SF Apartment : November 2017
Old Dog, New Tricks
by Jamie Mastro
Can you modernize a classic Victorian or Edwardian and still retain its charm?
Much of San Francisco’s housing stock consists of historic multifamily and mixed-use structures. Certain potential residents seek out these classic Victorians and Edwardians for their unique charms, but is there a way for owners to broaden the appeal? An older building’s historic finishes and décor are often a special draw for potential residents, and while it can sometimes be challenging to preserve all the historic details of a building as it undergoes various modernization projects, it is certainly attainable.
For the purposes of this article, “older buildings” implies multifamily and mixed-use buildings constructed between about 1875 and 1965; “modern buildings” refers to any condo or apartment structure built after the late 1990s.
What to Preserve and Enhance
Focus on preserving and restoring the most significant details, and maintaining the ones that are relatively easy to routinely repair.
The San Francisco Planning Department considers most older buildings historic resources, which makes it difficult to receive city approval for significant modifications to the facades of these buildings. Interior details are typically not as strictly regulated, if they’re regulated at all. The best opportunity to keep up with modern design expectations is usually in a building’s interior, while maintaining the original character of its exterior.
Original architectural details in common areas: These classic architectural details usually add value to a property and are more easily repaired and preserved than replaced with comparable modern finishes. Since common area improvements demand quick and non-invasive work for resident comfort, minor improvements and preservation are preferable to major remodeling.
As for flooring, prospective residents are almost never attracted to carpeting. If there is carpeting in your common area, consider a modern replacement, like hardwood flooring or tile.
Historic and period-specific interior finishes: While modern appliances, new plumbing fixtures and lighting are highly valued by prospective residents, maintaining some original finishes can make a dwelling stand out. Take flooring, for example.
Original wood flooring is in high demand and usually worth preserving and refinishing. And restoring original flooring is often less costly than installing new flooring. Even if you’re altering the layout of a space, there is no need to modify inlays or borders. Simply let those elements remain as-is and patch where necessary—they do not need to relate to the new wall layout.
It’s usually more cost effective to re-glaze a cast-iron tub than to replace it with a comparable quality fixture. Existing wall finishes, such as exposed brick or concrete, are particularly rare and valued by potential residents. Items like existing cabinetry, casework, and plumbing and lighting fixtures are probably not feasible to maintain, but it is still worthwhile to take inventory of these items and preserve them if they are particularly desirable.
What to Modernize
Don’t deter. Many of the amenities associated with modern living can be added to older buildings.
Landscaping and open outdoor space: Usable private balconies and patios, or gardens for aesthetic purposes, are typical of modern buildings. Not all older buildings are configured in a way to offer this amenity, but if the space is available and underutilized, it should be made to feel intentional and welcoming.
If the space is limited, consider sidewalk landscaping. The city approval is relatively simple compared to other forms of encroachment on a public way. Sidewalk landscaping can extend the perceived footprint of the building and provide a buffer between public and private spaces. This is also a particularly handy element to consider when developing ground floor areas as residential space, as with San Francisco’s Accessory Dwelling Unit Program.
Another option is usable roof decks. While roof decks can be difficult to install while meeting modern structural and fire safety requirements, some older structures lend themselves more readily to this intervention. If this isn’t an option for your building, consider extending light courts to grade where landscaping can provide visual or usable open space. Extending existing light courts to grade is often much more feasible and cost effective when done in conjunction with more extensive ground floor developments.
Common area lighting: Simple lighting will efficiently modernize a common space, while also enhancing security and highlighting any classic architectural details. Don’t overlook the color and temperature of lighting, which is especially important in an older building. Lighting that is too “warm” may not adequately illuminate, and it can even make the space feel gloomy. Alternatively, lighting that is too “cool” can feel clinical and unwelcoming.
Energy efficient lighting fixtures, such as LEDs, come in a variety of readily available temperature options. Investing in a single or a few traditional, ornate fixtures in key location will provide engaging focal points. Even though older buildings generally have a traditional feel, new lighting fixtures don’t need to match this style. Clean, modern lighting design can easily fade into the background to match any décor.
Upgraded Security: Nowadays, there’s no reason residents should feel less secure in an older building. Replace entry call boxes with the latest available, which includes cell phone integration and video features. Consider other upgrades, like key fobs or new locksets at unit entries. These modern everyday conveniences are straightforward as a part of a security upgrade.
Clean Utility Spaces: Dedicated, clean and clearly defined space for waste disposal can make residents more confident of a building’s overall condition and management. If a building’s waste disposal is outside, provide a screen, fence or vegetation area the area to keep it visually separate. For interior waste disposal areas, make sure the bins are in a dedicated room that adhere to current safety and fire standards. And don’t forget to include this room when maintaining a building; waste disposal areas should have clean flooring and wall finishes, ample lighting, insect control and odor ventilation controls. Not only will keeping this area up to par with other common spaces please residents, but it will also encourage them to keep it clean and tidy.
Thermal and Acoustic Comfort: A quiet and comfortable dwelling will contribute to a positive first impression. Even the most enthusiastic amateur architectural historian will appreciate the tranquility, which is a given feature of modern buildings. Batt insulation is a cost-effective, thermal and acoustic barrier. When remodeling units, batt insulation can be installed wherever exterior walls or walls between units are opened during construction. Resilient acoustic channels can be installed in ceilings and walls as well, if space allows.
Older windows are an unfortunate source of thermal and acoustic discomfort in older buildings, and there are conflicting energy and historic codes when it comes to window replacement. For properties that qualify for historic status, window replacement can be at least partially exempted from energy requirements, which on the bright side, expands options for improving energy and acoustics without having to adhere to the strict current codes.
Simply replacing a single-pane sash with a dual-pane sash and installing weather stripping can greatly improve the acoustic and thermal comfort of a dwelling without impacting the exterior of the building. Consider the building’s exterior when determining how extensive the window replacement will be. If the exterior itself needs extensive repair, it makes sense to fully replace window frames and flashing during the work.
Bicycle Parking: This amenity is becoming just as important as vehicle parking in San Francisco. During an extensive remodel, such as when adding accessory dwelling units, take advantage of the opportunity and reconsider the building’s parking area and the path of travel there. Whether adding bicycle parking in a building is a city requirement or a voluntary improvement, keep in mind that Planning Codes usually allow for replacing an existing vehicle space into multiple bike parking spaces.
Unit Remodels: Individual unit remodels between tenancies are a perfect opportunity to modernize the layout of an apartment. Kitchens that open to living spaces are a draw in modern residential design. In larger dwellings, opening living spaces can create a more efficient layout and may even provide an opportunity to add an additional bedroom or storage space within the footprint of the dwelling. When doing this type of remodel, always consult with a design professional to ensure that life-safety requirements are maintained while maximizing an efficient use of space.
Increasing Rentable Space at the Ground Floor: This can be accomplished in many ways. Old boiler equipment requires more space than modern boilers and the latest water heating systems. To boot, heating upgrades will significantly increase the energy efficiency of a building; landlords may also be able to individually meter tenants for usage.
Other spaces, such as building storage and laundry rooms, can be minimized or removed. Removing undersized and outdated trash chutes can provide additional building storage space, and providing in-unit laundry during remodels can reduce or eliminate the need for a common laundry room.
Older buildings often require multiple improvements and ongoing maintenance. Save time and expense by coordinating projects. For example, combining building upgrades with the addition of an accessory dwelling unit could make energy compliance more feasible. ADUs are subject to energy codes because they typically increase a building’s conditioned floor area. In an existing structure, complying with these requirements can be a challenge. However, it’s not difficult to exceed the standard requirements in certain areas of the building, like in an ADU or with heating systems and common area lighting; in turn, this could offset improvements previously required in other parts of the building.
Strategic coordinating and execution of necessary improvements can free up resources for additional upgrades, adding value to a property and making it a more competitive option in a city full of diverse options and potential tenants.
Jamie Mastro is a project architect at Angele Matt, Architect, Inc. For more information, visit angelamatt.com.