The first time architects Randy E. Pimsler and W. Allen Hoss sat down with the owners of 213 Murray Hill Ave., a small ranch home in the Kirkwood neighborhood of Atlanta, “green” was not part of the conversation.
“Their main drive was to update the home, both inside and out, and to expand it, and to tell you the truth, even today it’s not completely unusual for people to define their program in those kinds of basic terms,” Pimsler said.
“They told us, ‘master suite,’ consisting of a sleeping area, bathroom and closet, and that they also wanted a new living room, a screened-in porch, and to address some circulation issues within the home, and away we went,” he said.
But as the principles of Pimsler Hoss Architects Inc., long-time partners steeped in environmentalism and sustainable building practices, worked on the preliminary design of the project, what they initially saw as a somewhat conservative project began to change.
Although Pimsler says he doesn’t know how long the clients had owned the home before he and Hoss came on the scene, what was clear was that the owners had done only some minor interior remodeling in the past.
What had changed, however, was the surrounding neighborhood, with redevelopment of several blocks adjacent to Murray Hill Avenue causing property values to rise.
“It really was a case, I think, of the homeowners seeing more and more possibility with each pass we made at the design,” Pimsler said. “As a result we went from what had been a very, very brief initial meeting, to a situation where they encouraged us, in their words, “to push the envelope on this a little bit.”
The firm came to the 213 Murray Hill Ave. on the recommendation of Carroll Bell, a realtor who delved into small remodeling projects from time to time, and her partner Kathryn Aldrich, who specialized in interior design.
Prior to taking on this project, the architects and the women had worked on two commercial and two custom residential projects and found they enjoyed working together. As a result, it was a no-brainer that Bell would serve as the general contractor for the project, while Aldrich would do the interiors and the lighting.
The challenges were two-fold – the first was how to expand the home while keeping it appropriate to the context of the small homes that surrounded it.
“The one thing no one wanted was to create a McMansion,” Pimsler said. “Therefore it was critical to maintain the scale of the one-story homes on either side of the project site and across the street.”
Toward that end, the architects focused on adding to the rear of the structure, using the slight rise on the lot as an asset.
But that led to grappling with a second challenge – creating an addition while preserving the 150-year-old tree that stood behind the existing house.
“They wanted a master suite and a living space on the back of the home, and it was clear that was going to need to be a two-story addition because if the tree we wanted to maintain,” Pimsler said.
The solution was to “step” the building’s new height back from the street. That way, while the entire exterior would be remodeled, the lasting effect wouldn’t be overbearing.
Over the ensuing eight months, the project team reused existing materials such as siding, concrete and metal railings in new and innovative forms. For instance, ribbon windows in both horizontal and vertical planes create varied and complex spaces within the residence.
“Unlike many project ‘green’ projects today, we didn’t relocate the building or change its footprint in terms of its orientation to the sun. We worked with what we had,” Pimsler said. “So I think the green line on the project is most likely from the perspective of adaptive reuse and from the emphasis on building context, and then all the building materials.”
Pimsler, a native of New England and at one time, a practicing psychologist, said he first became interested in sustainable design and construction during the energy crisis of the mid-1970s.
“[The crisis] had a severe impact on our lifestyle up there, waiting on lines for gasoline and what not, and as a result, I joined the New England Solar Energy Commission,” he said.
His fellow commission members loved his passion, but told him he needed to learn how buildings actually worked if he was ever going to turn good ideas into meaningful strategies. In response, Pimsler went back to college, earning degrees in architecture in Connecticut, and at the University of Tennessee.
“I’ve essentially made green building and energy efficient design a part of the work I’ve down ever since,” he said.
For his part Hoss, a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, is a founding member of the Southface Energy Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting energy, water and resource-efficient workplaces, homes and communities throughout the Southeast.
Pimsler Hoss Architects Inc. was founded in 1991 after the principles both separately made the short list for a project for the City of Atlanta. Instead of competing, the two decided to jointly offer their services to the city, and they’ve worked together ever since.
“So we probably have a vernacular in green architecture that predates the current green building movement and we have to constantly remind ourselves not to take that for granted because so many folks market that right now,” Pimsler said. “We just think it’s like drawing on the computer and working on the building code and the accessibility code, it’s just another piece of the puzzle to us.
As a result, adaptive reuse like those employed at 213 Murray Hill Ave. came naturally to the firm.
“We do a fair amount of work and projects that are focused on an existing building where we are changing the use – for example, a factory or a warehouse that becomes a condominium or loft development. We have a huge portfolio of those,” Pimsler said.
“In the case of 213 Murray Hill Ave., the owner could have decided to demolish the whole house, because when we were all done, there were two bedrooms and a bathroom that we saved, and the rest of the home was completely redone.
‘”But the idea of saving those spaces and adding on, in our opinion led to cost savings for the client in a rather significant way, from the use of existing materials, existing fixtures, and even from the perspective of the City of Atlanta’s permitting process,” he said.
In putting the house back together, the renovation team focused heavily on the building envelope, Pimsler said.
“We didn’t go crazy trying to use the latest and great green products, but did use good quality insulation, and with the stucco that we used on the outside of the building, its got kind of a double layer of insulation.
“The windows were manufactured by Jeld-Wen Inc. – not super high performance, but insulated glazing throughout -- and we kept most of the glazing on the north side of the building to keep the solar impact – which can be fairly intense here in the south – to a minimum.”
Pimsler was particularly pleased with preserving the very large and very old Oak tree adjacent to the home, a tree that he said, “is still there and a beautiful piece of wood.”
While on the subject of the property, Pimsler said a critical aspect of the landscaping was creating a swale to address a longstanding drainage problem on the site and redirect rain water to where it was needed on the property, while preventing water from getting into the structure.
“I think the success of this project is evident in the fact that now that it’s aged a bit, it doesn’t jump out at you, but rather fits in quite well with everything around it,” Pimsler said. “It doesn’t jump out at you and have a finger pointed at it as if it’s something that doesn’t belong.”
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