Make it Modern

  • By Gary Rosard Architect
  • 29 Jan, 2016

Traditional Homes Get a Makeover

This past week, I presented a talk to a well attended audience of local homeowners to discuss ways to modernize the more traditional homes typical to this area. The evening was generously hosted by Vanessa Pollock of Keller Williams Realty in Maplewood, herself a big fan of modern design. A large number of the newcomers to this area come from New York, Brooklyn, and Hoboken, and many of these urban dwellers come to these communities within an easy commute to the city, in search of affordable homes and good schools. For some, the price may include giving up their dream of a loft or a sleek modern home. The majority of the housing stock here is from pre WWII, with some 1950’s and 60’s ranches and split levels scattered around. Much of my architectural practice is based on taking these homes and re-conceiving them for clients who want a more modern aesthetic.

I started the discussion with a little history of the birth of what we now consider modern architecture, how Machine Age technologies created new opportunities for structure and use of materials. From Le Corbusier and Jeanneret’s Villa Savoye, their prototype “Machine for Living”, to Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, some of the iconic houses of early modernism were shown as inspirations for architects today. Open plans and clean lines are not typically found in our local homes.
I presented several examples showing how various types of homes had been re-designed to create these modernist features. Center hall colonial, side hall colonial, ranch and split level homes have all been canvasses upon which a modern sensibility can be created.

A recurring theme in many of the examples shown was the use of a solid central volume to help define individual spaces. This could be a free standing fireplace, a closet, or other type of element that is meant to allow the eye and body to flow around the perimeter of the house while acting to provide some visual separation. It’s a very different experience than just having a large opening in a wall between rooms. In that case, each room with four walls still feels distinct form it’s adjoining room, but when the separation happens in the middle and the ends are opened up, you sense the full volume of the combined spaces.
In this original plan and sketch of a typical center hall colonial plan, I show a quick concept of how this idea can be achieved
 in even the most traditional of house plans.
Here a fireplace provides separation between living areas, with long views and light along the perimeter.

These before and after plans clearly illustrate the concept of opening up rooms while still defining spaces with solid elements that allow flow around the perimeter.
Not everyone can tackle the sort of full scale renovation that some of these plans suggest, so I also showed how simple projects could make a traditional home feel more modern. From paint choices to trim details, lighting and hardware selections, there were many options for homeowners to tackle on a modest budget.
A new fireplace surround and hearth.
Two houses next door to each other. The one on the left has the trim painted to match the siding, different porch details,
and the red garage door, all combining to create a more modern sensibility.
Before and after entry foyer.
With a little imagination and effort, traditional homes can be re-conceived to reflect a modern lifestyle and aesthetic preference.
Many people love the detail and character of older homes, but for the modernist at heart,
you can still live your dream within the limitations of available homes.

By Gary Rosard Architect 07 Nov, 2017
 Recently I have been finding many new clients with the same dilemma: “should we rennovate/ reconstitute an existing house, or should we build from scratch?” Without knowledge of costs, options and building restrictions, it’s impossible for them to know exactly where the tipping point lies when deciding between renovating an existing house, or tearing it down to build something new. These are some of the issues they need to consider:
COST.    New construction costs are easier to estimate than renovations as there are so many variables and unknowns in renovation, particularly when removing parts of the existing structure. Also, significantly changing the footprint can be expensive, whereas building upward within the existing footprint is often more cost-effective.
EXISTING HOUSE STYLE.    Modern houses are few and far between in this part of the world. While I’ve done some modern interior renovations in colonial style homes, they are not ideally suited to creating a modern look on the outside.
And while ranches and split-levels tend to have better transforming potential given their typical mid-century origin, their existing designs are often hap-hazard and quirky.
REUSE POTENTIAL.    In deciding between a renovation and a tear-down, the first thing you want to examine is the layout and condition of the house, and its potential for transformation. The simple rearrangement of elements within the house (moving or opening up walls, replacing windows and doors, etc) is often the most cost-effective way to transform a house.
   Another major factor in deciding on whether to remodel or tear down and rebuild lies in the materials and systems in the existing structure. When it is clear that very little of existing structure and mechanical systems can be reused, it may be a sign that the home is not a good candidate for renovation.
SITE RESTRICTIONS .   State and municipal site restrictions can be a significant factor. In some neighborhoods, there may be zoning laws that limit the scope of construction of a new structure on the lot or an addition to the exiting house. In some cases, even while an existing house may not conform to zoning codes, it might still be “grandfathered-in”, even with a total renovation. At the same time, the new zoning might severely limit the potential of building a new house of similar size.
In other instances, the existing house may be situated in a way that adding on still can’t achieve the owner’s goals. If the property and location are nonetheless ideal for the client, it would make sense to tear-down and build from scratch.

Taking the right factors into account, and choosing the path that best aligns your goals with the characteristics of the house can result in a successful remodel for much less than the cost of building a new home.

Following are some case studies that illustrate the options between renovating and building new:
By Gary Rosard Architect 15 Aug, 2017

“International Style” architecture emerged in Europe during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The roots are traced to the Bauhaus School in Germany, where designers explored rational, functional, and sometimes standardized building types. In contrast to the prevalent styles of the day, simple forms, clean lines, no ornamentation, and the use of concrete, steel and glass as primary building materials defined the look. Although the principles were first adopted by architects and planners in Northern Europe, the term itself, International Style, was coined by Americans Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in 1932 when they curated MoMA’s first architectural show. The exhibition attracted much attention to the display of mostly foreign building models and drawings.

“The International Style is probably the first fundamentally original and widely distributed style since the Gothic,” Johnson argued. “Today the style has passed beyond the experimental stage. In almost every civilized country in the world it is reaching its full stride.” 

The Bauhaus School was closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi regime, the school was seen as a center or communist intellectualism. The staff emigrated all over the world, many to the U.S., bringing their ideals with them. The modernist style was readily adapted to any climate zone, and since it is not beholden to historical and vernacular tradition, architects around the globe were able to implement this style in their home countries.

When I started architecture school, these International Style  architects (Le Corbusier, Mies Van de Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Richard Neutra, and others) were the role models we learned from. It was just before Post Modernism swept the architectural world- my interest continued to be with the modernists. So, after many years of continuing to design in a modern style myself, it is both notable and gratifying to see how many of my clients are in fact themselves immigrants from around the world. Perhaps the interest in modern design is stronger among these adventurous emigres than for native born Americans.

Working with such a variety of foreign born clients has presented interesting opportunities and challenges. For a Chinese client, I was asked to incorporate Feng Shui principals into the design. The client had their own Feng Shui consultant who reviewed our plans and suggested some tweaks to the design. For an Indian family, we worked with Vastu principles (the traditional Hindu approach to harmony in home and architecture) to achieve a customized, unique home. Vastu principles of design were important in determining locations and layouts of the house; we collaborated closely with the client- they had a family member in India who is a Vaastu expert, who also reviewed our proposed design solutions. Working with these ancient principals provided a spiritual underpinning to the design that made itself felt throughout the process. 

By Gary Rosard Architect 30 Jun, 2017

Recently I met with a prospective client at their house for an initial consultation. Arriving at the address, a corner property, I was confused how to enter; should I be entering on the street of the address, or go around the corner? The front of the house lookedlike the back, and from the direction I was coming, I couldn’t see an entry door. I continued driving towards the corner and finally saw the door, hidden in a corner setback of the house.

The clients, aware of the problem, stated that one of their priorities was to create more curb appeal and make clear where to enter. This moment of confusion reminded me the power and importance of that transition from street to dwelling.

Most commonly the home entrance faces directly onto some type of a public thoroughfare like a street or public path, and a visitor expectsthe entrance to be clearly signaled. Some entrances are scaled large and grand, signifying the owner’s desire for public prominence.Others might be more subtle, offering privacy for the comings and goings of the household.

Usually the entrance offers some kind of overhead protection from the elements, and whether the door is centered on the front facade or asymmetric, these type of entries make a clear statement about what might be expected when you walk through the door. There might be a double height foyer that creates a sense of having arrived somewhere special, and encourages the visitor to pause or a single story height that is more cozy.

The landscaping between street and house adds to the overall feel of the approach. A straight sidewalk with formal rows of plantings and paving focuses attention directly on the door and creates a very different feeling than a path that wanders through a more garden like design. There are however other factors that might require the front door to in fact not face the street. This was the case when I designed a house for a client who wanted to use Vastu principles, which required the entry to be oriented in a particular direction, in this case sideways to the street. (Vastu is an ancient Hindu approach to harmony in home and architecture, with some similarity to the more familiar Chinese Feng Shui.) And along with the use of a canopy and low retaining wall distinguishing the entry area, any visitor would find themselves comfortably ushered from street to this house.

By Gary Rosard Architect 16 May, 2017
The Design Phase: Transforming Rustic Living to Contemporary Lifestyle

Our Harding Township project is in its design phase. For this home full of rich history in Morris County, New Jersey, we’re transforming rustic living into a contemporary atmosphere for the owners, who are from New York City coming with a sophisticated taste and appropriate budget.

Our common vision is a modern renovation, while paying tribute to the property’s artistic heritage. We are collaborating as well with a landscape architect right from the beginning in order to achieve a complete design for the property.

Modern renovation honoring Robert and Rowena MacPhail’s family history

Artists and educators Robert and Rowena MacPhail designed this unique mid-century modern style home during the 1950s. With the help of the stage tech crew from Millburn High School and from local craftsmen, Robert built the home during weekends and vacations over the course of eight years. It sits on a wooded, almost five-acre site in Harding Township. He and his students felled black walnut trees from the property and used the beautiful wood for the floors, cabinets, trim, and furniture.

Rowena continued to live in the house after Robert’s passing, and when she also passed, her children finally decided to put the house on the market. Initial interest was mostly from builders who wanted the property for the land value in this affluent community, and the family resisted. When a couple from New York showed interest in purchasing the home with the intent to preserve the character of the home, the MacPhail children Wendy and Peter welcomed the buyers who wished to preserve the home’s artistic integrity.
They created a scrapbook of their family history for the owners, providing wonderful insights into growing up in this home.
By Gary Rosard Architect 26 Feb, 2017
Recently I went to an Arm Balance Workshop at a yoga studio (that I happened to have designed). The 2 1/2 hour workshop was geared toward a fairly advanced level of practice and there were quite a few instructors taking the workshop. Arm balances are some of my favorite poses to do, so I was particularly interested to see how a full class would be devoted to them. You don’t just start a class with advanced poses; there is a process of getting both your body and your mindset ready for the exertion. A good teacher has the final goal in mind as he or she takes the class through a sequence of poses that stretch and strengthen the right muscles, highlight specific body alignments, and prepare a mental focus for that ultimate challenging pose.
By Gary Rosard Architect 10 Jan, 2017
One of the most intriguing and thrilling new developments that could have a big impact on house design is Tesla and Elon Musk's newest project to produce solar roof tiles. These tiles are designed to look like more conventional roof tiles that will cover the roof rather than panels sitting on the roof. Different tiles for different style homes. This means no unsightly solar panels  compromising the design of an elegant home. This is sure to appeal to a homeowner who would welcome the benefit of a solar powered home, but might not have wanted to live with the aesthetic compromise. 

Given that solar panels don't work on all exposures, dummy tiles are made to create the seamless appearance of the roof. "I think there's a radical difference between having solar panels on your roof that actually makes your house look better versus ones that do not, I think it's going to be a night- and -day difference" said Musk in a statement before the product's official launch. This past October, unveiling a demonstration project created to showcase this seamless design, an entire audience of press had to be persuaded that they were in fact looking at a solar roof. 
By Gary Rosard Architect 16 Nov, 2016
      If you saw my last newsletter, you know I was quite young when I was first inspired to be an architect, crossing the Verrazano Bridge shortly after it opened. By 9th grade I started finding work after school and summers in various architectural offices, mostly small firms where I ran prints, did errands, some simple drafting. After my junior year of high school, I was all set with a summer job in a firm in downtown Philadelphia, but as it was about to begin, they called to say they'd lost a big project and wouldn’t be able to take me on. Swallowing my disappointment I decided to try my luck by knocking on doors of a few firms in town. I figured I’d start with the best, and took the elevator up to the office of Louis I. Kahn. He was a major icon of modern design at the time, building masterpieces around the world. He was a teacher, poet, and artist. My lucky day, I was hired on the spot.
By Gary Rosard Architect 04 Oct, 2016
A question I am often asked is when I knew I wanted to be an architect. Unlike many other professions or businesses, I suppose people see architects as having a calling to do what they love. So it’s often interesting to hear how that spark was first ignited, and I’ve heard great stories from some of my colleagues. For me it started on a bridge.

I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, my mom was from Forest Hills, Queens, and her whole family was still in that area. So we often went to visit my grandparents, and other relatives for weekends. I always loved those trips, it was a pretty raucous New York Jewish family, and I was also dazzled by our trips into the city to see the sights and the big buildings. To get to Queens from Pennsylvania in the early 60’s you drove through the Lincoln Tunnel, across town, and through the Midtown Tunnel into Queens.

When I was 9 years old, my parents left me to spend a week with my grandparents, and they were to bring be back home the following week. Instead of the usual route, my grandfather took us over a new bridge from Brooklyn to Staten Island that had just opened, the Verrazano Bridge. I was in the back seat and awed by the scale and simple grandeur of this new bridge. It was then that I first recalled thinking I wanted to be an architect. OK, I was 9, I didn’t know that most bridges aren’t designed by architects, but there must have been the realization that designing structures was something I wanted to do.

To this day, I’m inspired and get a special pleasure driving over that mighty bridge.
By Gary Rosard Architect 06 Sep, 2016
Mention mid-century modern houses, and images of sleek, open plan, currently trendy homes come to mind. The classic examples grace the pages of Dwell Magazine and design blogs. There are a few good examples in northern New Jersey. However, more common in this area are the ranches and split levels built at the same time that alluded to a more modern taste, but rarely reached the level of design that is associated with the more desirable versions. These late 50’s through mid 60’s houses have become something of a pariah in the housing market, often never renovated since being built, and they often languish on the market when they come up for sale.

For a buyer who wants to create a modern home, these present a great opportunity- the price is usually lower than comparable homes in the neighborhood, and they lend themselves to modern make-overs. My clients who bought this split level house wanted to stay in their neighborhood, loved the location and the property, and saw a chance to create their dream home.
By Gary Rosard Architect 06 Aug, 2016
On our annual vacation at the tip of Cape Cod, we lucked out with timing to be able to go on a tour of 3 modernist houses in Wellfleet. Wellfleet became a hub for artists and creative types in the late 1930’s- land in the mosquito infested woods was cheap, and people started experimenting with building simple modern summer houses by the ponds. Most were built without architects, owners and tradespeople collaborated in developing ideas that reflected the modernist trends that were just starting to come over from the Europe. They were mostly built inexpensively. Curtains close off closets, kitchens are inexpensively built with open shelving- no luxury cabinets or granite here. Everything has an ad hoc feel, but what was achieved were homes that truly expressed a new modern idea of what a house could be, and felt appropriate to the rustic natural setting.

Many of these homes now sit within the Cape Cod National Seashore, created in 1961, and were designated for demolition and/ or neglect by the Park Service after a 25 year least back to the original property owners had expired. Thanks to the work of some local preservationists, the Cape Cod Modern House Trust acquired long term leases on three homes within the park area. They have been restored and are now rented out on a weekly basis.
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