A Good Foundation
Some houses age like fine wine. Others turn to vinegar. Renovating this 1950s building meant tearing it down to its concrete-block foundation.
Except for its first-sory walls, John Ibnet's seaside house was entirely re-created. Only the placement of the garage doors is recognizable.
After a year of hunting, John Igneri found the place of his dreams. But it wasn't the boxy design that sold this financial marketing executive on the 1952 house. He fell for its location-on a sailboat-filled cove of the Long Island Sound in southern Connecticut. "I walked in the front door, looked at the vista, and said, 'I'll take it,'" he explains.
The house inspection, however, revealed an uglier scene. The flat roof had been leaking for decades, and the sheathing and rafters were rotted. Igneri bought it anyway and planned a big renovation, but he didn't begin to realize just how big until the day he moved in. "I wanted to open one of the casement windows, but when I released the latch the whole sash fell out," he says. "I had to run outside, pick it up, and literally nail it back in place."
Igneri wanted more than just working windows-he wanted to turn the crumbling two-level house into something worthy of its spectacular views. "The flat-roof look wasn't for me," he says.He also wanted a bigger living room with a majestic fireplace, and a kitchen that looked out on the water-instead of one dreary little window facing the street. A friend introduced him to architect Nance Vigneau, and Igneri was taken by her approach. "John is single, his kids are grown, he likes to hunt and fish. So I envisioned a casual house," Vigneau says. "I told him, 'I think you need something that suggests a boathouse in Maine.'" She got the job.
While they talked about ways to redesign the existing space-from ripping down the partition between the kitchen and living room to adding a gable roof-an engineer investigated its structural integrity. He discovered more rotten framing, including damage to a beam under one of the showers. "I was glad I never decided to use that one," says Igneri. "I could have crashed right through to the floor below." When they tallied up everything the house needed, they realized it wasn't worth doing such a significant renovation on a house that needed so much structural repair. So they decided to tear it downto its foundation and build fresh.
Vigneau designed a contemporary Shingle-style house,with a fieldstone chimney, 23-foot exposed beams (salvaged from an old barn),
and a master suite that includes a separate dressing room. In the walk-out lower level, she included two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a family room, to accommodate Igneri's visiting children and grandchildren.
With the garage, it amounted to about 3,200 square feet-exactly the same size as the original house.
Contractor John Ginsbern of Chilmark Builders was tempted to handle demolition by "driving an excavator right through the garage door and pulling the whole thing down." But he hired a crew to take it apart board by board, so as not to damage the foundation. Reusing it, he calculated, saved about $15,000 in excavation and construction costs.
Since he was tearing down the house, Ginsbern could easily address two other concerns in the basement: flooding and headroom. He raised the basement floor above the flood line by pouring a new concrete slab. Then, to accommodate 8-foot ceilings plus 2 feet for plumbing and ductwork, he laid 3 feet of new concrete block on top of the foundation walls.
Exposed concrete block may have suited the original house's contemporary exterior, but not the neotraditional appearance of Vigneau's design. So Ginsbern dug down to the original footings and mortared a stone veneer over the foundation walls.
To make sure Igneri could enjoy the view from his new living room, Ginsbern built a 16-foot expanse of glass sliding doors, topped by a curved transom window.
Last winter, a year after construction began, Igneri finally moved into his finished house, with its jatoba floors, old-fashioned transom windows, and soaring rustic fireplace. Every now and then, Igneri says, "someone will just knock on the door and offer to buy the house"-a sure sign of its curb appeal. "Now, that's something that never happened with the old place."
When to tear it down
Much as he loves old houses, T.O.H. contractor Tom Silva concedes, "as a last resort, it's sometimes smarter to rip it down." If the framing is inadequate, the foundation frail, or the house has suffered major water damage, knocking everything down and building new is an option, particularly when the house has no historic or architectural value. Contractor John Ginsbern, who rebuilt the Igneri residence, says it's a matter of dollars and cents. "You can ignore structural problems and waste money for cosmetic repairs. Or, you can spend even more money trying to fix the underlying flaws. Financially, neither approach adds up."
The cost of demolition and disposal-typically $8,000 to $15,000-can be offset by reusing whatever is salvageable, including framing, appliances, and millwork. But for those who would rather rescue than tear-down,Tom Silva is rooting for you. "If you like saving a part of history, go for it," he says. "Just make sure your budget is big and you're prepared for unknowns."