There really is nothing wrong with our 1929 bungalow.
Except that it’s too small for the two of us. Especially if we have children.
And the roof’s beginning to dip in one spot because the foundation’s slipping. And there isn’t a bathtub. Plus the dishwasher stopped working a few years back, there’s dry-rot under the fridge, and the basement is kind of nasty.
A few years ago, I tested the water for lead, and the old pipes were carrying a lot of it. Not to mention that there’s a bit of radon in the basement.
Oh, yeah: It’s not air conditioned, and this is Atlanta, where it’s hot and muggy, and getting hotter. So, in the summer, when the afternoon sun fires missiles across the park into our living room, you have to head for the basement. Except that the basement isn’t a finished basement, which makes it hard to tinker in my little shop, particularly because I’m always bumping my head on the weird tangle of gas and water pipes, and joists, and wires that hang too low for a guy who’s 5-11.
And in the winter, the house is drafty. Although I insulated the floor and the ceiling more than a decade ago, cold air finds its way through various holes and slivers, and simple jumps across the thin panes on rickety uninsulated windows.
Other than that I love the place. I really do. I’m not kidding. It’s in an intown neighborhood that went downhill during the Sixties and Seventies, and now is getting much, much fancier. It’s on a quiet street across the street from a park — I tell my friends from the ‘burbs that when I visit them I feel as if the multiple lanes of ferocious traffic, the massive shopping centers, the huge hurry everyone seems to be in to get somewhere makes me feel like they’re the ones in the big city. Despite the pastoral neighborhood, my house is really close to our local rail transit (Marta), intown shopping and entertainment, and the neighbors are a really cool diverse, friendly bunch of people.
The house itself is a cute and, despite my quibbles, comfortable — a porch with a swing bench, two little bedrooms, an office, a not-quite-badly-renovated half-cathedral ceiling that gives the living room a bit more panache than most pre-Depression, working-class houses.
You feel like you’re in a real place when you’re in it – not in some cookie-cutter box that a homebuilder stamped out as quickly as possible before moving on to the next “community.”
We don’t want to move from our great location. But, as you can see, we’ve assembled quite a list of needs and wants that the old house can provide. So rather than sell the house, my wife, Silvia, and I have decided to renovate.
At first, we thought this would be a lot simpler than it turned out to be: We’d build an addition onto the back of the house, move into the addition, and then renovate the original 1,080 square feet — maybe even adding a second story.
Literally for years, I’d daydream on the porch or sit in the yard with pencil and paper imagining what our new, improved abode would look like — our dream house. There’s nothing like time and familiarity to help you understand a place.
I had a pretty firm idea of what I wanted before we even started. This, we were soon too learn, was more likely to drive our architects crazy than it was to make their lives easier (or their bills lower).
First of all, I figured, the master bedroom will look out over the woods in the back. That is our island of peace and nature in the big city. We may as well take advantage of it.
And, after years of just showering, I’m ready for a nice tub. With a window. Overlooking the forest. Lu-xuuu-riant, Silvia would coo. Hedo-nishhh-tic.
We also want a big kitchen. Silvia’s a chef instructor, and she wants to offer classes to small groups in the new kitchen. It’ll be tricky to design a kitchen that works for the occasional class but that also feels comfortable like a home.
We continued thinking about our project as a renovation. But it quickly took on a lot of qualities of building an entirely new house. For instance, we had to consider style.
We want the design and the size of the house to fit into the neighborhood – not to be big blockish thing like an ordinary house on steroids. At the same time, it needs to be big enough to have decent resale value, which means at least three bedrooms, and a guest room or a den. (We’re planning for kids, anyway.)
Plus, it’s really important to us that the refashioned house be progressive architecturally. It always struck me as somehow false to see new houses built that look like — or are made to look like — old houses. Victorian houses were built in the late 1800s. Craftsman bungalows went up in the early 1900s. Nobody gives much credit suburban ranch homes anymore but at least they were true to their era.
Nowadays, there seems to be a split: the homebuilding industry stamps out the safe styles for the mass market — faux Georgian, faux Victorian, and in my neighborhood faux Craftsman (even if the house is four times the size of the bungalow) – while the high-end avant gard architecture crowd gravitates toward custom homes featuring various experimental materials, designs and concepts.From a design standpoint, we saw a central challenge: How do we rebuild our house to fit into our neighborhood but at the same time to step forward architecturally — to acknowledge that it was built in this era not out of some nostalgia for the past. It is important to us that our place be authentic.
That’s a long list of desires. Sometimes, I worry that, for a couple with modest means, it amounts to a fantasy.
But I haven’t told you about our biggest wish of all: We want our dream house to be a green house. We want to minimize our impact on the environment, specifically with respect to garbage and water, but more than anything we want to cut down on carbon emissions.
In short, we want to build a green dream house, and we want to make it affordable. If a editor and a chef can do that, anybody can.