Fall Home Design 2009: Take Two

When facing the morass of Massachusetts zoning, a homeowner’s best ally is the locally based architect, whose grounding in a particular town’s building codes can help avoid a drawn-out review process and several redesigns (not to mention clients’ ire). That’s why when Jeff and Vicky Hadden wanted to turn their postwar Colonial in Weston into something more attractive and appropriate to the rural landscape, they called on architect John Chapman, based in nearby Wellesley.

Chapman didn’t even consider taking the house down or adding much more square footage. "Weston is cautious," he says. "If we’d applied for a special permit, they’d review everything: light fixtures, paint colors, site engineering. Going through that process would have taken as much as a year." Carrying a project for months without a shovel hitting the ground, and possibly hiring a lawyer to boot, wasn’t something he wanted to put his clients through. So he kept the building under 6,000 square feet and retained 50 percent of the original structure—"That kept us out of the review board," he says.

After plenty of research and budget crunching, the Haddens decided the New England farmhouse look would provide maximum transformation for minimum investment. So Chapman enlarged the windows, added a farmer’s porch with beefy columns, and swapped out the asphalt shingles for a standing-seam metal roof.

With the money and zoning chits they saved on the main house, the Haddens were able to refashion their two-car garage into a traditional-looking New England barn. "We looked at a lot of barn structures and saw that they frequently overwhelmed the house. It was sort of the tail wagging the dog," Chapman says. "That’s how we could add square footage while maintaining a traditional look." He raised the roof on the garage and doubled its footprint to create a stunning 1,000-square-foot master suite with high ceilings and a loft tucked beneath a cupola.

Although Chapman wishes he could have raised the roof of the main house to better balance it with the enlarged garage/master suite, he’s pleased with the results. Just as important, the new house fits in nicely with the town’s preservationist attitude. "Weston’s planning is designed to protect what’s seen from the public perspective," Chapman says. "The town has designated scenic roadways and has developed codes to try to make houses invisible, set far back into the trees, to preserve its bucolic appearance."

With this farmhouse upgrade, the house finally matches up with Weston’s agricultural and historic character—not to mention its owners’ vision. "Six years later, thanks to John and many others who put long hours and much creative energy into the project, we have a house we love in a great spot," Vicky says.

Yet there are some who actually consider local towns’
restrictive zoning a godsend, because it encourages home-owners to think twice about tearing something down. "Sometimes it’s better to tear down because the house is so poorly insulated and constructed that it would cost a lot to repair and, more important, to heat and cool it," says John Hong, coprincipal of Cambridge architecture firm Single Speed Design. "But in other cases, saving an existing structure not only makes the project more charged and interesting, it also is a good sustainable strategy."

Consider, for example, Single Speed Design’s project in Medfield nicknamed the "Small Big House." Homeowners Cuan and Lee Coulter had spent a year in their 1930s house, and were eager to be rid of its small, poorly lit rooms and severely water-damaged 1960s upper floor. But because it backed up against conservation land, a teardown would have required a special permit. So they contacted Single Speed Design, which proposed a major renovation, one that would avoid the permitting slog while also making the structure more eco-friendly.

Since the ground floor was solidly built and clad in stone, the Coulters and their architects decided to keep it intact, saving those materials from the landfill and reducing construction costs. They also recognized that the stone on the house’s exterior would keep it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Instead they poured their design energy into the second floor, breaking up what was once a single space into three "pavilions" separated by decks and a bamboo garden. The change is dramatic: The master bedroom, guest bedroom, and corridors feel light, airy, and almost Californian. Deep overhangs and plantings keep the rooms cool and work in tandem with the stone base, eliminating the need for air conditioning. "The openness of the new second floor gives the sense that the space is larger without increasing the actual square footage," says Single Speed coprincipal Jinhee Park. "This is one of our simplest but most important attitudes toward sustainability—that spaces do not have to be bigger, just designed so that they [feel that way]."

The Coulters, for their part, were pleasantly surprised by the changes Single Speed suggested. "Changing the front entrance by removing some stone and adding the ‘glass box’ was not something we ever considered—and almost sacrificed due to budget constraints—but are so glad was included in the design," Lee says. "It completely makes the house, both from the outside and from within."