Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Hubert Savage house turns one hundred

A wooden house intact after nearly one hundred years and a succession of owners

Our antique bungalow is made almost entirely from the old-growth Douglas fir readily available for milling back in 1913. Its original footprint and exterior cladding are intact except for a couple of spots along the base that were punky when we repaired the exterior and had to be replaced. And it’s turning one hundred in a couple of months, which is a pretty good go for a wooden artifact and, I think, a cause for celebration.

A century is a long time for any house to remain continuously used and cared for – over three full generations in human terms - and substantially unaltered. Many houses are deemed dated and significantly altered within decades of erection. Many are neither functional nor loved as built. For decades now the demand for ever-more interior space has meant expanding houses with less and less exterior expression. This priority on spatial gain has also mulitiplied awkward expansions - unsympathetic additions I'll call them - tacked onto older homes, sometimes disfiguring  their classier original looks. If spared demolition by means of expansion, some homes are so completely modified as to become unrecognizable. 

It's not unusual to see a finely detailed bungalow with an architectural carbuncle growing from its roofline, one that grabs interior space very efficiently but comes at great cost to the original look of the building.  

The new dormer is totally out of keeping with this bungalow's roofline

 Others are made to suffer lesser indignities, such as having original wood siding suffocated under layers of stucco icing or spraytex paint. You can usually tell if a building's stuccoed over because it's window frames no longer sit proud of the wall.

Faux rock foundation, stuccoed walls, original detailing gone for good.

Others have their original old-growth siding entombed under asbestos-cement shingles, or today covered over with vinyl replica siding, despite the wood being in pristine condition; some are further injured by having their fine sash windows changed out for thin aluminum sliders. 

Buried under asbestos shingles, the original drop siding reappears: caring restoration.

I still feel fortunate a quarter century later that back in 1988 my bungalow’s exterior was intact - after 75 years of use, it may have been neglected and in need of renewal, but it hadn't been messed with. It could so easily have been otherwise!

Bare as a freshly shorn lamb, this colonial bungalow awaits a whole new look.

In fact it’s surprising, in light of the Savage bungalow's modest size, that it wasn’t awkwardly expanded or raised by a story or simply torn down in favour of the humungous McMansion that could cover most of the lot under its RS-6 zoning. 

Despite subdivision, this bungalow's lot retains a sense of rural setting among oaks.

There are tons of reasons (or excuses) to tear down older buildings, quite apart from the simple fact that their highly depreciated value after long duration makes them sitting ducks for the wrecker’s ball or excavator.  For at one hundred, even with considerable upkeep, a modest bungalow could easily be assessed at a tiny fraction of its true replacement costs.
The spectre of demolition haunts buildings from a relatively young age. Author-architect Witold Rybczynksi puts ‘the useful life of a building’ at 20 – 40 years, indicating that it takes special features to double that lifetime or extend it to a century. He’s speaking of commercial and institutional buildings rather than homes, which obey different economics and respond to a narrower range of needs, ie. those of a family rather than of a company or broader community. Nonetheless, demolition remains the default option, and 100 years is a long life for a modern structure.

Lack of maintenance and depreciating value reduce chances of survival over the long run.

One US study found three principal reasons or excuses given for tearing buildings down:  area redevelopment (34%), lack of maintenance (24%), and ‘no longer suitable for intended use’ (22%).  For those deemed ‘no longer suitable’, being too small and having antiquated services and systems are handy rationales. At one hundred years, all three of these pressures could weigh considerably on a house.  And simple accidents of placement – say, where someone deems the freeway interchange should be built – can be the kiss of death. 

LA's freeway consumes colossal spaces, often at the expense of early neighbourhoods.

Lots of homes (and many more buildings) are gone within fifty years, long before they are in any sense worn out. It’s partly our throwaway culture, which assigns absolutely no value to embodied energy, let alone to aesthetic effect. Yet today bungalows enjoy increasing protection because families are again breathing new life into these often remarkable structures, which embody an idea of home that a stucco palace cannot. And bungalows, wooden buildings par excellence, survive despite our collective tendency to think that of wooden houses as more fragile and transient than those made of other materials.
As I write this, a campaign is under way in Phoenix, Arizona to save a 2500 square foot classic Frank Lloyd Wright house designed for his son David in 1952 - a modular modernist bungalow elevated a storey above ground but without any ugly pilotis (take that Le Corbusier!). 

Frank Lloyd Wright playfully incorporated curving lines into this modernist 1952 house.

The threat here derives from a developer’s desire to divide the lot it sits on in two, simply to realize a capital gain. Grabbing the value of two lots requires demolition of the existing structure, which is in easily restorable condition despite recent neglect. The economics mean the developer can disregard this home’s stature as an invaluable work of art the community actually cares about.
Poor surface condition, due to avoided maintenance, is a primary excuse given for demolishing both residential and commercial buildings (typically by those who want to redevelop land at higher densities). Yet rarely if ever is structural deterioration real, even in wooden homes. Places are simply allowed to become shabby and neglected, rescuable still but giving the impression of being structurally unsound. Which establishes a great cover for today's economics to trump yesterday's, making preservation seem almost irrational.

Neglected, maintenance deferred, this house is repairable but rescue seems increasingly unlikely.
The fact of wood's durability was confirmed for me upon undertaking renewal of my own bungalow. Structurally the building was just fine after 85 years, the wood framing solid; there were some rotten spots close to the ground where rainwater had splashed against the wall, but mostly it just needed loads of prep before repainting. Oh, and there were several small errors of adaptation (like an unsightly cat door) standing out like blemishes on a pretty face, but relatively easily corrected.
One thing making my bungalow’s survival intact more likely was the fact its original inhabitants, who designed it and oversaw its building, inhabited it for about fifty years. This was a very good thing for the house, as incompatible changes often come along with new owners who redesign without having any experience of inhabiting the building. Important details get eviscerated, walls come down, shiny sliding patio doors casually disfigure facades, and strange things pop incongruously out of roofs. 

Neglected and abandoned, this small river rock bungalow is at the point of actual dilapidation.

It was also a lucky thing its creators inhabited it for their lifetime, tending to it and overseeing a single modest alteration of its footprint in the form of a walk-in closet, done so as to be compatible with its exterior form. The legacy they bequeathed the community is a bungalow that is architectural and worthy of conservation: designed by an architect in the era when bungalows were the rage,  applying arts and crafts principles to create a setting for his own family's use and enjoyment. And, perhaps also to serve as a calling card for his future architectural practice?
These were the Savages, Hubert and Alys, British immigrants en route to New Zealand in 1912. He was a RIBA-trained London architect who stopped in Victoria to visit a friend (Douglas James, brother of Percy Leonard James, another architect). James convinced him of the opportunities here, and so they stayed on and Savage secured commissions right away. Somehow by 1913 the Savages had managed to acquire a pretty building spot well beyond the city’s edge  and  on it constructed an artistic bungalow, a new dwelling type then being marketed all across North America from its epicentre in Los Angeles, California. Interestingly, this house appears to be a rare occasion when he worked in a primarily American arts-and-crafts style; in professional practice, his buildings were usually English arts-and-crafts (possibly more marketable to middle-class Victorians).

Sash windows, leaded glass, fir paneling, painted frieze: hallmarks of a Cascadian bungalow.
Coming from dense, hectic London, landing in a home of their own in such a pretty spot must have felt like a near magical turn of events, a dream suddenly come true. Home ownership was a rarity in England – less than ten percent of the population enjoyed this status at the time. So sudden independence in a new house in pastoral countryside must have been a transformative experience.

The Savages were lucky enough to land in Victoria at the apex of an economic boom in North American cities, a time when demand for architects abounded even in a place as small as Victoria. Within a year of occupying their new digs however, this prosperity would evaporate, as an economic slump that dried up commissions arrived hand in hand with the advent of global war.
Part of the Savages’ good fortune must have been the sheer cheapness of suburban land. Rural lands around cities, opened up by new transportation technologies like trains, were by then on offer to renters looking to buy and build. And bungalows, echoing the Los Angeles experience with land assembly and tract building on spec, were being marketed as affordable housing. “Why pay rent?” was the question posed by the Los Angeles Investment Company on one of its brochures, “when you can own your own home as cheaply as renting” its snappy response. 

Surrounded by gardens, intimately linking indoors and out-of-doors. 
Due to the expanding reach of trams and trains and the availability of cheap wooden building materials and components, a newly arrived middle-class family could step right off the boat into home ownership and pay no more than renting in town. However it happened, the Savages set up house on a picturesque hillside overlooking a dairy farm and the blue waters of Portage Inlet, with distant views across the Juan de Fuca straits to the majestic Olympic mountains. And no immediate neighbours!
Fate, luck and timing landed the Savages on their upland site on the edge of Strawberry Vale, while skill, artistry and old growth lumber created the building. It was lucky too that the few owners prior to my buying it in 1988 hadn’t altered the footprint or ‘upgraded’ the exterior. For the ensuing quarter century I’ve been stewarding this heritage resource, gradually correcting its errors of decor (kitchen, bathroom, back porch, damaged built-ins) while enjoying the many artistic touches in a house skillfully contrived to be intimate with its setting.

Intimate with its surroundings in true arts-and-crafts style 

Houses built on rural lands subsequently overtaken by suburban development run the further risk of subdivision, an arbitrary process of gridding that often takes no account of landscape features. That’s just what happened when the Savage bungalow passed to the next generation: the large parcel it sat on was subdivided into three, with two new houses settled onto what was once a single picturesque landscape. Fortunately these were built at the same scale as the Savage house, so their single-storeys don't dominate the original dwelling or the landform they now share.

I sometimes try to visualize what it would have been like here without a built-up neighbourhood around it. But I always end up thinking what a miracle it is that just enough land remained around the original homestead to retain the sense of a house placed comfortably in a natural setting, a rare and unusual attribute in closely built suburbs. Many an historic house has had its entire landscape context filched from it by insensitive development. The Savage bungalow got lucky, again (thanks to daughter Joy and her husband Albert, who cared enough about "the old place" she grew up in to see that it wasn't mangled in subdivision).

Vegetation helps heal an edge created by panhandling the original lot with a driveway

I feel very privileged to be on the verge of seeing this special building through its century year. I wish I could say that it will be fully restored to its original glory in time for the party, but I know from experience that ‘fully restored’ is a constantly moving target.
I hope to use Century Bungalow to share my experience with maintenance and restoration of an older wooden house, to place it in relation to the broader bungalow phenomenon, to inquire about the intentions of its designer and the influences swirling around him, also to sing its many praises and to preserve a record of its condition at 100. All of which I hope will improve, however slightly, its prospects for survival as it embarks on its second century, and allow me to share it with you.

I hope you enjoy it – I have been for twenty-five years now!

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