my little cottage from being bulldozed to make way for or buried within some cheesy McMansion.

Architects deserve most of the bad names they are given. We are an overly sentimental, pedantic bunch. Like all decent architects I care about the way things are done. However, I like to think of myself as not being stuck. Visually speaking I am drawn to the classics, so many think I am the most stuck. What those people don't understand is that it isn't all the little details that I care so much about. Yes, I do love them, but in truth it is the overall story that classical architects were able to tell through their studied approach. (Even early modernists achieved this.) They knew their history. They understood proportion and purpose. Things they did made sense as a cohesive whole. Architects don't get that today, which is why I just can't trust them with my little house. Good thing I am headed out of town soon before I accidentally buy my place and do the renovations myself.