This article was originally published in the December 2017 Princeton Echo.
Although the Princeton of popular imagination may be populated by quaint old houses, the town in fact offers a wide range of housing stock, some old but redeemable and some destined for the bulldozer. The decision on whether to renovate or tear down depends on cost, for sure, but also esthetic and pragmatic considerations like problems with the existing structure, lot size, and zoning district.
Princeton architect Kirsten Thoft has made a name for herself in Princeton as a restorer of houses, not a tear down specialist. In 2006 she took a non-descript ranch house at the corner of Linden and Hawthorne and converted it into two side-by-side condos. In 2010 she and some partners bought a four-apartment building at 53-59 Wiggins Street and converted it into four condominium units. The house where she lives and works at 45 Linden Lane might have been viewed as a tear-down prospect by some real estate developers. Not Thoft.
So when news came that Thoft had purchased a small house at 82 Valley Road and had decided to tear it down and build a new house from scratch, the question arose — what was different?
In evaluating a house Thoft looks for “good bones.” Some houses, she says, “have character, details that are worth saving: moldings, high ceilings, nice stairs, nice old windows, interesting roof shapes, interesting massing [the basic building blocks of a building], like a cool front porch.”
But other houses are not worth the investment, like many put up in the 1940s and ’50s to fulfill the pressing need for housing. “They are quick and cheap and weren’t built to last 70 years, which is why we are seeing a lot of them torn down,” Thoft says.
“I’m not a person who says you shouldn’t demolish things,” she says. But “you have to evaluate each one.”
The house at 82 Valley Road, a mail-order “kit” house with a laundry list of problems, did not pass muster. The house not only had no insulation, but it had no cavities in its inside or outer walls that would have made insulation possible. And, in fact, all the walls consisted of a panel of Homasote-like material, which, Thoft says, “is essentially like cardboard with a hard shell on top, and you can’t insulate it.” Because it had “substandard framing,” a second floor could not be added. The cinder block foundation not only lacked footings, but was actually dissolving. To top it all off, the poor drainage in the dirt crawl space had caused a house-wide mold problem.
“To try to renovate would approach two-thirds of the cost of building a new house,” Thoft says. “For an old house, you have to have a real love of that house to make it worth putting the money into it.”
More interesting to Thoft is not what she is tearing down, but what she is putting up, a house that fits the surroundings, but with “something breaking out of the mold.”
“There are certain patterns you can see in a neighborhood, and even though that house [at 82 Valley] is larger than some other houses, there is a pattern of development that I try to look at and learn from,” she says. In her design she has worked hard, she writes in an e-mail, “to break up the massing of the new house to minimize its perceived size,” although she also imposes her own stylistic approach, where she mixes traditional massing with more modern details.
Thoft is less concerned about the houses immediately to the right or left, but says even more important to her “is wanting whatever I put up to look like it belongs in Princeton.”
She says, “While there is a wide range of architecture in this town, the 1920s Victorian architecture — people see it and they think Princeton, they think old Northeastern town; it is a vernacular here. I pay attention to what the vernacular is here, and then I give it a modern twist or interpretation.”
“I love old buildings. It is something I care about and something ingrained in me,” Thoft says. Growing up in a modern house in a pre-Revolutionary town in Massachusetts, she says she learned about context early on. After earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture at Penn in 1986 and 1991, Thoft came to Princeton to work with Michael Graves and then Bob Hillier.
Looking to the modern side of her new house at 82 Valley, she says, “I think it is going to be cool looking. It’s very bright and feels open and modern.” It is not like many older houses where a “Leave It to Beaver” social structure is assumed, and the result is a “tiny little kitchen that is separate that the lady cooks in. “That’s not how people live these days, and that is people’s problem with older houses,” she says. “They don’t speak to this lifestyle change; as a feminist, I care a lot about not having a separate kitchen.”
The house’s main floor also includes a den and bathroom (“in case of knee surgery,” she says); on the second floor are three bedrooms and two baths and in the attic a bedroom and bath. The house also has a two-car garage.
The house also reflects Thoft’s long-term commitment to efficient energy. “This community is full of smart people who care about the environment and care about their own energy bills,” she says.
“For me, each project that I do, I have pushed myself to try to learn more about high-efficiency building — to drop the energy costs, to make houses more comfortable, to make them brighter inside — because that’s one of the things I find motivating and driving about building: contributing to some degree in this issue of climate change,” she says.
The new house on Valley Road will have thick walls, heavy insulation, a new foundation, sealed ductwork, a ventilation system, and, despite its larger size (2,815 square feet including the garage), will use less energy than the 1,445-square-foot house that Thoft took down.
She is going through a green building certification and the resulting structure will be a Zero Energy Ready Home (ZERH). Recently launched by the Department of Energy, this program certifies buildings as being highly energy efficient, such that they would be near net zero in energy use if renewables like solar cells were added to the structure.
Talking generally about cost considerations regarding new construction in Princeton, Thoft says that the cost of a buildable Princeton lot ranges from $500,000 to $600,000 (the lot and former house at 82 Valley cost $515,000), plus $40,000 for a zoning application, permitting, affordable housing fee, a lawyer for zoning, and site and structural engineering. The cost to build the new house is about $300,000 for materials and another $300,000 for labor. And then there are carrying costs, like taxes, insurance, and financing that add another $50,000. Finally, there are brokerage sales and closing fees and taxes when the house goes up for sale. The architect is hoping to make around 10 percent of the construction costs for project management, design, construction administration, etc. When all these costs are added up, the final cost is more than $1.3 million.
The house at 53-59 Wiggins, where Thoft ultimately won a Historic Preservation Society award, was originally a duplex with four apartments. The property, she says, “looked pretty crummy.” After the renovation, it had four condos.
Although “it was the ugliest building on the block,” she was able to keep “the good parts in the building.” Those included the original clapboard that she found when she removed the aluminum siding as well as “nice moldings, big old radiators that are fun, nice floors, and plaster walls.” And the house also had “a solidity to it,” the room sizes are nice, and it gets good light. “Houses built before cheap electricity and cheap gas have a different approach to light and space,” she says.
Thoft significantly upgraded the property in terms of energy efficiency, with insulation, new windows, and new efficient heating and air conditioning systems. It was a National Association of Homebuilders Emerald Rated Project, which is their highest Green Rating.
“When you need to do all that stuff to a building — which is what people want — then there’s a base price of renovation, so that house better be worth it esthetically at that base price,” Thoft says. “And if not, it’s fairly simple economics; some houses can’t absorb $300,000 worth of renovation into them and not be under water.”
Other relatively recent examples of Thoft’s work include a renovation of 43 Linden Lane, next door to her own residence and with “a lot of nice details built in the 1930s.” She also renovated her former house at 16 Park Place over the years and then sold it. On Long Beach Island, she knocked down an existing house at the behest of the owner, who wanted to build a bigger house with a roof deck.
A very big project nearing completion is Thoft’s 75,000-square-foot renovation of an old mill in Hamilton that had not been used for many years. She did work specifically on the section owned by Isles, a community development and environmental organization whose mission to foster self-reliant families and healthy communities. The co-owner of the building is Modern Recycled Spaces. Isles plans to rent to other nonprofits aligned with the Isles mission, as part of a social nonprofit center. Thoft added stairs, an elevator, and bathrooms, and a rentable event space. Isles was able to hold its fall gala in the building, dubbed “Mill One,” which is still being fit out for tenants. The building, from the 1890s, has been a textile mill, a shirt factory, and in its last incarnation in the 1970s, a manufacturer of bags for bowling balls.
“I have a fondness for old buildings and don’t take anything down lightly,” Thoft says. “I do hope that what I build on Valley Road will be a model for replacing houses which have clearly reached the end of their life cycle.”
Kirsten Thoft, Architect, 45 Linden Lane. 609-947-8982. email@example.com. kirstenthoft.com