Smartly renovating an existing structure represents one of the greenest approaches to building sustainable housing; the process does not disturb pristine land, and often reuses and repurposes elements and materials that might otherwise wind up in a landfill. In the case of one 1895 house in Columbus, Ohio, converted to apartments and so damaged and derelict that it appeared ready for the wrecking ball, a transformative remodeling surprised nearly everyone but its determined new owner.
Josh Wood developed his interest in houses as a boy, trailing his father around their rural Ohio home, helping him with carpentry projects and repairs. Later on, as an adult, he began his career as a builder by restoring the first house he owned—a definite fixer-upper—and then selling it.
With a profit in his pocket, he decided that finding, reviving, and then selling the homes he remodeled could become a rewarding and enjoyable career.
“I am always drawn to the biggest mess of a house,” confesses Wood. “The ones that have really fallen apart and need to be put back together capture my interest more than others that require less work.”
Living just a few blocks away from the stucco-clad corner house on a historic block in Columbus’ artsy Short North neighborhood—a police handle that stuck even after gentrification—Wood often walked by, noticing its run-down condition. After a small fire broke out in one of the building’s eight small apartment units, rendering the structure uninhabitable, the neighborhood looked forward to its demolition.
“The place had become a magnet for unsavory characters,” recalls Wood, “so even though the house had a nineteenth-century Victorian core, the neighbors had no urge to preserve it.”
Despite its sorry condition and bad reputation, the house spoke to Wood. He bought it, determined to provide it with a new and more appealing incarnation.
Enlisting architect Dean Berlon, a partner in the urbanorder firm in Columbus, the pair proceeded to convince the neighbors and, more important, the local historic commission, that the project could comfortably coexist with the well-kept, restored Victorians that surround it.
As a serial recycler of worn-out houses, Wood wanted to keep the building’s sturdy shell. The original brick house and its L-shaped, 1950s concrete block addition, both covered in dirty, faded stucco, looked terrible but maintained their structural soundness. The owner also needed to use both pieces, to keep the project’s grandfathered footprint and insure its financial feasibility.
It fell to Berlon to craft a series of drawings to convince the commission that the 1950s piece of the puzzle merited salvage. Showing the skeptical commission how the building’s appearance and function could evolve over time—from single family residence to residence plus retail, to multiple-unit dwelling—finally won their approval for a two-unit dwelling within the existing building envelope.
“We examined other corners in the neighborhood and researched their alterations over time,” Berlon remembers. “Fortunately, we managed to demonstrate that embracing this evolution and patina was not only acceptable, but in fact, desirable for corner lots, which always have visual impact because of their exposure.”
To enhance the plain, cracker box façade of the twentieth century addition, Berlon designed a cornice that would not only give the 1950s piece a nineteenth century, Italianate character, but also provide a privacy wall for the roof deck that architect and owner had envisioned.
Says Berlon, “The cornice allowed us to take the squat, boxy addition and alter its scale by making it taller and more Italianate in spirit. The feature creates a lighter, simplified version of a typical heavy Victorian cornice that makes the 'bones' of the building fit the scale of the neighborhood.”
The design also moved the front entrance for the larger unit to the avenue-facing elevation, giving it prominence with a new set of stairs and a distinctive, sheltering roof; the architect enhanced the entrance to the smaller unit on the street side with an attractive and traditional front porch.
Having salvaged and dignified the building envelope, Wood, who not only completed the renovation, but also designed the interiors, proceeded to replace the inefficient warren of small rooms on the two main floors with Berlon’s new, more open plan. This change required the removal of a couple of load bearing walls, and their replacement with steel beams and a minimum of partitions.
“I’ve done a lot of renovations, so it had become a challenge to find one that stretched me a different way,” notes Wood. This time, he had to put together a team for the steel work. Because most steel-framers in his area only did large commercial projects, finding the right combination of people and skills meant drawing on his own resources, with the final group of eight managing the project, in Wood’s words, “like a high-tech barn raising.”
With its skin and skeleton in place, the new program got some good green details.
In addition to preserving the building envelope, Wood painstakingly removed nails from wood studs and planks from the old partitions and floors, using them to build up subfloors where needed. He reserved salvaged brick as a base for a new parking area. The builder, who always participates in the hands-on aspects of his projects, relishes the benefits of reuse.
“I don’t mind the extra labor,” he admits.
Berlon specified two types of energy-efficient windows for the project. In the 1950s section, the historic commission permitted extruded aluminum- clad, high-efficiency double hung windows with argon insulating glass. For the century-plus old wing, the builder used primed and painted wood frames, with the same argon-filled insulating glass.
“Adhering to certain historic commission standards will sometimes preclude the use of low-maintenance options such as aluminum cladding on windows,” notes the architect.
High-efficiency equipment provides heating and air-conditioning to four separate zones--two in the owner’s unit and two in the rental space—to expend energy only when and where needed.
Though desirable and historically correct, fireplaces can let a large quantity of expensive heated air escape, so Wood opted instead for an efficient, direct vent gas fireplace in the living area of his own apartment.
To finish the interiors, Wood used low-VOC paints, and purchased salvaged oak from Virginia-based Mountain Lumber, with a dark stain to complement the modernist interiors.
Finally, for the roof deck—which adds an insulating layer to the top floor of the house—Wood has strategically placed receptacles to capture rainwater for the many plants used to provide natural beauty to this newly created living space. Downstairs and around back, a new parking area set with locally sourced pavers creates a permeable surface to discourage excess runoff.
No longer the neighborhood embarrassment, Wood’s latest project embellishes its prominent corner like a sparkling jewel. Stone hounds guard the new entryway, and gardens grace the front and side yards.
Finally, the historic commission has embraced not only the renovated house, but Wood himself; he so impressed the commissioners with his efforts to transform their local eyesore, that they asked him to become a member. This achievement makes a neat ending to a real Cinderella story.
To view this article as seen in our January 2011 issue, with additional photos and floor plans, please visit our Magazine Archive.