Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
So…, It is Not a Tear-Down?
by Daniel Frisch
Posted November 29th, 2023

Once upon a time, before the great recession and well before the COVID-19 pandemic, most of our projects were in Manhattan.  Our days were spent preparing plans for apartment renovations and combinations, and for townhouses and penthouses.  Based on data compiled from completed projects, I spoke and wrote of the formulaic A, B, C’s of renovations. We developed this letter-based classification system to help set client expectations and place projects on solid footing from acquisition to completion.  ‘A’ projects were surgical interventions, perhaps a stand-alone kitchen or bath renovation, or maybe limited to painting the walls or refinishing floors.  These small projects were easily contained and executed.  ‘B’ projects were brought to us frequently by clients who proposed significant renovations yet were happy with many aspects of a property.  Invariably, these projects turned into wholesale renovations, or ‘C’ projects.  We often tell stories of clients who insisted they wanted to save and refinish the floors, even though they were asking for new central air conditioning, re-wiring the apartment, and installing a new kitchen and bathrooms, not to mention replacing the windows.  After all this work, it is usually becomes clear to the homeowner that, from an investment standpoint, it would be irresponsible not to replace the floors.  Knowing our A, B, C’s in NYC helped us properly advise buyers pre-acquisition and preserved many friendships by helping to avoid projects that were much larger in scope than initially understood.

For many years, New York City was our primary laboratory, and with decades of data at our disposal, we became quite good at predicting budgets and timelines for our projects.  Starting with the Great Recession and accelerated by the COVID-19 Pandemic we have found a majority of our new projects to have migrated out of the city; home renovations, additions, and ground-up homes.  As our focus shifted from city to country, we started to study project dynamics to see if we could find similarities to the A, B’s, and C’s of our city projects.  Several recent projects answer the question of whether to renovate or demolish and start anew, a question very much akin to those we had asked in the city.  Our first example is a summer cottage dating from the early twentieth century which had been only marginally updated through the years. At our first meeting, the client told me that she had met with a design-build competitor who works frequently in our community and who dismissively insisted that the cottage was without question a tear-down.  I knew the other designer’s work and thought the assessment to be reflexive and quite possibly self-interested, and I sold hard the idea that my firm would diligently study a renovation alternative.  And yet I was wrong.  Once the owner’s expectations and program were understood, and plans prepared, we realized that the cottage had outlived its usefulness, needed to be torn down, and now, a beautiful new home stands in its stead.

As the COVID-19 pandemic waned, we began working with a client who owned a similarly modest cottage on the opposite shore of the same lake.  They were empty-nesting weekenders who loved their cozy 1200 square foot cottage, but knew it was time to update it, and if possible, to enlarge it.  Having been referred to us by a neighbor for whom we had designed a much larger house that may well have filled the cottage’s entire site if moved a half mile down the road, our new patrons were nervous about over-enlarging. Their aspirations were modest, but the cottage would certainly benefit from being modernized and expanded a bit.  With much of the cottage residing within the rear the postage-stamp sized lot’s rear yard setback, we proposed a minimal as-of-right enlargement at the front of the house and a stand-alone screened porch to the side; and of course, a fantastic hot tub in which to soak, and from which to soak in the view.  The project was one of our smaller non-urban projects, and so we spent exponentially more time on a relative basis developing our plans and details, and then we sent it to three of our favorite contractors to bid. One declined and the other two came back with estimates well outside of the project’s budget.  While the client’s had the wherewithal to approve an increased project budget, enthusiasm waned, and the plans were set aside.

Our post-mortem debriefings with the bidders revealed that the decision to consider the project as an extensive renovation with minimal additions was effectively penny-wise and had negatively impacted the value proposition.  We had proposed excavating the home’s basement, reconfiguring the first and second floors, modifying the roof lines, re-wring, replacing the mechanical systems, and refreshing the home’s finishes and materials.  What we heard, and what we have heard many times since, is that the extensive surgery of working around an existing structure adds exponential cost when compared with straight replacement.  With the memory of the previous plans, we started over.  We premised the new approach on the demolition of the cottage and a re-siting of the home forward on the lot, where we would not be limited to the original non-conforming footprint set largely within the rear yard setback.  While the new design was only ten percent larger than that originally proposed, the new design featured more modern ceiling heights and the screen porch is now attached rather than being a glorified gazebo.  While more expensive in actual dollars, the new house will be, without question, a better value proposition than the original, and even more importantly will be a better product by any metric.

If our experience were limited to these first two examples, we could easily draw the conclusion that we had found a house renovation credo akin to our New York City A, B, & C’s.  Careful assessment at the onset of a project would result in tearing down rather than renovating.  A study of additional examples, however, muddies the waters.

A third example demonstrates a slightly modified answer to the question of whether a project is a renovation or a tear-down.  On a lake twenty miles to the south of the previous two case studies, we are working with homeowners who were reasonably happy with their lakeside weekend home, even though they had a long wish list of deferred maintenance and significant landscape work due to years of run off based erosion.  When we started the programming process with the owners, the focus was on the immediate needs, landscaping, and replacing a deck that had rotted and was in danger of collapse.  As we dug further, we learned that the grievances with the circa 2000 house were greater than first represented.  The kitchen and baths were outdated, the relationship between inside and outside was meager, and most significantly, the HVAC systems dated to a previous generation and warranted wholesale replacement. And just like a city project, the list kept going, including the want of better sound insulation throughout the house. Our assessment, as it had been with so many others, was that the home’s systems had outlived their lifespan, and the house would benefit from extensive surgery and a wholesale reimagination. That is, until we received bids for the home we designed.  It turns out we hadn’t learned as much as we thought from our New York experience, or from examples one and two.  The surgery we proposed was simply too great to be a reasonable value proposition.  So back to the CAD drawing board we went, with the premise that a near-total tear down might make sense.  Like the first example, we again started over, and proposed that the existing house be demolished; but that the existing foundation, swimming pool, and septic system remain.  During the re-design phase, we also reduced the square footage and simplified the structural interventions.  All told, the re-designed house better satisfied the homeowners’ program and simultaneously reduced construction costs by approximately twenty-five percent.  From this third example, we have learned that, perhaps, the answer to renovate or tear down is to mostly demolish an existing home, but also, to make good use out of the home’s siting and foundation.

My final and most personal example is our own house.  On December 12, 2012, (12/12/12), we closed on a fifty-six acre farm a mile from my wife’s childhood home.  The ‘farm’ was mostly a forested billy-goat hill and marshland in Kent Hollow, CT whose only structure was a nineteenth century tobacco barn with sprung boards and a leaky roof.  A small herd of Herefords slept in the dirt at the lower level of the bank barn, while holes in the floor above acted as skylights.  The heart of the property was three acres at its center with a dilapidated house and a garage on a small parcel across the road that did not convey with the farm.  We surmise the farming family who had last acquired the farm in 1917 must not have needed the farmhouse, or the previous owner wanted to remain after the sale of their lands.  The house and garage were in foreclosure and having fallen hard times.  Our bid won the foreclosure auction, and we closed on the purchase on my wife’s birthday.  When I shared with her that we had closed on such an auspicious day, she humorously quipped, “oh, you bought me a tear-down for my birthday.”  We learned a great deal about the foreclosure process, including that there were IRS liens on the property and that the IRS had a six-month right to purchase the house at our strike price if the agency wanted to try to recoup any excess equity.  Once the tolling period was over, we took stock.  Should we build across the river on the hillside, should we tear down the house – it seemed likely to collapse on its own – and rebuild a little further from the road, or just demolish the house and hold the land for future development?  With the squatters having moved on, selective demolition uncovered an original hand-hewn circa 1760 timber frame which had been hidden beneath sagging twentieth century additions.  Everything but the frame and roof sheathing complete with thousands of cut nails was removed.  The frame was shored and stabilized, and a new foundation poured beneath, and the two large brick chimneys were largely rebuilt.  We then built a new home in and around this period frame.  While a tear-down would have been both more efficient and less expensively, we would not be able to debate our neighbors about who lives in the oldest house in the Hollow. And while a new home would have been located far greater than eleven feet from the road; our new home stands as if it has always been there, as in fact, it has (since before the revolutionary war).  As both architect and homeowner, there is no greater satisfaction than preserving and living in a structure with such significant history.

After a full assessment of these four projects and many others, we have come to see the similarities and differences of our formulaic A, B, & C’s of apartment renovations and the more nuanced considerations of whether to renovate or demolish a single family home looking to its next chapter.  The variables in the country defer to a careful assessment of the historic or economic value in the structure being considered.  Taking the case studies in order, the first two homes were not worth savings and more significantly, each stood in the way of accomplishing the homeowner’s economic and programmatic goals.  The third example was similar, except their foundation and site improvements represented retained value, delivering logistic, environmental, and economic benefits to the homeowners.  In the last, our saving of an original frame on an original site seemed modest at first but only grew in significance.

Collectively, our studies, practice, and teachings lead me to believe that if something is worth preserving you fight to do so regardless of the economic consequences or inconvenience.  While we often validate the need for wholesale replacement of structures that are too difficult to save, we are proud of trying everything before we call in the wrecking crew.