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Sep. 24, 2020 | Thursday
Editorials and Opinions
Arch-i-text: Design with historic houses
A sympathetic addition to a Georgian. (Submitted/Brian Marshall)

When designing an addition for a historic house there are two diametrically opposed schools of thought regarding the appropriate approach. The main point of contention is whether the new design should conform to the architectural style of the original house.

Initially, let’s touch on some commonly held precepts for the design of additions on a historic home.

First, the addition should be visibly subordinate to the original house; easily identifiable as a space of secondary importance with respect to the primary facade. Second, the addition should, where possible, not displace, alter or obscure the identified heritage elements of the house.

Third, the addition should be attached to the house via a “link” designed to create a visibly distinct separation between the new construction and original structure. Clearly, each of these items (and others not mentioned) is founded on the basic premise of featuring and celebrating the original architecture.

So, what does the architect do when faced with an historical house on which the original heritage elements have been lost? The answer is restore. With the expertise of architectural historians, heritage consultants and skilled restoration craftspersons, the facade of a house can be returned to its former glory.

Now, on the question of whether to conform to a particular historic architectural style, after 40 years of following both arguments I remain firmly with a foot in both camps.

On one hand, it requires a talented and specialized architect (usually of the New Traditional school) to create a modern rendition of a historical style; that is, a design that can be recognized as modern but is seamlessly sympathetic to the original and conforms to all the design criteria of the style.

On the other hand, one small mistake in the design can cascade into either a completely faithful reproduction that blurs the line between historic and new, or worse, a cheap looking repo knock-off.

For me, the risk must always be weighed against the streetscape. If variety will not detract from the neighbourhood composition (particularly adjacent homes), I’d opt for the lower risk, non-conformist option. However, maintaining neighbourhood integrity must always have the final and deciding say. If required, hire that specialist!