AT HOME IN SILVER SPRING: Staying put in East Silver Spring — Part 1

The Bowman residence on Gist.


When we moved into our East Silver Spring bungalow we thought it would be a starter home and after a while we would move on.  A decade later we are still here and have no intention of leaving our home or our community.  We are not alone, and this is a sentiment we hear over and over in East Silver Spring: It is a terrific place to live and residents cannot imagine living anyplace else, so they stay in their bungalow, cape cod or colonial and figure out how make the most out their limited space.

The reality of homes in East Silver Spring is that they are small houses on small lots.  There just isn’t the option of tearing down or McMansionizing, thank goodness.  We have, for the most part, been spared from those trends that have been troubling other neighborhoods in the County, such as Bethesda.  In Silver Spring home owners have to be realistic about what kinds of things they can do when renovating their house.  The other reality of our homes here is that they date back to the 1920’s through the 1940’s and they usually are in need of updating to deal with outdated systems and building-code compliance issues.

There are three aspects to updating our homes: The safety and building code-related issues, the functional aspects related to living space, and often overlooked, the aesthetic component. And by aesthetics, we mean much more than being fortunate to own one of these wonderful old houses and in a position to be able to add on or renovate it. You are dealt a hand that requires you to make improvements in a way that fit in with the established character of your house, street and neighborhood.

As we said in our Streetscapes article back in July, our neighborhood is a complex organism and its building blocks are the homes, porches, yards, sidewalks and streets. These need to harmonize and work together. The tight knit character of our streets and lots does not leave enough breathing room for incompatible or out of place additions. To put it another way, you don’t want to be the person with the carbuncle on the back, or even worse, the front, of your house, that was the result of a poorly considered renovation and/or addition.

Adding on with sensitivity to your house with careful attention to, not only your house’s scale and style, but also that of your neighbors’, can mean that the addition looks like it was always there. We think the best complement to be paid for these kinds of improvements is just that: It looks like they were always there.

There are two homes in our neighborhood that have achieved that goal:  The Bowman residence and Park residence, both on Gist Avenue. Both have had recent major interior renovations along with  expanding their attics into a full second floor with added bedrooms and bathrooms.  But to look at either house from the exterior, both additions are scaled and detailed to not only work with the original bungalow, but also with the adjacent houses and the neighborhood. Both homeowners were in similar situations and had similar motivations: They bought their small two bedroom/one bath bungalows a number of years ago, have grown to love the community, neighborhood and house. They both were faced with growing families and were in a position to expand and make improvements.

The Bowman residence on Gist.

The Park residence on Gist.

We talked with local architect Brian McCarthy, whose firm, Bennett Frank McCarthy based in Silver Spring, designed both renovation-addition projects. Mr. McCarthy lives in Takoma Park in a bungalow and is sensitive and supportive of them.  He views it as a sustainable housing type and has worked on several houses in the area. “Many of these homes have decades of unfortunate additions and changes. We enjoy restoring the homes to their original character,” he says.

It is also interesting to see how his firm’s business has developed over time: “Twenty years ago most of our work was in Bethesda, but in the last 10 years more work is in Silver Spring and Takoma Park.”  Mr. McCarthy credits the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring with the increased desirability of the surrounding residential neighborhoods. Furthermore, the increase in local house values means many people have built up equity in their homes to help offset the cost of improvements, and this means the old attitude that the cost of renovations would outpace the value of the house or neighborhood is likely not true for most of us in the area. Now, most of our older homes need improvements and can afford those improvements.

While we love the character, charm and well-crafted detail of our old houses, experience tells us there is often little else positive in the adage “They don’t build them like they used to” when we talk of old house construction. Older homes have several conditions that need to be modernized for safety and building code compliance and should be a priority for all homeowners – whether adding on or not.  During our interview Mr. McCarthy was able to touch on several of these:

  • To start, two types of older electrical wiring can be problematic: The original old fabric covered wiring and aluminum wiring that became popular in the 1950’s. Both are unsafe and can lead to fires.  They need to be replaced with modern wiring by a licensed electrician.  Old wiring can smolder in a wall or ceiling for days before igniting into a full-fledged emergency.
  • Old galvanized plumbing piping can corrode from the inside out, leading to back-ups, or worse, messy blow outs, just about the time your guests show up.
  • The wood framing of your house can be undersized as well.  This becomes an issue when you want to convert your attic to living space or your porch or deck needs replacement. The wood joists supporting the floor are generally smaller than currently required by the Building Code.
  • There may be some hazardous materials that will need to be removed from the house during a renovation.  Asbestos can be found in insulation around old heating systems or in old composition floor tile from the 1940’s.  Lead-based paint is an issue if there are children or pregnant women in the house or you intend to rent your property.  Asbestos can be easily abated (removed) by qualified firms, and your architect, contractor, or the county can provide guidance on this issue. Furthermore, lead paint can also be removed or even encased with careful paint restoration.
  • The single biggest code issue in older homes is the existing stairs.  If you intend to expand the living space in your attic or second floor the existing stair probably does not meet the current building code.  The County will require that you bring the stair up to current code, meaning it may need to be widened or the treads deepened and the risers reduced – extending the overall length of your stair.  Tearing out your old stair and replacing it with a new code compliant stair will impact the rooms around the stair.  For this we would recommend getting the help of an architect who is trained to deal with problems like this.

Don’t be intimidated by the list of issues you will need to deal with when you renovate your Silver Spring home.  If you have been in your house for more than 10 years, you have a lot of equity in your home.  You can use that equity to make your house safe, comfortable, and a place where your family will be able to stay and grow. Adding on and renovating your old house will allow you to keep the best of the old and incorporate the best of the new and allow you to stay put and contribute to our attractive, vibrant and diverse community.

The Park and Bowman family home are examples of successful renovations of existing East Silver Spring houses.  Their houses can now comfortably and safely accommodate their families, the value of their homes has increased, and best of all; they get to stay in the neighborhood they love.

About the Author

Steve Knight and Karen Burditt
Karen Burditt is a registered architect with 25 years experience, currently working with Esocoff & Associates Architects in Washington DC. Steve Knight is an Associate with David M. Schwarz Architects, also in Washington. Steve and Karen have lived in their bungalow in East Silver Spring for 12 years.

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