Re-thinking the Suburban Tear-Down

People / February 15, 2010

Architect Amy Gardner believes that tear-downs are not the only solution to our slowly deteriorating inventory of mid-century split-levels on prime suburban lots. There are, she said, smarter ways to go.

“To toss them is irresponsible,” she said. “I love working with that vintage, but they need retrofit and weatherization. They don’t age well.”

Many of them were built fast to meet a post-World War II housing demand driven in part by white flight from urban centers.

“In the ‘50s, they were looking for shortcuts,” she said. “There was a great need for more units quickly. A lot of them were not particularly well-built – the windows were not decent quality, they were poorly insulated and there was no moisture barrier. The materials were just not the best quality.”

But that doesn’t mean the buildings need to be removed. Often, they simply need to be re-thought.

Case in point: her recent renovation of a classic 1957 split-level on a half-acre in a Bethesda, Md. subdivision, right outside Washington D.C. The owners liked the neighborhood, the schools and the character of their house. They didn’t like the compartmentalized interiors, though. “It was the right size, but it didn’t have the right spaces,” Amy said. “They wanted that house, only they wanted it better.”

The architect and client used a team approach to arrive at a solution that declares the exterior an organizer for the interior. “Before, you knew the backyard was out there somewhere, but you didn’t know how it connected inside,” she said. “We redesigned the backyard so that there’s a constant view to make you understand where you are on the inside. One space flows freely to the next now.”

Their solution was a holistic one, taking into account the entire property rather than one or two parts – and looking to the long-term rather than just a few years out. “If you want to do a good job, you can’t do it piecemeal,” she said. “You have to think about it as a whole, and have a thorough approach for thirty to fifty more years.”

By the time the renovation was finished, they knew it was a success from the neighbors’ reactions. “People were walking up to the house and and saying: ‘I want that! Can I buy the plans?”

For more on Amy Gardner, go to: http://www.gardnermohr.com/

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Michael Welton




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