AT HOME IN SILVER SPRING • BY STEVE KNIGHT & KAREN BURDITT
Last month we wrote about adding onto historic homes in our community and cited two local examples of well crafted and sensitively handled projects. The article largely focused on the realities and pitfalls of such projects.
We quickly touched on some of the aesthetic issues to be aware of as well, and thought this area was worth expanding on in our next article.
When we say aesthetics, we mean more than additions or alterations that meet current or personal taste or that are deemed attractive. What we mean is there are criteria one needs to follow when considering alterations so that the alterations fit with the established patterns of the old house, its street and its neighborhood.
We are of course focused on our community of East Silver Spring, comprised of mostly older and smaller homes, spaced tightly together. We believe there is much worth preserving in the neighborhood, and the character of our houses is an integral part of the character of our streets and neighborhoods.
This does not mean you cannot add on and alter what you have to accommodate growing families and modern conveniences. To restate a point we made in the last article, if you are fortunate enough to be in a position to renovate or add onto your old house, you have a responsibility to do it in a way that is sensitive to the house’s and neighborhood’s character. You need to think of yourselves as the stewards of your old houses.
We have come up with some themes we believe will help us understand how additions and renovations can maintain this character. We have found, in the case of our neighborhood, that this is largely an issue how our houses meet the street. Much like being a good guest at a dinner party, if everyone arrives dressed appropriately and with a good attitude, everyone is assured of having a good time.
To illustrate our points, we have again included the two examples on Gist Avenue from last month’s article, but we have chosen photographs that show these two renovated houses in context with their neighbors.
This has to do with how the size of a house and its parts reads relative to the houses around it. Are we talking about a street of small houses or large ones? Is the street comprised of two-story or one-story homes or a mixture of both? One way to see this is to stand on the sidewalk and look down the opposite side of the street. Look at the two examples pictured here and see how the general rhythm of similarly sized gables, porches and facades are compatible with one another.
We’ve all seen some pretty oversized alterations to homes before and this is really unfortunate when it happens. Like a bull in a china shop, an oversized house on a street of tightly knit homes will dwarf and devalue its neighbors. To illustrate a bad example, study the rather comical photo of the two cars: Notice how not only the larger car’s overall bulk and size dwarfs the smaller one, but also how this is reinforced with each of the parts on the larger car being much bigger than those on the smaller one: The tires, the doors, even the headlights. And when we turn our attention back to our two local examples, there is another nuance to scale: The two Gist houses have likely added a lot of livable floor area, but their scale is compatible with their neighbors.
What we mean here is the general arrangement of the parts that make up the house: The main house form, its roof shape, whether hipped or gabled, for example, the direction the gable runs (front to back or side to side) and the other parts, including porches, dormers, bay windows, etc. The term architects often use for this is “massing”.
Generally what is going to work best is when the houses on a street take a similar attitude to their massing. Houses can be of different styles but still have similar massing. Notice the rhythm of gables across the houses in the two photos here and how the added second stories of Park and Bowman houses do not overpower the massing of their neighbors.
By style we mean the general language or historical era a house borrows from for its appearance. Some of these we know pretty well: Colonial Revival, Arts and Crafts, Tudor and mid century Ranch, just to name a few. We certainly do not believe that a street should be comprised 100% of houses of the same style. A strictly colonial or bungalow street would just be boring.
But on the other hand, a street made up of nothing but disparate houses constantly toggling from one style to another would be jarring. So, the right formula seems to be something in between, and again, we ask you to look at the examples of the two Gist Avenue street shots: No two houses look exactly alike, nor are they totally different. Rather, they borrow and share similar elements: Porch railings, window shapes, sizes and muntin patterns and roof eave overhangs and brackets. In a sense, the parts converse with one another.
We hope no one walks away from this article thinking we are arguing for homogeneity and sameness. Far from it. Think of it this way: Knowing what kinds of alterations will be compatible with the character of our streets is much like learning a language. Once we understand the letters, words and phrases, we can begin to construct sentences and thoughts that leave ample room for expression and variation. We think all you need do is look at some really good examples we have right here in the community and Gist Avenue is a good place to start.
So, as you walk or drive around the area, try to pick out houses that work well and fit in and ask yourself why they do. We think using the themes we have talked about here will help you to better understand what works and what doesn’t. Being a good steward of your home will preserve the character of the neighborhood you chose to live in.