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Executive Editor

Sal Alfano is executive editor for Professional Remodelersal.alfano@gmail.com, 202.365.9070

First, Do No Harm

Did the homeowners insist on their misguided vision, or were the remodelers simply clueless to the harm they were inflicting?

May 16, 2019

My wife and I have joined our daughter and her husband as they hunt for their first house. They are expecting a baby later this summer (our first grandchild!) and want to escape from their dark, drafty, energy-hogging rental. Their objective criteria are typical: price range, preferred school district, proximity to work, etc.

But subjective elements seem to have the final say, and what has most affected their feelings about a house has been the character and quality of the so-called home improvements that have been done (or left undone). Watching this play out has been both instructive and heartbreaking because so many perfect settings and sturdy original homes have been ruined by bad remodels and ill-conceived additions. 

Function vs. Finishes

Predictably, one of the first things they evaluate is the kitchen. This is partly about budget, but mostly about convenience: They will have their hands full with a newborn, so they want a kitchen that’s ready to go. They’re okay with replacing appliances, so long as the layout works. I’ve been amazed at how many kitchens don’t have countertop on both sides of the range or have a refrigerator stranded by itself in a corner. The other room that gets a lot of their attention is the bath—or baths, I should say, since one-and-a-half baths is a minimum requirement. 

What has been really striking, though, is how important the overall layout is. If the floor plan doesn’t make sense, if there are odd transitions, or if some basic feature is out of place, it’s a real turnoff.

This weekend, for example, we looked at a circa-1860 Cape that had obviously been remodeled several times. Common in New England, a traditional “full” Cape house includes a central front door opening onto a central stair, with front and back bedrooms on one side, a living room at the front on the other side, and a country kitchen behind it. When indoor plumbing arrived, room for a bath was made at the back. Upstairs, small rooms with knee walls and splayed ceilings occupy either side of the stairs.

In this case, however, the traditional plan had been “modernized” by removing the central staircase and shifting the living room to the back, creating an “open-plan” first floor. (Fortunately, the front door was left in place on the exterior, but, oddly, it was walled over with drywall on the inside.) The flow between kitchen, dining, and living areas was attractive, but the new stairs were not only too steep to meet code, but too steep to be used safely, and the sole bathroom in the house was now accessible only from the kitchen.

And that’s literally just the half of it, because there were also two additions: a small mudroom that opened onto the kitchen and was now the main entrance to the house; and a monstrous, shed-roofed family room/master bedroom addition along the entire length of the back wall that could have been used to solve the stair and single-bath problems, but strangely didn’t.

Do No Harm

We have toured plenty of other examples, some the work of DIYers, but many undertaken by remodeling professionals. Was there no budget for design? Did the clients insist on pursuing their misguided vision against the advice of the remodelers or were the remodelers simply clueless to the harm they were inflicting on these unsuspecting buildings?

Perhaps remodelers, like physicians, should take a pledge to “first, do no harm.” That might give them the courage to seek only harmonious solutions and turn down unworkable homeowner proposals.

The most striking “do no harm” example I know of comes from John Abrams, founder of South Mountain Company in Martha’s Vineyard. He tells of a client who sought advice on how best to restore a property that, over the course of many decades, had suffered several humiliating additions and renovations. After careful consideration, he and his team proposed dismantling the structure, salvaging what materials they could, and returning the site to sand-and-grass. The client agreed and wrote the check. 

Old House Journal used to have a back-page feature called “Remuddling.” If you still don’t think it pays to work with architects and professional designers, the projects pictured there will change your mind.  

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