Fall Home Design 2009: Take Two

Standing in stocking feet in 17-degree weather with her husband and their 14-year-old daughter, Concord resident Sara Mrachek watched as firefighters tore the roof off the family’s modest mid-1960s Cape, which was being gutted by the hottest fire that the town’s department had ever seen. The next day, the Mracheks returned to their charred, soaked home; studying the scene, they calculated that it was a total loss.

In most states, the next step would be to tear down and rebuild, or sell. The Mracheks would end up doing neither. Instead, they were about to learn a hard lesson about being homeowners in the Bay State, a surprisingly antiquated place when it comes to rules about what you can build, and where.
It’s been almost 30 years since Massachusetts updated its planning, zoning, and subdivision control statutes; the American Planning Association has ranked the state as being among those with the weakest and most outdated land-use laws in the nation. Without clear, up-to-date statewide guidelines, towns have developed their own ad hoc, increasingly complex building codes.

While this does give each town unique power to check development, preserve its neighborhoods’ character, and protect real estate values—arguably the kinds of things that make people want to live there—it also forces homeowners like the Mracheks to navigate a complex and often confusing web of bylaws. What complies and what doesn’t, and what will get bounced to the board of appeals, often comes down to a building inspector’s interpretation. All of which means few Massachusetts residents get much flexibility when it comes to rebuilding. Instead, they must get creative.

Paying high rent on temporary shelter in Waltham while battling for their insurance payout, the Mracheks didn’t have time to waste. But since their house sat on "nonconforming property" (the frontage was too short), Concord’s zoning law required them to get a special permit from the planning board to tear down their damaged home—a process that would take at least six months. A real estate broker warned the Mracheks that any prospective buyer or developer would run from this special-permit condition, or bargain them down to nothing. So the family decided to opt for Plan C: Build what was allowed by law.

In their case, that required preserving at least 50 percent of the house’s original structure. It also required plenty of drop-ins by the town building inspector to approve which parts of the damaged house they would keep and which they would remove. ("I felt like I was in high school with the principal checking my skirt length," Sara Mrachek jokes.)

For help they turned to Cambridge-based architect Chris Royer, principal of Royer Architects. Working with the existing footprint, Royer reinvented the house’s shell—replacing clapboard with shingles, moving and enlarging windows, deepening the eaves—to transform the Cape into a contemporary shingle-style home.

Still, the zoning strictures left their mark. By keeping the existing studs in order to meet the 50 percent rule, the Mracheks were unable to significantly improve on the outdated 1960s plan. "It was a huge headache for the contractor, too," Royer notes. "Sometimes we were building new columns right next to the old columns just to meet code." Another regulatory quirk forced the creation of an awkward four-step staircase between the second floor and the new master suite over the garage.

More than half a million dollars later, the Mracheks have their new home—and a handsome one—but Sara says it’s not quite what she would have built if she’d had free rein. She would have made sure, for instance, that the second floor was all on one level. She would have opened up the floor plan so that the whole house could be heated by a wood-burning stove. And she would have spent less money trying to save a damaged structure, and more on windows and finishes. "They made us take the hard road at every turn," she says.

Still, with a larger kitchen, a lovely sleeping porch, and plenty of room for their art collection, the Mracheks are happy they stayed. "I know it sounds funny," Sara says, "but I wouldn’t have traded this for anything. Working with Chris and building this house was a wonderfully healing experience."