Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fashion vs. "integrity" in house flipping

The Friday Express has an article about the revival of house flipping, "Lucrative New Life for the Obsolete: House Flippers Are Back Post-Bubble," where people buy houses (ideally for a low price), renovate them cheaply and quickly, and resell for a higher price.

Flipping is seen as an indicator of neighborhood upgrading--some people call it gentrification, a term I do not like to use--and neighborhood repositioning.

Having been upset earlier in the week by the somewhat facile approach to urban revitalization expressed in the New York Times op-ed, "The Bright Side of Blight," this week I re-read Understanding Neighborhood Change (1979) by Rolf Goetze, which lays out a strategy for managing neighborhood change more carefully, both to reduce the possibility of decline as well as to reduce the opportunity of hyper-appreciation.

One chapter of the book is about the media and their role in positioning neighborhoods. In the early 1970s, Boston developed a program for neighborhood promotion ("Living in Boston: Public information and promotional strategies in support of neighborhood preservation" is the report that I want to track down, the tv show "This Old House" kind of grew out of those efforts) to help stabilize and improve neighborhoods in the face of suburban outmigration. Baltimore's Live Baltimore resident attraction program is based on these kinds of strategies.

What bugs me about flipping, and this is definitely true as shown in the tv shows about it (even "Designed to Sell" is pretty flippant with regard to historic architectural details), is that for the most part, the people involved don't know much or care much about historic preservation and maintaining the architectural qualities evident in the house. It is maintaining these details that provides the most long term value for the property. Not to mention the impact on the context and form of the overall neighborhood and overall property values.

With historic (or eligible for designation) houses, updates based on fashion--granite countertops, clear glass sink bowls, stainless steel appliances, see through metal stairwells, etc.--tend to fade, and need to be redone in 10 years (not unlike how urban renewal didn't stick, wasn't sustainable, and neighborhoods and business districts redone as urban renewal projects in turn have/had to be rebuilt in order to maintain relevance).

There is an article in the Denver Post, "Integrity is watchword for bungalow-restoration consultant," featuring Jane Powell, author of six books on bungalows (yes, we have 3 or 4 of them), who will be giving the keynote address Feb. 5 at the Denver Old House Society's annual Old House Fair, a day-long event for owners of homes that are 50 or more years old.
From "Denver Old House Society’s Old House Fair tickets on sale now" in the North Denver Tribune:

Starting at 9:30 a.m., one-hour workshops will be presented, including: Caring for Your Historic Windows, Maintaining the Wood Floors in Your House, Landscaping for Old Houses, Period Details for Kitchens in Old Houses, and Maintaining The Masonry in Your Old House. Each workshop will be offered twice.

Jane Powell – author of six books on old houses, hands-on restorer, speaker and columnist – will give share her experience renovating kitchen and bathrooms, and her love for linoleum, the real stuff, during a special one-hour luncheon presentation. Tickets for the talk, including a box lunch, cost $10...

Numerous exhibitors will be on hand to showcase products and services that are specific for houses built from 1860 to 1961. Various retail vignette areas for Victorians, Bungalows, Denver Squares, Tudors and Mid-century Modern homes will feature accessories and furniture for sale – from fancy lace items for a Queen Anne to shiny chrome wares for the Ranch. Attendees will have an opportunity to win household furnishings, products and services in special drawings held throughout the day.

From the Denver Post article:

Jane Powell couldn't care less about self-expression through interior design. The outspoken preservationist and self-proclaimed "bungalow Nazi" has just one rule: Don't mess with the fabric of an old home. "My attitude is . . . you are temporary in this house," says the California-based author of six books including "Bungalow Bathrooms" and "Bungalow Kitchens." Quite simply, Powell says: "You don't disrespect the integrity of a house." ...

Powell's talk should spark lively debate among homeowners who relish the charm of old houses but struggle with how to modernize them. [Amy] Carbone appreciated that Powell's book presents three restoration plans for three budgets. A homeowner can hint at the period a house was built through accessories; step it up with period lighting, subway tile and white appliances; or do a full-blown historic restoration with period appliances, original light fixtures and antique hardware. "Those kinds of compromise solutions were important to me because I couldn't afford to be obsessive about it," says Carbone, whose renovation cost a modest $12,000.

Carbone remodeled her kitchen to include a flip-out countertop and more room for plates. "I had an idea of what I wanted, but all that changed completely" after reading Powell's "Bungalow Kitchens," she says.

House-restoration experts consider Powell a lightning rod in the remodeling industry, where homeowners are pushed to update every five to 10 years. Powell underscores the idea that a period kitchen will always look appropriate in an old house — regardless of current design trends — while a remodeled one becomes dated.

Note that open concept first floors (where the living room, dining room, and kitchen are one long room) can be done in ways that are congruent with "old" houses, it all depends on the execution. The flow present in Arts & Crafts, Bungalows, Wardman style "porch front" rowhouses is similar, albeit with some partial walls and wide openings.

It does come down to the idea of "fashion" vs. long term sustainability and integrity.

The Express headline writer made a big mistake in calling older houses "obsolete." But then that writer, and many of the flippers probably aren't reading (and watching) the right programs.

A couple resources that are online include:

-- Rehab Rochester (from the Landmark Society of Western New York)

not to mention the excellent reports from DC's own Capitol Hill Restoration Society:

But I also recommend magazines such as This Old House, Old House Journal, Old House Interiors, American Bungalow, as well as books, including those by Jane Powell.

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