Bridgette Meinhold

BOOK REVIEW: Restoring a House in the City

by , 10/04/11

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It was a great pleasure to step away from the computer and check out a fabulously beautiful book sent to us by Artisan publishers on the eco-friendly practice of restoring townhomes, brownstones and row houses. Written by Ingrid Abramovitch, Restoring a House in the City is a wonderful resource on the process of restoration and is full of stunning photography of gorgeous homes around the country. Renovations are near and dear to our hearts at Inhabitat and it was even more enlightening to learn how these older homes are naturally eco-friendly. We had a chance to ask Ingrid some more questions and ask for tips on how to eco-renovate an older home – read on for our interview!

Using her experiences from restoring her own townhome in Carrol Gardens, Brooklyn, Ingrid offers up an overview of various types of architecture, facades and interior finishings – and how to go about restoring and renovating them. Her examples including historic renovations that restore the original look and feel of the home all the way to completely modern upgrades.

Q: We’re huge fans of renovations and restoration here at Inhabitat because it avoids building brand new buildings. Besides the act of restoring, what else did you find while researching for your book that was eco-friendly about these older homes?

A: The more I learned about these antique town houses in my book, the more I realized that this was the original green architecture. When these homes were built, resources like firewood or coal to heat your house, or gas to light it were luxuries. The architecture of older homes was designed to be as efficient as possible, from the window shutters that keep rooms cool in summer to the shared walls between row houses that retain warmth in winter. Plus they take up a modest footprint and are located close to public transportation so you are not car-dependent.

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Q: All of the older homes you profile were handcrafted and generally have a lot more character and warmth than most newer construction. Do you think handcrafted quality has become too expensive for the average homeowner? How can you get that same feeling without spending an arm and a leg?

A: I do think the craftsmanship of older houses, along with the materials used to build them, gives them a kind of soul that you just don’t get in new construction. Remember that houses built a century or more ago were often constructed of wood from America’s first forests. You would need a huge budget to buy wood of that quality today. So first of all, I would encourage old-house owners to salvage as much as they can in their homes. If the floorboards are too far gone in the living room, look around: are there planks at the bottom of a closet, or in the attic, that can be moved to a more visible spot? If you like your floors even, send the wood to a workshop to be remilled — this will give it the character of old wood with the advantage of uniformity of width and thickness. Older windows, too, can often be rehabbed and saved — in truth it’s hard to get an authentic historic look, like wisp-thin muntins, with replacement windows.

Meanwhile, don’t rule out handcrafted workmanship. It may not be as expensive as you think. Work is slow for many artisans these days — if there was ever a time to get a quote on repairing your home’s ornamental plaster, or refinishing the woodwork, now is the time. I commissioned a wall of built-in bookcases from a carpenter after realizing that it wasn’t going to be any more expensive than a ready-made set bought in a store. It’s the design equivalent of locavorism—you are supporting a local artisan, and thereby helping to keep their handcraft alive, and the end result is so much more beautiful and unique than a mass-produced alternative.

Q: Also, how would you advise a homeowner to get that same feeling and character even if they don’t have an old home?

A: Look for architectural antiques, commonly known as salvage, and integrate them into your home. It’s all out there — from old doors to chandelier parts and vintage bathtubs. There is a chapter in my book that explains what is out there and how to find it, and a sources section with listings for dealers of everything from hardware to reclaimed stone, tile and brick. Another great way to add old-house charm to a new home is to add architectural interest, like wall moldings, plaster ceiling medallions, or millwork, based on period style.

Q: How difficult is it to upgrade older homes with more energy efficient systems, like lighting, heating, cooling and ENERGY STAR appliances? How about adding more windows for daylight or installing a green roof?

A: It’s not that difficult to green an old house. One of the biggest steps you can take is to make sure your home is well insulated. Foam insulation can be sprayed into the smallest crevices, and for more easily reached spaces, use cellulose, which is made of recycled newspapers mixed with boric acid, and has a very low carbon footprint. Consider an ENERGY STAR reflective roof, which can lower the surface temperature by up to 100 degrees F, and keep the inside of your home much cooler on hot days. And install a programmable thermostat to make it easier to adjust temperatures when you are sleeping or not at home.

The latest generation of ENERGY STAR appliances are incredibly efficient and will save you money in the long run, as will low-flow showerheads and dual-flush toilets. For lighting, switch to dimmers to reduce wattage and wherever possible swap incandescent for compact fluorescent bulbs. And take energy-saving cues from the earlier inhabitants of these houses: ceiling fans, for instance, help circulate warm air in winter and cool air in summer.

I have seen homeowners adding windows or reopening skylights to bring more daylight into historic homes. In two of the houses in my book, the back wall of the house was either entirely or partially replaced with glass to wonderful effect. And as for a green roof, if your roof is relatively flat and you have the budget (they can be pricey), go for it. A living roof is incredibly insulating and while you are at why not grow vegetables up there, too?

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Q: Would you suggest replacing windows with more efficient ones even if the existing they are in good condition?

A: There is no question that modern window technology — such as Low-E glass, in which argon gas is sandwiched between panes to reduce heat loss — has made huge strides in energy efficiency. But there are other considerations in an antique home. You may not want to give up your home’s original windows both for their historic value and for other reasons. Consider that most antique windows are made of old-growth lumber, which is highly rot resistant (most new windows are in recently harvested pine that is highly porous). Older windows can often be repaired. Check out the section in my book on rehabbing antique windows. If you go that route, I’d also recommend using storm windows (look for the invisible ones) for added insulation.

Q: For someone trying to renovate their home in an eco-friendly way, what other recommendations do you have?

A: As mentioned above, salvaged materials are both eco-friendly and add character to your décor. When you repaint, whether outside or inside, use low-VOC paints. Try to conduct a home energy audit on your house to see where it is leaking the most energy. Your local utility should be able to advise you. Buy an energy efficient water heater or consider alternative heating methods like a tankless or solar water heater. We are lucky that in the last few years there are so many new green products for homes on the market, from recycled stone counters to formaldehyde-free wood products. Consider that the greenest materials are the ones that will last the longest, so try to buy the most durable options you can find.

Q: Many new homes today are built with open floor plans, where the living room and kitchen are basically one big room. Older homes like the ones you profile, have distinct rooms. It’s certainly a matter of preference, but do you think there’s an advantage to keeping the original layout or are most people tearing down walls?

A: Many people are drawn to old houses because of the traditional layout. They like having separate rooms for different purposes. It’s hard to have a space of your own in today’s modern open-plan households. That said, the homeowners in my book took a variety of approaches. In some cases, walls were opened up to create a feeling of airiness and space, and to bring in light. Another thing I saw over and over was the adaptation of rooms from one purpose to another. For instance, the formal parlors, with their soaring ceilings, are being turned into open kitchen/dining/living room arrangements with an almost loft-like feel. In houses built before the advent of plumbing, entire bedrooms are now giving way to roomy modern bathrooms.

Q: What advice would you offer to someone looking to get a more modern or contemporary look in a renovated home without gutting it completely?

A: First of all, I think contemporary furniture looks wonderful in an antique setting. The juxtaposition brings out the best features in both. The oldest house in my book, a 1763 Colonial in Philadelphia, was renovated and furnished by the owners of a modern furniture store, Minima, which is located in Old City. In the same home, you have eighteenth century marble mantels and wide pine floorboards together with cutting-edge furniture by Maarten Baas and Jasper Morrison. It looks fantastic. In another home, the back of the house has a two-story addition built of putty-glazed factory windows which brighten the entire home.

Q: And finally, what are your favorite stores for reclaimed or salvaged architectural elements? In NYC and beyond?

A: Just to cite a few from among the many listed in the resources guide at the back of my book: Island Girl Salvage in Illinois, Moon River Chattel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Gavin Historical Bricks in Iowa City.

Thanks again Ingrid, your book is beautiful and an excellent resource for those restoring a home or even those who would like to renovate with reclaimed and salvaged materials.

+ Ingrid Abramovitch

Photo Credit: Excerpted from RESTORING A HOUSE IN THE CITY by Ingrid Abramovitch (Artisan Books) Copyright 2009. Brian Park photographer

Author Photo by Nina Subin

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2 Comments

  1. Boston July 13, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Great post with lots of ipmortant stuff.

  2. manny November 29, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    Great article.
    Good questions and very interesting answers, the book must be a great read.

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