Group 6 6 minutes Read

renovation and reason

Lauren Zerbey

A few weeks ago, our kitchen remodel was featured on Design*Sponge as part of their “Before and After” series. We were thrilled to be included and encouraged by the many positive comments. But then, inevitably, came the other comments. The reactions were similar for our kitchen and bathroom posts on Apartment Therapy and in a nutshell, there was a contingent of commenters that were convinced we had obliterated an heirloom.

Truthfully, I wasn’t really offended by the comments (and was somewhat expecting them) – not because I’m necessarily thick-skinned but because I stand by our conviction that what we’ve done has been the right thing for our house. Alongside the positive and negative comments were additional questions about how we should approach the discussion of remodeling in the first place, especially when so much of the blogisphere is dedicated to sparkly end results. It’s something that Kyle and I started discussing and realized the topic might warrant a blog post of its own. We realized that although we have gone through a very careful and intentional remodel thought process, we’ve never really explained it here on the blog.

Don’t get me wrong, we love dramatic “before and afters” just as much as the next person, but we thought it would be interesting to talk about the underlying reasons for taking on a project like this in the first place. So here’s our story.

[Note: each pair of photos was taken from approximately the same view. And no, I didn’t know about white balance back in ’06.]

Plain and simple, we bought a house that needed a lot of work because it’s what we could afford. We were up for the challenge and knew that it was something we both wanted to do. So we bought this:


Ok, she looked a little better (and cuter!) in the 1930’s when this photo was taken. When we took ownership in 2006, she was a bit frumpier:

But over the course of 5 years, she’s got a new spring in her step…

I think we all agree that, yes, our house was ugly. But ugliness alone is not a reason to gut the entire thing. Sure, we could have painted the walls, replaced the carpet and called it a day, but our house had fundamental problems that limited its effectiveness as a 21st-century home.

Layout – As you can see from the original floor plan, our home had an awkward layout that quickly proved to be an inefficient way to live in 770 square feet. (At the root of the problem was the kitchen, which served as the hallway of the house with 5 doorways and very little work space.) By reworking the plan, we were able to create a series of spaces that made more sense for how we live while also accommodating flexibility for future needs. We were also able to add a second bedroom without expanding the footprint. If our home had two bedrooms from the beginning, we probably would have approached things differently.

Because the front door entered into the middle of the dining/living room, the two spaces were the same size, meaning a too small living room and a too big dining room. The chandelier with the faux candles yet real burn marks on the ceiling? No words.

Structure – Our home had not been maintained properly over the years and had some issues that needed more immediate attention. Maybe one reason we didn’t start the blog earlier was because the first few years were not glamorous ones. We completely replaced the roof, undertook a sizeable structural project in the basement and spent an uncomfortable amount of money on asbestos abatement and an oil tank removal. Unglamorous yes, but it was the right thing to do and prevented even bigger (and more expensive) repairs down the road. Does structural safety supersede “preservation”? We think so.

Energy – One of the things that I think is most often overlooked when discussing older homes is that they are usually energy hogs. When we bought our house, it had no insulation in the walls, a ridiculously ancient coal-turned-oil-burning octopus furnace, a 20-year-old hot water heater and leaky aluminum windows. For us, not improving our home’s energy performance would have been irresponsible and well, dumb. In many cases, sustainability drove our decision-making process. For instance, to insulate our exterior walls we could either add it from the outside or the inside. So we weighed the pros and cons and ultimately decided that it was more important to restore our original cedar siding and remove the crumbling plaster on the inside. With the walls opened up, we were also able to add modern-day luxuries like electrical outlets(!) When it came to materials, we made a concerted effort to recycle/sell/salvage as much as we could while also being conscientious about what new materials were coming in.

Education – Although some have surmised that we’re remodeling for remodeling’s sake, just because we’re architects doesn’t mean we think we’re entitled to change something just because we can. I mean really, this stuff is expensive and takes an incredible amount of time and patience. In fact, sometimes…ok, many times, we wish our house had needed less work. But regardless of how we’ve changed our home, the more important thing has been the process of doing so. In fact, before we started looking at houses, we both were toying with the idea of going to grad school, but ultimately decided that we couldn’t afford to do both. So we sometimes joke that the remodel has been our thesis project and in a way, I think we’ve learned far more than we could have in a couple extra studio courses.

Solving the Stylistic Problem – Even though we’re self-proclaimed modernists, we still have an appreciation for the past. Although our house was the one we could afford, we predominantly looked at pre-1930’s homes (which fortunately, Seattle has a lot of). In general, we were attracted to the modest size and simple styles of these homes and knew it would be these characteristics that, due to budget and practicality, would remain unchanged. (I’m sure we drove our realtor crazy…a fixer? No problem! But a complex roof shape? Hell no!) Sadly, even though our home was built in 1910 and was small and simple, it didn’t have any of the charming features that are common to other homes of that era. No built-ins, no fancy molding, no bare wood. Because of this, we felt it was appropriate to take on a more extensive renovation. Where we could, we brought attention to certain original elements – like the exposing the ceiling joists in the living room or restoring the original cedar siding on the exterior.

As architects who are progressive but also concerned about sustainability, there is a great challenge in reinventing existing housing stock to work for the 21st century. It’s a surgical process that is different for every house and includes incorporating the best of both eras into something that will hopefully be around for another one hundred years. (Pretty pictures are nice, but this creative problem solving has really been the crux of our remodel.) For those that think we’ve done our home a disservice, the reality is that had our offer not been accepted, our house would have been victim to the wrecking ball and a 2500 SF “neo craftsman” mcmansion would have been crammed onto the lot in its place.

Anticipating Change – One goal that we’ve tried to maintain throughout this process is not to overdo it. While we’re definitely not looking to flip this house, we also know that we probably won’t live here forever. That means striking the balance between doing the right thing and what makes us happy, while not investing so much money and time that we feel we can never leave. We’re not making any decisions based on “resale value” but we are trying to do something that is thoughtful, creative and appropriate for our neighborhood.

Being Realistic – Our house is at best an experiment. An experiment based on a modest budget, a willingness to live in a constant construction zone and a whole lot of manual labor. It’s not a perfect home, but it is a better home and at the end of the day that’s something we feel really good about.

And there is the “Behind the Scenes” story of chezerbey. Remodeling can be very personal and depends on so many factors that it’s impossible to apply general rules or guidelines to the process. What’s right for one person isn’t necessarily a good solution for another and we hope that the blogisphere can continue to be a forum for constructive dialogue. Crappy old houses all over the world will thank you for it.