Our fourth design debate in this series strikes a similar tone. While arguing on opposing sides, our participants, Beth Dadswell and David Coulson, seem to come to an agreement about the nature and reality of updating modern interiors in historic and old homes. When done respectfully, it’s all fair game.
And that’s something the final presidential debate, which takes place at 9 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Oct. 19, could benefit from following.
Experience: “l set up my interior design company, Imperfect Interiors, after more than a decade of renovating my own period properties for resale. Consequently, I spent countless hours advising clients on ways to update older houses with modern comforts, while retaining and highlighting their period character.
Why she’s for it: “I love period properties,” she says. “I also love a really hot shower in the morning, a warm bathroom floor, and windows that don’t drip with condensation afterward. I firmly believe that you can have the best of both worlds, and this is a subject that I spend a lot of time discussing with my clients. How do you retain period features but also make your home fit for the 21st century? A bit of judicial planning before you hand over the keys to the builders is essential, as most of my tips involve predecorating work.”
“Install underfloor heating in all bathrooms before fitting new faucets and in any new kitchen additions that will have a tiled floor. In addition to being invisible, it also frees up precious wall space and creates an ambient heat.
“Also consider adding more insulation under your floorboards if you are laying a new floor. Period properties tend to have large voids under the ground floor to allow air to circulate, but this can become drafty in the winter.”
“If baseboards need to be removed so that a new floor can be installed, I always look at existing baseboards and try to match proportions if they are original. The same with crown molding and ceiling roses. It is possible to take molds of these and have them replicated if a ceiling has to come down. Proportion and design are key here.
“Things that I don’t suggest changing and always try to persuade clients to retain are period fireplaces, staircases, original pathway tiles, original undamaged crown molding, ceiling roses and stained glass. These are the reasons why many people love period properties, so it is a real shame to remove them. They add character and value to properties, so either restore them or leave them alone. Painting them in contemporary colors can make them feel less traditional and make them recede into the background if you don’t want them to be the focal point of a room.”
Experience: “I apprenticed with a master Danish builder — my father-in-law, Hardy Sorensen —and partnered with him in a historic restoration business, starting in the late 1970s in the historic mining town of Wells, British Columbia, Canada,” David Coulson says. “This was a 1930s gold-mining town entirely built in the false-front architecture common to many pioneering towns of the U.S. Midwest. It also served as a living community to run and restore the 1860s gold-mining museum town of Barkerville, just 3 miles away, that was then operated by the Provincial Heritage Branch of British Columbia.
“We spent 10 years restoring much of both communities to the vernacular of the times, many buildings receiving ‘adaptive reuse’ treatments that were meant for public use. Custom replicas of furnishings were turned out of our shop, Wells Woodworking, in Wells, and we were often called upon to create elaborate and authentic sets and details for Hollywood films that would be shot there on location.”
“We also traveled east and re-created a turn-of-century waterfront community of Guysborough, Nova Scotia, into a vibrant tourist destination facility, including shops, galleries, pubs, ship chandlers and marina. Our work over these 40 years always followed the philosophy of the federal Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada, a guide developed originally in the United States in the 1960s to preserve historic sites in the U.S.
“I still run a company of 20-plus full-time employees and craftsmen engaged in this work, along with a new and contemporary division creating and building the vernacular of today, so that we can be seen and studied years from now through a similar lens.”
“The question often arises: to repair or restore? When it is clear to restore, the project is simple. Replace with like materials in the same vintage and same finish, and extend the life a further 100 or 150 years depending on the building in question.
“Repair, however, opens the door to changes, substitutions and close copies of the original, with the final cost often being the driving force behind these decisions. This is also the juncture where the client wants to make a possible modern upgrade or adaptive reuse, as we often refer to it, to perhaps address changing styles or, more often, changing lifestyles and uses of a building.
“This is the most common and often fatal juncture when historic content is changed or substituted or hidden from view and perhaps lost altogether. It is a shared feeling globally that today’s home, for example, is defined by the warmth around the central kitchen and family area. In the past, the maid, the servant or the family lived in more isolated situations with several smaller rooms, perhaps where this indoor experience was not quite so celebrated.
“The kitchen was minimal in size and function, and family members were separated to different areas of the home. This ‘gathering experience’ was probably more common and felt on a picnic outing or visit to the lakeside cottage, where sharing was received in a more relaxed atmosphere. Today’s fast-paced lifestyles have lost taking the time for this on a regular basis, so we struggle with trying to create this ‘heart’ in our homes on a daily basis and feel the need to redesign our homes to include every possible activity there is.”
“I am the first to say that some compromising must take place to make these desired changes truly work for the whole family. Newer and more energy-efficient appliances will replace the old icebox and wood cookstove. The gas lamps will be replaced by new LED bulbs, perhaps, but the goal in all of this is to strike a real balance of the character-defining elements and the creature comforts that a modern family requires.
“It should be noted that a quick review shows the most successful films and TV series today still employ the use of authentic furnishings and details to create this warmth. Popular suppliers offer up vintage finishes, filament lighting, spun metal lighting fixtures and vintage bath hardware that have been trending now for years here in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, especially. A large percentage of these supplies are of a historic nature and replicated in every detail. So I guess we can’t all be wrong, can we?”
“The difficulty is always in where to draw the line when updating old properties,” Dadswell says. “Do you pull down a gently sagging ceiling, and completely replace it with new plasterboard and perfectly finished plaster? Or do you employ a careful builder to gently remove any blown areas, fill the cracks and lightly skim? It is a matter of personal taste, of course, and the decision is often dictated by budget. I would opt for the latter option if you want to retain the sense of history and are happy to embrace its imperfections, but for clients looking for perfection and no further maintenance, ripping it out and starting again is often their favored option.
“The same goes for wonky door frames, baseboards, creaky doors and original floorboards. All of these elements give the property a sense of history, and removing them can leave rooms feeling soulless and cold. I would always keep these features if at all possible, but modernize the room by painting it in a very contemporary color.”
“Another way of modernizing a room is to opt for long, loose linen curtains or Roman blinds in a contemporary color. These highlight beautiful period windows without blocking out too much light, and avoid that gloomy feeling that was so loved by the Victorians. Paint window frames in a modern shade of gray, green or black, inside and out, and see what a difference this makes to the feel of the building. The period windows then become a highlight.
“And finally, let plenty of natural daylight in, and then bounce it around with carefully positioned mirrors, wall lights and lamps. This gives rooms an atmosphere that you can never achieve with multiple rows of spotlights in the ceilings, my personal pet hate.
“Ultimately, you don’t want to live in a period museum, but think carefully before ripping out those beautiful old features. With some careful consideration and planning, you can successfully combine modern living whilst retaining and embracing the character that is only found in these precious old buildings.”
“I am pleased we agree on many points,” Coulson says. “For starters, if we are discussing a reasonably well-built historic home, nearly all the components original to the home are as code-compliant today as they were then. And that means comfort was often addressed back then, but perhaps with less efficient systems or affordable means to operate them.
“When those homes were first built, they were not drafty at all. But over time, things shift and dry out and shrink, and we as homeowners never kept up with well-informed maintenance and upgrade measures until it became critical. Our first reaction is to throw out or completely modernize. Both these solutions are wrong in many ways. And we are certainly now realizing that with today’s throwaway style of new construction and consumerism.
“In terms of hot showers and steamy windows, the water was plenty hot in those days, and the resulting steam is because we can’t afford to keep our windows open. We close them up today to save heat loss but need to address moisture by adding an exhaust fan wired to a dehumidistat that controls whole-house moisture.
“We certainly need to condone the addition of fans and exterior wall insulation for old homes, which can be done by well-trained installers in discreet ways. These upgrades protect the integrity of the building, add to its life span and increase comfort for those inside. These even become maintenance issues as opposed to upgrades, as they address the aging and shrinking process mentioned above. Think of it in terms of increased costs in health care for seniors. Same people, just constant higher maintenance. Exterior wall insulation also keeps the wall surface warmer so mirrors are less likely to fog up.”
“Perhaps saving or restoring the original wood floors that were often in older bathrooms is a better way. Warmer to the touch and the eye. And please stay true to the original type of flooring. Douglas fir floorboards don’t come any nicer and are readily available still in full thickness or newly sustainable versions that are engineered thinner versions.
“Frank Lloyd Wright installed in-floor hydronic heat to nearly all his homes from early in the 20th century. Mechanical fans would have improved the comfort to his buildings as well as dealt with unwanted moisture, increasing airflow and therefore less apt to form dangerous mold. His systems were designed into the homes, often taking advantage of the thermal mass provided by the red-tinted concrete floors he was well-known for.
“In the 1914 Victoria Heritage Green Renovation I am featuring here, we added double-paned windows only to new areas like the basement, where they were missing altogether. The remaining leaded glass and sash on the upper two floors were all either reinstalled with new putty, or had newly installed tight-fitting lead caming, and we added bronze fin seal gaskets to the entire surrounds to give draft-free performance. Exterior wood storm windows were added for increased thermal comfort and noise reduction. These were methods employed in many or most of these homes in the day, but we have simply forgotten to include them today.”
“We added hydronic heat throughout this home so all floors, including vintage porcelain floors, were warm to the touch. What you don’t see is a geothermal well in the middle of the strawberry patch at the rear of the driveway that provides very efficient heating throughout the home for a fraction of the cost of any of today’s traditional methods. Rodent- and bug-proof insulation was used throughout, and provided soundproofing between rooms in the house. The house included fiber-optic wiring for the future, a built-in backup electric grid for power outages, kill switches in sleeping areas to minimize electric and magnetic fields to the residents, and solar hot water panels and storage to minimize hot water bills. In total, it was one of the most advanced homes in the region in every respect, but not a single character-defining detail was compromised.
“I agree with Beth’s list of items to retain in these character homes for their obvious intrinsic character. I would have to add flooring also. And in terms of painting or paint finishes, it always pays to do a little research and exploration to study the existing layers to see if something or some colors are exposed that would not have been imagined. We often come across custom wood graining, wall marbleizing, murals and unique wallpapers of the day that reveal so much of the history. My favorite was to discover nine different pressed-tin wall and ceiling patterns beneath layers of a 19th-century store in Nova Scotia. Beneath the panels were even more layers of hand-printed wallpapers dating back to as early as 1850.
“So when they say ‘something old is new again,’ this is a classic example. In short, stop trying to be today’s trend, and embrace some of the masterful craftsmanship of yesterday. As Frank often said, “The life so short, the craft so long to learn.”