Friday, May 21, 2010


A few weeks ago my web master, Sven Nebelung said he was going to improve our blog.  I personally am not comfortable with change, however I trusted his judgment.  When he showed me the results of his work, all I could say was 'WOW'.  The new blog not only looks better, but should be easier to navigate.  There will be a link from our web page,, but until then you can go to or just click the link on this page.

In any case, I will not be updating this site any more, but will be blogging on the new site which will include all of our 'vintage' insights.

Jimmy Crisp

Monday, May 10, 2010

Porch Renovation

Older homes have a character that often is impossible to replicate.  A 200 year old home has traces of daily life so different from our world today.  That sense of history is what makes living in an old home wonderful.  I once owned an 1865 schoolhouse that a friend and I converted into a weekend home.  Some naughty children carved their initials in the siding over a hundred years ago and we treated those carvings with great reverence when the schoolhouse was painted.  Along with the unique details of old homes come issues both internal and external.  A rural farm house next to a dirt road sometimes ends up next to a highway, or an addition which made sense to a previous owner seems out of place in the present. 

Our clients had a stunning view over an existing pond, but the room that had the best view did not work well or match their existing period home.  We worked to give them a place to enjoy the view which felt comfortable with the rest of the house.

Buy, Build, Renovate-Why Now is the Time

I would never advise anyone on their personal investments in real estate or otherwise.  I will only comment on the current market conditions I am seeing. Rarely in my career as an architect have I seen the economic conditions align so strongly in favor of the consumer.  My sister-in-law, who is a schoolteacher, purchased her first home well below the price she would have paid a year before. While the house required extensive updating, she was able to save significantly on renovation costs compared to what it would have cost just a year earlier.             
The following are 5 reasons I think this a great time to buy and build and renovate:
   1.  Home prices are down dramatically from their recent highs.
   2.  Commodity prices of some building materials have fallen,
        although others are rising.
   3. Energy surcharges from a couple of years ago have been eliminated.
   4. Reliable high quality builders are available and are more competitive
   5. There are more 'green' and energy efficient materials on the market than in years.
As we move toward a full recovery in the economy, the same elements that caused the spike in real estate and construction will return: limited supply of fossil fuels, competition for resources from emerging nations, the desire to live in communities with good school systems and bucolic settings. The price to buy, build and renovate will begin to rise on a daily basis as it did for the last 10 years.

The images shown are the before and after photos of a house our clients bought a few years ago on a great site in a wonderful neighborhood and with a leap of faith imagined a home they could love.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Quiet Home

During the construction process, standing in the interior of a half built home is deafening.  With carpenters nailing, compressors running and boom boxes playing competing melodies on every floor, you can hardly hear yourself think.  The day after insulation is installed both in the exterior and interior partitions, it seems like a different place.  With sound insulation between the floors and within the interior partitions, it is hard to get the attention of someone in the next room even when you scream.

Spray foam insulation in the exterior walls and roof of a home take the howl of a storm down to a whisper.  Filling the spaces between the studs stops drafts, making the home more energy efficient and helps increase the stiffness of the structure further reducing noises.  Insulation in interior partitions can be spray foam, fiberglass batt, remanufactured denim, or any number of sound absorbing materials.

There are many ways to reduce the noise transmission within a home and to diminish unwanted sounds from outside:

1.     Spray foam in all exterior walls and roofs.
2.     Use double or even triple paned windows if required.
3.     Insulate all interior walls and floors.
4.     Use cast iron waste pipes in upper floors and walls (or wrap plastic pipes in sound deadening material).
5.     For home theaters, use double walls (insulated) and sound deadening board.
6.     Place all mechanical equipment on rubber bushings to prevent sound transfer.
7.     Isolate ductwork so there is no transfer between rooms.

Each of the items mentioned adds cost to a project, but only a small percentage of the construction budget would be devoted to even the most complete soundproofing.  A good nights’ sleep in spite of noisy neighbors, traffic, or family members is priceless. 

Vacation in the Back Yard

When I sit on my back porch and rock on the porch swing, I feel the stress of the day drain away.  The change is so great that I consider my porch a mini-vacation spot. 

Clients of ours fell in love with Italy.  They travel there often and go out of their way to make gourmet Italian food.  When they decided to build a guest/pool house, one of the important features had to be a sense of relaxation with an Italian flair and an authentic brick pizza oven.  Although the structure is only a few hundred feet from the main house, when you go there, you feel like you have traveled very far.  With homage paid to Italian architecture, our clapboard-clad destination makes the perfect get away.

French doors open onto the terrace above the pool while a side door allows a quick exit to the pizza oven.  On the first floor there is a kitchen, and a dining room, a living room and bathroom.  Upstairs is a sleeping loft that overlooks the living area.  I understand it is sometimes hard to give up the guesthouse to the guests.

The owners like to take mini-vacations to the Italian part of the property. The pizza oven, which is wood fired, takes hours to reach the right temperature; plenty of time for a nice swim and then home made Italian pizza in the back yard. 

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Ranch Remodel

Ranch style homes have fallen in and out of favor over the decades.  This love-hate relationship with homeowners often leads to a desire to make major changes to the average ranch. One of the most frequently asked questions regarding a major ranch home renovation is: 'When is it better to knock it down instead of working with what is there?'  Sometimes that line is hard to draw and it usually is determined by a cost benefit analysis.  If in changing all the windows (and moving them), removing the roof, and rearranging the floor plan there is little house left, then certainly a case can be made to start from scratch.  Regardless if that approach makes the most economical sense, most of us cringe at the idea of demolishing a home even if it has major problems.

One reason to work a new design around an existing home can be a desire to preserve historic features, although that does not usually apply to the average ranch.  Another important factor in making those choices can be the extent of existing landscaping and terraces.  If an owner has invested in creating a beautiful environment close to the house, a complete tear down will also destroy that investment.  

Sometimes the interior layout of a ranch style home can be modified to retain large portions of the existing floor plan while adding a second floor.  By saving major components of the ranch, the impact on the surrounding site can be minimized.   If mechanical systems are in good shape, they often can be reused as well as foundations, and the septic system.  

It is important to take the entire scope of the project into consideration before opting for a complete tear down of the familiar ranch style home, even if what you want is a two story colonial.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Sun Room

The best time to enjoy a sunroom can be the middle of winter.  While we always think of sitting in a sun room looking out over a lush garden, the time when we need sun the most is when those plants are well below the snow.  Like sitting on a porch in the summer while a warm rain falls out in the yard, sitting in a sun room around a crackling fire while it storms outside can be a wonderful experience.

When planning a sunroom, make sure there is a nice view out the windows in all seasons.  Well insulated windows, floors and ceilings can help make up for the large percentage of glass.  Radiant floor heat is a wonderful bonus on those chilly winter days.  Even if conventional heat keeps it warm inside, there is nothing like walking around in stocking feet on a toasty radiant floor.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Porch Costs

I have always been a fan of porches.  When I was little I would spend hours on my front porch watching the world move by.  Now that I have kids, summer hours are often spent sitting, swinging, eating and entertaining on our porch. The wonderful thing about being out on a porch is that you are physically neither inside nor completely exposed to the elements on the outside.  Psychologically I almost feel as though I am on vacation when I sit on my porch and listen to the birds, smell the freshly cut grass and enjoy the kids and dogs playing in the yard.

Having designed many porches, I knew that the impact of adding a porch was substantial both for the look of a home and the lifestyle of its owners.  I also knew that the cost of a porch was well below the average cost of interior space. However we rarely, if ever, only add a porch to a home, but usually include a porch as part of an overall renovation project.  As a result, when my clients have asked about the cost of adding a porch all I could do was give an educated guess.

To some degree, asking the cost of a porch is like asking the cost of a house; it depends on what you put into it.  With that in mind I decided to take a simple porch that had been part of a renovation many years ago, and ask four contractors who are currently working on our projects to give me bids on that porch.  They are geographically diverse with their businesses being located in Litchfield County, Connecticut, Dutchess, Ulster, and Westchester County, New York.  What they have in common are high standards of quality and a love of porches.

The simple porch that we used to figure costs has a metal roof, exposed painted rafters, a painted mahogany deck and stairs, simple railings and posts with a foundation only under those posts.  This porch was designed to last a lifetime.

When the bids were in, we found that a 9' x 36'-324 Square foot porch cost an average of $48,000 or approximately $148/square foot.  Compared to interior finished space-that’s a bargain.

The contractors who were kind enough to provide prices are as follows:

Robert Stair, Great Falls Construction-Falls Village, Connecticut
Mike Worthington, Worthington Builders-Millbrook, NewYork
Howie Post, C H Post Carpentry/Contractor-Woodstock, NewYork
Bob Torre, RC Torre Construction-Bedford Hills, NewYork

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Farmhouse Renovations

Most American homes built in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries were farmhouses.  We were predominantly an agrarian society living on family farms.  Today’s suburbs were once pastures.  Quite a few modern subdivisions include an old farmhouse, which at one time was the only house in sight.

When the farm families grew and their circumstances improved, it was natural to expand the homestead.  It is rare to find an old house today that has not been renovated and added onto over the centuries. Sometimes those changes were in keeping with the original structure, but more often the changes simply met the immediate needs of the family at that time.

When contemplating the renovation of an historic farmhouse, a little detective work is in order.  It helps to understand the evolution of building practices over time that can help reveal a history of the home.  Hand hewn beams in country homes began to be replaced with saw cut rafters in the late 1800s.  The type of nails and other building materials and styles also help to date a home.  An avocado colored refrigerator is a dead giveaway for a kitchen renovation from the 1970’s. 

It is usually not too hard to decide what to keep and what get rid of when renovating an old home.  Very often there are wonderful wide board floors under shag carpets and vinyl tile.  Vinyl siding can protect period clapboard which really only needs a good paint job.  Insulation is rarely adequate in an old home and depending on the type of wall framing, it may be easier to bundle up in winter than bring the home up to modern standards.

Care should be taken while inspecting electrical wiring, chimney flues, and boilers as any problems with those items could cause a fire.  On the other hand sloping floors, hairline cracks in plaster, and creaking stairs are what most of us have come to expect and love in our old homes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Simple Home

Whether you are designing an iphone or a country home, keeping it simple is harder than it looks.  Instead of relying on flash and dash, a simple design relies on substance, proportion, and details.  Most people cannot tell exactly what is wrong with a home when the proportions are off, but they know a beautiful home when they see it and good proportions are always the key.

In the eighteenth century, nails and bricks, as well as most other elements of a new home were made by hand and therefore became precious. Only the most experienced craftspeople were allowed to use those valuable resources. Mass produced building materials were scarce or non-existent and early American homes were therefore simple by design and necessity.

The wonderful old homes we love, are still around today because the details were well thought out and the materials were simple and of the highest quality.  Today it requires restraint and discipline to design a simple, elegant home.  Driving by most new homes, it seems that the designers have changed the old adage from ‘Less is More’ to ‘More is More’ and have thrown everything at the houses that will stick.  

Simple designs if done correctly can be timeless.  The study of proportions is critical to the success of a design and does not lend itself to formulas and templates. The proportions of each element must work individually and together as a group.  On a fa├žade, windows, doors and architectural details must relate to each other and to the whole.  Although symmetry can be beautiful, it is not required as long as there is balance.  Since a home can be around for hundreds of years, I think it is important to take the time to get the details and proportions right.