Home Renovation: Finding Sensible Solutions

Homeowners are sometimes faced with the decision of renovating versus building anew. Each project type comes with its own unique set of challenges – and solutions! Although renovating an existing building can be unpredictable, expensive and time-consuming, it often provides rich detail, sumptuous materials and great reward by honoring a structure’s history and integrity. It is usually less expensive than building anew. Importantly, renovating emits far less carbon than building a new home. How can we get the most value from our renovation decisions? This month, we’re sharing the better choices for this challenge.

Know our goal:
What do we want to achieve and why? Sometimes significant changes (transforming a mid-century modern building to an English Colonial Revival home, for example) don’t fit. But other times, true transformation is possible!

Colonial Revival Front Before
Before: When the homeowners of this Hollywood Hills property commissioned our studio, they wanted to enlarge the indoor living space – and create a backyard where none existed before.
Traditional Residence In Hollywood Hills By Tim Barber Ltd Architecture
After: The finished product? An East-Coast-on-the-West-Coast Colonial Revival style residence with a rear yard fit for entertaining. Photo by Laura Hull.

Solve the known problems:

  • Has the roof leaked? Prioritize this repair.
  • Are the previous utility bills high?
  • Are there structural cracks?

Plan ahead, with:

  • An accurate survey, as-built measurements, inspection reports, and awareness of any governmental or Homeowner Association (HOA) constraints
  • Detailed drawings
  • Completed permits
Foundation Detail Tim Barber Architects
Detailed drawings are imperative to a successful renovation. This foundation detail illustrates a new basement added under a Spanish Colonial Revival home in Los Angeles.

Decide ahead of time what features must be saved:

  • Is there a wood-burning fireplace? New ones are no longer allowed.
  • Must a new home be farther from the property line to meet current code?
  • How much wear is “patina” and how much is “shop-worn”?

Know the lifespan of our choices:

  • When will the new window require replacement? The faucet? The microwave?
  • How many sandings will that floor tolerate?
  • When will we need to repaint?

Make realistic changes:

Structure is expensive to move, and changes often trigger requirements to meet current structural codes. Make sure structural changes are worth the cost. Additionally, electrical systems, heating, data/wifi, plumbing and fire sprinklers require thoughtful integration in older buildings; and changes to drains are complex.

The single most effective strategy for energy savings is to insulate the attic, the walls and the lowest floor:

  • Some insulation is a renewable resource, such as hemp.
  • Applied thermal insulation must be breathable, or walls will become saturated, with associated timber decay.
Insulation Tim Barber Architects
This spray foam under the roof of a current renovation project increases energy efficiency and will include fiberglass batt insulation directly below – also known as the “flash and batt” method.

Upgrading the windows for energy performance also brings substantial energy savings. Choices include:

  • Change the entire assembly, requiring new waterproofing, new stucco or wood trim, or
  • Replace the the sashes or moving parts with dual or triple-glazed versions, or
  • Replace only the glass with lowE laminated glass

Consider improving disabled accessibility:

Have a flexibility plan for accommodating alternative family structures, long-term occupancy, short-term injuries (like knee surgery) downsizing and independent living for seniors. Also investigate new technologies (remember TV armoires, anyone? Answering machines? Phonographs?).

Handrails Elevation Tim Barber Architects
During a renovation project in Los Angeles, we designed custom handrails (left) and an elevator (right) to integrate within the existing home to accommodate aging in place.

Sustainability measures often bring green tax and rebate incentives.

  • Have a workable plan for solar collection, inverters, batteries and vehicle chargers. 
  • Can rainwater be harvested? How much rain makes this worthwhile?

Anticipate the effect of proposed developments on nearby trees, site drainage, environs and wildlife (yes, really).

  • Mature trees can keep a home significantly cooler in summer.
  • Pervious hardscape allows rainwater to restore the water table.
  • Birds, bees and bats make really useful neighbors.
  • Require wildlife-friendly building and landscape lighting.

Choose the right builder:

  • Will they recycle the house parts they remove?
  • Can they execute complex installations and locate unusual materials?
  • Will they buy locally sourced and assembled materials?
  • Will they use local labor?
  • Are the quotes and timelines comprehensive?

Provide advance warning to our neighbors who might be affected by noise, sound, traffic, street closures.

Even with good planning, sometimes the changes come from our homeowners. We recommend having a 10 percent contingency in the bank – just in case.

Once completed, the renovated home will express our values and spirit. It will have created less waste and consumed less of the planet. It will have saved us money. Renovation can be doubly satisfying, making something new while improving something old. These better choices make that satisfaction a little easier.