Modernizing the Historic Home: a transcript of stories from the field
-as presented by Maia Kumari Gilman, AIA, LEED-AP BD+C at the Library of the Chathams
There are many misconceptions about what architecture is, as a career. We study and practice a blend of art and science, and deal with every scale of design, from the smallest thresholds at 1/16th of an inch, up to the scale of a city block or larger. We deal with the insides as well as the outsides of the buildings, and we’re responsible for life safety, legally speaking. We design façades and interior systems, and we specify colors and tiles and finishes. We see projects through from the beginning of design and we stay involved through to the end of construction. We often begin before that, with site selection and the choosing of existing buildings to renovate or adapt, and we often stay involved after the end of construction, in post-occupancy evaluations. It involves a whole spectrum of involvement, management and coordination with other professionals and trades and building officials.
HOW I DEVELOPED MY SPECIALIZATION IN MODERNIZING HISTORIC HOMES
When I was a teen, was I interested in architecture? Yes, in general, but not with a career focus. I liked old things, and collected antiques, antique books, took photos of old buildings — from about the age of 10. I grew up in Canada and would camp on summer vacations, up and down the west coast of Washington and Oregon where there are hundreds of old farm buildings, many of them abandoned, and many right by the roadside. We’d get out of the car and walk around them, and for the rest of the drive I’d be daydreaming about how I might fix up those barns.
But as a career, I was more interested in travel, and writing, and languages. I thought I’d be a journalist, and in fact I’ve dedicated a good part of my professional life to writing — first trade articles about green building, and now fiction that envelops environmental themes and that features architects.
I studied urban geography with a minor in anthropology, for my undergraduate degree. During that time I also studied Vaastu, a South Asian Indian technique for arranging spaces for their best alignment and flow. It was that spatial understanding that came from geography and my studies of Vaastu that prompted me to consider architecture. I received my Master of Architecture degree in Canada, and during that time I did three things that had a huge impact on me:
- I realized that when I meditated, I could tune into the quiet energy of building sites;
2. I spent time constructing a house, hands on, that I helped to design, which gave me a huge appreciation for how the parts go together, and understanding of the building trades. We designed and built an elderhousing village, one building per year, as a collaboration between my university and the elderhousing organization.
3. The third point is that I took courses in forensic architecture.
What is forensic architecture, you may ask? It’s figuring out why buildings failed in some way, whether from fire, water, structural shifting or material failure, and looking at ways of preventing those failures from occurring again in the future. It can involve any material, from historic brick to modern plastic components, and it can involve any age of building. It might touch on waterproofing issues, rot or fire issues, or stability issues. I brought this training and focus with me when I came to New York City in 1999, and found an excellent fit with some firms I worked with, that all specialized in historic restoration. I like to say I got my training in working with old buildings on the ground, in the field: I worked on libraries, religious buildings, art galleries, historic house museums — you name it.
EXAMPLES OF MY LEARNING IN THE FIELD
Some examples of that training in the field, as it specifically pertains to this discussion of modernizing historic homes, are in these next case studies. These were early restoration projects I undertook as an intern in New York City.
Ear Inn (aka James Brown House, Manhattan)
· This is an old house that later became a pub with New York State’s second oldest liquor license. It is still a residence above the main floor.
· This was a historic restoration job. Best takeaway: make the drawings visually appealing and easy for a contractor to read.
· Second best takeaway: when in doubt, have a beer or a glass of wine with the client at the beginning of the meeting (if you’re over 21!).
· Warner House, 1 Hillhouse Ave, New Haven CT (Yale University)
· A former residence that when I worked on it was the Provost’s office, and is now the Graduate School offices.
· Learned how to modernize an old building for updated functions.
· Also learned even more about appreciating the grace of balanced proportions in an older building, and understanding that it is in maintaining the proportions that the feeling of ‘old’ gets carried through in the new renovation work.
· Gillette Castle, Gillette Castle State Park, East Haddam CT
· Home and now historic house museum of playwright who popularized the Sherlock Holmes stories in America).
· How to appreciate and document the quirkiness of an older home, and see its stories come out.
· Also learned how to make peace with a residual energy form, aka a resident ghost, so that the work would flow with ease. My boss didn’t teach me that — I taught him that. In my experience it’s really just about acknowledging, appreciating, and moving on. Not getting hung up on what’s going on in the moment of that experience. Not getting into analysis paralysis over it.
HOW I APPLIED THIS LEARNING TO MY OWN CLIENTS’ PROJECTS IN NORTHERN NEW JERSEY
When it came time to start my own business, in 2004, I naturally gravitated to applying this work experience to the historic homes around me where I now live, in Northern New Jersey. I worked with other architects and engineers then, and in 2009 and formed Maia Gilman Architect PLLC. In this work I chose to focus on the merging of old and new in architecture, and I learned the most from listening to subcontractors, coordinating with building engineers, and listening to the subtle stories of the buildings themselves.
Along the way, I studied Feng Shui, an East Asian method of arranging spaces for optimal alignment and flow, and I studied Reiki, a hands-on energy healing technique. I became a Reiki Master, as a way to try to answer the questions that would arise for me as I sensed the undercurrent of the energy and stories of the people and spaces I worked with.
This combination of Reiki and architecture led me to articulate the guiding mission of my work, which is to treat homes as living, evolving spaces, rather than as historic house museums, no matter how old they might be. I studied and practiced space clearing, which can be defined as clearing and raising the subtle energy of a space, and after about a decade of that, decided a new approach was needed: to focus on what the client WANTS to bring in, rather than what they want to get rid of.
I’ve found this is a much faster, easier and more fun, lasting and effective way to raise the energy of a space. People often come to me for this combination of skills, even if they’re not consciously aware of it — sometimes it is simply that they’ve heard about the results of my work and that the spaces feel good. And that’s what THEY want for their own homes: spaces that feel good.
So what kind of issues do architecture clients bring to the drawing table, when we first sit down together? Sometimes — usually — they can’t articulate what feels the way it does, or what needs to be done about it, just that they know something is off.
Here are the top three that come to me in my work:
1. We need to renovate or add on or move, because we have too much stuff — how do we decide?
2. My house literally seems to be shifting, coming apart — what’s going on?
3. I really love this part of my house but I can’t stand this other part, and how do I reconcile that?
And there are many others that come up. Does anyone have other issues that they’re facing in their own homes, and that you’d like me to address?
What I want you to know is that there are many options within home renovation help to answer these questions. The key options I’m going to focus on here revolve around the idea of focusing on forward momentum of a positive experience, rather than focusing on the past, even if you’re in a historic home that you want to honor. So those top three options are:
1. to refresh;
2. to reconfigure;
3. to add on.
EXAMPLES OF MY PROJECTS IN NORTHERN NEW JERSEY
An example of refreshing is this historic house restoration I designed and oversaw for a home from 1749. This is in northern NJ, at a location I cannot disclose due to client confidentiality. The issues that came up with this house were as shown on this petal diagram:
1. This house goes back to the 1700s. What should we keep and what should we let go?
2. We want a new kitchen, that functions in a modern manner, but that fits into the historic context.
3. We need new bathrooms but the ones we have are functional. Should we do them over now?
4. The house is shifting, structurally, and needs to be stabilized.
5. We want more than anything to respect the history of the house.
6. We want to make the house functional for how we live today.
7. We want to integrate historic lighting styles. We also want to be able to see to work, to clean, and to read.
8. We want this project to have some special touches, but we’re not sure what they will be.
The solution came in the form of focusing on this word/phrase as a mantra: honor, or honoring the history of the home.
This example is of adding on, and is of a house in Maplewood NJ, from the late 1800s. The interesting thing with this project is that the client came to me with a large budget, time to spare, and the ability to move out during construction — and yet, doing a large addition ended up not being the right thing for that family. You can see the process here on this petal diagram — the key issues were:
1. Should we add on?
2. The two adults in the house have different tastes and styles.
3. We have a large budget and lots of time — so how best to decide what to do?
4. We need focus.
5. There are parts of the house we love, and parts of the house we hate.
6. We have a natural living approach.
7. We have allergies and sensitivities to many construction materials.
8. We need a guide.
Our pathway to getting to a resolution was by focusing on this idea: consensus.
This is an example of reconfiguring, from one of my projects also in northern NJ and is a house from the early 1900s. The owners wanted to make the home flow more efficiently, within the current footprint, and so we opened up the existing spaces inside. The issues that came up are here in this petal diagram:
1. We want to do a green renovation.
2. We want to do an affordable renovation.
3. We will be living in the house for the whole time during construction.
4. We have a designer already living in the house (client was a design professional).
5. We need to merge and navigate an art collection, and different color preferences between the adults in the house.
6. Our space is used to hold events and workshops at times.
7. We don’t want to see our old kitchen and house parts end up in a landfill.
8. Should we add or reconfigure?
The solution was summarized by this idea: sharing.
HOW DO YOU TRANSLATE THAT OVERARCHING CONCEPT INTO A DESIGN STRATEGY?
DESIGN STRATEGY: 1700S HOUSE
We chose an atypical stance in historic restoration, which is that we focused on a range of time periods to celebrate, rather than one period. The notion of the ‘restoration date’ or the date you restore back to, is a classic approach in historic preservation. This was not historic preservation, which differs from historic restoration and renovation. We weren’t looking to replicate life as it was in a certain era, but to honor the evolving history of the house, and to bring it into modern day needs. So in this case, the solution was to look for the arc of what we wanted to celebrate in each era of the house’s history.
DESIGN STRATEGY: 1800S HOUSE
How do you translate the idea of consensus building into a house renovation? It comes from realizing what is blocking consensus, and in many cases it comes from simply not having enough information to make an informed decision. In this situation, you want to consult with an architect and bring in multiple contractors for discussion. You do NOT want to talk to contractors with the goal of hiring one of them at the beginning, and you do NOT want to talk to contractors without an idea from your architect about what you plan to do. Reason being, contractors are good at brainstorming for work that needs to be done, and they may each have a different idea — you will end up having prices all over the map that do not reflect the same work. Best to have the architect organize this meeting with some basic preliminary drawings in hand so that you are comparing similar work. Everyone appreciates this.
DESIGN STRATEGY: 1900S HOUSE
A collaborative sharing of ideas was essential in this job, in which one of the partners in the couple is a design professional as well — he is a lighting designer.
The best way we found to do this was to focus on diagramming the functions in the house and how they flow and interrelate — which I do on all projects — but in this case I was doing it with a fellow design professional, and in finding a common language. The next part of this visual sharing is in 3D modeling. I like to use SketchUp Pro, which allows me to move back and forth between construction drawings drafted in AutoCAD and also with Google Maps and Google Earth for an overall perspective. It’s easy to share these models via email as well so the design process can be sped up between face to face meeting times.
It’s important to realize that in the same way that everyone learns a little bit differently from the next person, that people also have different ways of visualizing space. You might have one person in a family who is really good at reading plans, another who can see a 3D model and understand it, or someone who needs a full scale cardboard mockup of a space that they can walk through in order to get the concept. So don’t beat yourselves up if you’re not getting to agreement right away. It can take time and also a creative approach to how this visual information gets conveyed.
EXERCISE: PETAL DIAGRAM
What does this all mean for you? I want you to see and know from looking at these examples, that there are different stances you can take in your historic home modernization, and these stances really come from understanding your key words or phrases that sum up the driving vision of your project. And so — I have a worksheet for you. Pass this around, grab a pencil if you don’t have one, and take a few moments to fill out your own petal diagram. Take one per person unless we’re running out, and fill in your own, which might be different from your spouse’s.
Leave the center blank for now. Just list the issues you’re facing in your own home, and make sure you list a fair number of desires too, not just things that bug you. This works even if you’re not considering a renovation — you can use this method to create any new feeling in any space, even if you’re just rearranging furniture or purging old books and papers from your desk. So — take a deep breath, close your eyes, visualize your home — and when you’re ready, begin. We’ll take about five minutes for this.
Once you’ve done that, look at the outer petals on your diagram and see if there is a word or a phrase that bubbles up in your mind that helps you to summarize the goal or driving vision of the project.
WHAT’S YOUR SOLUTION?
You’re going to curate a collection.
This week, look for images or phrases that support that word, and add them to this starting collection. Paper snippets are good, Pinterest is good, and Houzz is good. Houzz actually gave me an award for best renovations in the New York area a few years ago — although I’m partial to Pinterest as an idea sharing tool with clients because it’s easy to use and navigate. I create Pinterest boards for projects with clients where we share ideas back and forth.
Sometimes people don’t know what they want, and that’s when they come to me to help them draw up different options for design solutions, and we get those options priced. I’ve found the best solution is usually the first gut feeling solution, and is often the simplest, most elegant and economical.
THAT is what I want you to understand most: first solutions are often the simplest, most elegant and economical.
I hope that you can see you have the tools to feel more connected to a stream of possibilities, like you’re honing in on what you want, and like you can more clearly articulate what you feel about your home.
No matter the age of the house — from 1700s to the present — these overriding ideas will help you to streamline into an approach for modernizing that honors the house and works for your family. You’re not living in a historic house museum, but a living, breathing house.
My final thought is: this is all doable. Finding the feeling of refreshed and organized and aligned space is possible no matter your home, your budget or your family situation.