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Cover story: Changing without losing what makes older homes unique
Architects, interior designers and builders find inspiration in some unusual ways.
When Chris deGarmo, owner of Contemporary Structures in the District, and his wife purchased their home in the Burleith neighborhood just north of Georgetown in Northwest Washington, they knew they wanted to renovate the traditional residence with some contemporary flair. Mr. deGarmo’s inspiration arrived when he watched his wife open her jewelry box, a stack of four linked boxes that pivot to access each section. The back of their former home at 3712 R St. NW, now resembles those boxes.
“I’m a general contractor and work on a lot of cookie-cutter homes,” Mr. deGarmo said. “The idea for that three-story addition of boxes was actually in my head before we found the house on R Street because I knew I wanted to create something different.”
One of the challenges of remodeling an older home is to blend the older elements with new ones.
“Staying true to the architectural integrity of a traditional home is paramount during the process,” said Lori Graham, principal of Lori Graham Design in the District. “This can be accomplished in many ways, including by incorporating window and baseboard trim that reflect the home’s original style, utilizing existing design and structural elements in new ways, and adding contemporary finishes such as custom built-ins, lighting and colors that blend the two styles together.”
Ms. Graham suggested that homeowners can enhance a renovation by mixing mid-century furnishings and beloved art and heirlooms with modern elements.
Martin Ditto, president of Ditto Residential in the District, said, “The first step is to decide how much to keep of a traditional home. We typically renovate a home and then sell it, so we’re our own customer at first. Typically we try to keep as much as we can of things like moldings.”
Mr. Ditto said the simplest way to make the most difference to buyers is to open up the floor plan and to reposition or relocate the uses for different rooms, such as moving the kitchen from the front to the back of a house.
“We try to keep the character of a home, particularly if it’s in a historic district, but we want to add modern things like a walk-in pantry or a half-bath on the first floor,” Mr. Ditto said. “Adding a second story or a third story to a home, particularly if it isn’t visible from the front, often works well even if it’s not congruent with the original design.”
In a traditional home with closed-off rooms, a first step might be to open spaces by taking down walls and reconfiguring how the rooms connect to one another and to the outside, Ms. Graham suggested.
“This usually starts at the front door, changing the flow of the home as soon as you walk inside” she said. “Challenges include structural changes that might require reinforcing load-bearing walls, rerouting electrical and plumbing elements, and raising ceiling heights”
Ms. Graham said expanding living space on the lower level or the attic level can work well with a traditional home that has plenty of character and charm but lacks the space on the main two floors.
Mr. deGarmo’s first renovation on his R Street home was to open up the attic and install six skylights on the roof.
“We opened up the entire center of the home so it has 21/2 floors of vaulted ceiling,” Mr. deGarmo said. “Later we built a three-story addition plus a walk-out basement and created a backyard with bamboo for privacy. The third floor master suite has a rooftop deck. The home now has five bedrooms, five full baths, a half bath and about 3,500 square feet.”
Mr. deGarmo’s former home now has two outdoor spaces, plenty of light and open rooms that allow the current owners and their guests to enjoy informal gatherings in the kitchen and family room.
“The main components of any remodel, including from traditional to contemporary, involve creating functional, practical and beautiful spaces that work with how the homeowners/family live,” Ms. Graham said. “Among traditional to contemporary features I’ve added are opening rooms to one another and the outdoors; reconfiguring the flow from the front to the back door; expanding the kitchen so that it’s open to a family gathering room and includes a working island or two; updating and if possible expanding bathrooms to include dressing areas; creating more storage space with custom built-ins; concealing electronics such as televisions; and adding computer stations and/or mudrooms on the main floor.”
Lighting issues are often a problem in an older home. Ms. Graham suggested opening rooms to one another, updating windows and doors, and adding overhead and wall fixtures.
“If you don’t have a skylight in every room on the upper level, you’re missing out on lots of light,” Mr. Ditto said. “You can use tube skylights that are less expensive and less invasive than larger skylights. I like to create light wells throughout a home by introducing as much natural light as possible from an upper-level skylight. You can also add natural light with a big picture window or sliding glass doors on the back of the house without compromising the architecture of the front of the house.”
Mr. Ditto said homeowners need to determine whether they want to update all the electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems in their home while keeping the floor plan the same or to relocate the walls and flooring.
“The price per square foot for fixing the electrical systems is about $50, but when you start moving walls, it jumps to about $70 per square foot,” he said. “It’s possible to add contemporary finishes and cleaner lines by removing ornate things or using paint to set off the crown moldings in a different way without having to entirely gut a property.”
Any renovation, particularly with an older home, can result in a few surprises that can add to the cost of a project or require a change of plans.
“When you are blending an old house with new style, you have to problem-solve throughout the entire process,” Mr. deGarmo said. “We had to be constantly creative. It works sometimes to take the old elements and put a new twist on them. For instance, when a huge chunk of plaster came off one wall during the demolition of the center of the house, we decided to take all of it off to expose this brick that wasn’t meant to be exposed.”
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