Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Hubert Savage bungalow turns one hundred

A house made of old growth fir, intact after a hundred years and a succession of owners


Our antique bungalow is made almost entirely from the old-growth Douglas fir readily available back in 1913 on Vancouver Island. Its original footprint and exterior cladding were intact when I bought it, although several sections along the base of the building would require replacing when the exterior was finally repaired. And, best of all, it turns one hundred in 2013, which is a pretty good go for a wooden artifact and, I feel, should be 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 still be substantially unaltered. Many houses are deemed to be dated and significantly altered within decades of being built. Many are neither functional nor loved as originally built, making it more likely they will be done over. For decades now the demand for ever-more interior space has meant larger houses with less and less exterior expression, effecting growing detachment of owners from the look the house presents to the street. This prioritization of spatial gain has also multiplied the frequency of awkward expansions - let's call them 'unsympathetic additions' - that get tacked onto older homes, sometimes coarsely disfiguring their much 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 sprouting from its roofline, one that grabs additional interior space efficiently but comes at the expense of the original look of the building.  

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

This one is even more bluntly accomplished, with a few cheesy modernist elements

Here it's the whole hog (a full two-storey house) with more discordant windows

Others are made to suffer possibly lesser yet not inconsequential indignities, such as having original wood siding suffocated under layers of stucco icing or covered with spraytex paint. You can usually tell if a building is stuccoed-over because its window frames no longer sit proud of the walls, adding a certain blankness to its rather forlorn look.

Faux rock foundation, stuccoed walls, window frames submerged, detailing minimized

Still others have had their original old-growth cedar shingle siding entombed under asbestos-cement shingles, or today covered over with vinyl replica siding, despite the original wood being in pristine condition. Some are further injured by having fine double-hung sash windows replaced with thin aluminum sliders or, more recently, vinyl thermopane windows. 

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

I still feel fortunate, a quarter century on, that back in 1988 when I took possession, my bungalow’s exterior remained intact - after 75 years of continuous use, it may have been somewhat neglected and in need of renewal, but at least it hadn't been monkeyed with! And, it could so easily have been otherwise.

Bare as a freshly shorn lamb, this small colonial bungalow awaits a brand new look

In fact it’s surprising to me, in light of the Savage bungalow's relatively modest size, that it hadn't been awkwardly expanded, or raised by a story, or simply bulldozed in favour of the humungous McMansion that could in fact 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 more realistically put, tons of excuses) to tear down older buildings, quite apart from the simple fact that their highly depreciated value in assessment terms, after such long duration, makes them sitting ducks for the wrecker’s ball (or his excavator, which is how the deed is done nowadays).  For at one hundred years of age, even with considerable upkeep, a modest bungalow could easily be assessed at a mere fraction of its true replacement costs, which means it could be disposed of (ie sent to the landfill) for a remarkably low 'opportunity cost'. (If the building is worth just over ten percent of its actual replacement costs, then getting rid of it for a fresh start is just over ten percent of total costs for land and building, plus the charges for an excavator, a dumpster, and some tipping fees).
In fact, the spectre of demolition haunts buildings from a relatively young age. Canadian 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 residential structures, which reflect different economics and respond to a narrower range of needs, ie. those of a family rather than of a company or broader community. Today almost nobody invests in 'special features' for any kind of building, preferring a form of planned obsolescence to community continuity. In such circumstances demolition remains the primary option by default, and 100 years is now a long life for a modern structure.

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

One US study of building demolition found three principal reasons given for tearing them down:  area-wide 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 for knocking it down. Lack of maintenance threatening physical structure is one that municipal councilors hear frequently from those aspiring to tap into the many rewards of new construction. But at one hundred years of age, all three of these pressures can combine to place a considerable weight on the future of a house.  And simple accidents of placement – say, where someone deems the freeway interchange should now be built – can be the kiss of death for entire areas. 

LA's freeways consume colossal spaces, often at the expense of earlier neighbourhoods

Lots of homes (and many buildings of more utilitarian purpose) 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 whatsoever to embodied energy, let alone to period aesthetic effect. Yet today, bungalows enjoy increasing protection because families are once again breathing new life into these remarkable structures, which embody ideas of home that a modern stucco palace/box simply cannot. And bungalows - wooden buildings par excellence here on the west coast - survive despite our collective tendency to think of houses made of wood 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, thin pilotis on show (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 some recent neglect. The economics of the situation mean the developer can disregard this home’s stature as an invaluable work of art the broader community actually cares about. Fortunately the community does care, and with a public fundraising campaign ongoing, the building is likely to be saved. (It has since been purchased, restored, and is now on the market again, lot intact).
Poor building envelope condition, due to neglect of 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 the implied structural deterioration real, even in houses made substantially of wood. Places are simply allowed to become shabby and neglected, rescuable still, but giving the superficial impression of being structurally unsound. Which in turn 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 it seems increasingly unlikely
Then again, if someone cares enough to see the house's potential, anything is possible.

The fact of wood's durability was confirmed to me when renewal of our own bungalow finally got started. Structurally the building was just fine after 85 years in use, the wood framing solid. There were some rotten spots close to the ground where rainwater had splashed back against walls when downspouts failed, but mostly it just needed loads of prep before repainting. Oh, and there were several small errors of adaptation (like an unsightly cat door skived into the vent for an original cooling cupboard) standing out like blemishes on a pretty face, but these things, it turned out, were relatively easily corrected.
One thing predisposing our bungalow’s survival intact was the fact its original inhabitants, who designed it and oversaw its construction, inhabited it for fifty or more years. This was a very good thing for the house, as incompatible changes often come in tandem with new owners who decide to redesign elements without having any experience of inhabiting the building. Important details easily get eviscerated, walls come down for a more open floorplan, shiny sliding patio doors casually disfigure wholesome facades, and strange things pop incongruously out of roofs (see photos above for examples). 

Neglected and abandoned, this small river rock bungalow is in danger of dilapidating

It was also a lucky thing the Savage bungalow's creators inhabited it for their entire lifetime, tending to its needs while raising a family there and overseeing a single modest alteration of its footprint, in the form of a walk-in closet done so as to be compatible with the building's exterior form. The legacy they bequeathed the community is a bungalow that is architecturally significant and well worthy of conservation: designed by an architect in the era when bungalows were the rage, as an application of arts and crafts principles, in order to create a setting for his own family's use and enjoyment. And, perhaps also in the hope of creating 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 happened to stop in Victoria to visit with a friend (Douglas James, brother of Percy Leonard James, another soon-to-be-famous architect). The Jameses convinced him of the opportunities here (Victoria was in the throes of a real estate bubble with tons of offshore money careening around) and so they stayed on, and in the boom conditions of the time, Savage managed to secure some architectural commissions right away. One of those commissions must have made him aware of the Garden City suburb, a major real estate play that was to benefit from the building of an Interurban electric railway line, and the cheapness of lots that far out of town on what had been agricultural land. Somehow, by 1913, the Savages had managed to acquire a pretty building spot on a picturesque quarter acre well beyond the city’s edge. On it they had constructed a small artistic bungalow, a new dwelling type then spreading all across North America from its suburban epicentre in Los Angeles. Interestingly, this house appears to be a rare occasion when Savage opted to design in a predominantly American arts-and-crafts style (despite the Tudor detailing). In professional practice, his buildings were often variants on English arts-and-crafts (which was possibly more marketable to middle-class Victorians) and upmarket to boot.

Sash windows, leaded glass, fir paneling, frieze: the hallmarks of a Cascadian bungalow
Coming from dense, hectic London, landing in a home of their own in such a pretty spot, if way out in the tulies, must have felt like a quite magical turn of events, a dream suddenly come true. Home ownership was a rarity in England at that time – fewer than ten percent of the population enjoyed the status of owning their own home (AD King, The Bungalow: The Production Of A Global Culture, 1995). 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, then affecting all North American cities - a time when demand for architects abounded even in a place as small as Victoria. Expectations of surging growth, on the Vancouver model, spread like wildfire, and speculation in land was rampant. However, within a year of occupying their new digs out in the back of beyond, the Savage's access to the benefits of growth and prosperity would evaporate, as an economic slump that dried up commissions arrived hand in hand with the advent of global warfare.
Part of the Savages’ grand good fortune must have been the sheer cheapness of suburban land on the distant periphery. Rural lands around cities, opened up by new transportation technologies like electric streetcar systems, were by then on offer to former renters who were looking (ie being enticed) to buy and build. And bungalows, echoing the Los Angeles experience with land assembly and tract building, were being marketed as affordable housing, which they actually were. “Why pay rent?” was the pointed question posed by the Los Angeles Investment Company on one of its many 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, which made building lots affordable, and the ready availability of cheap but top-quality wooden building materialsa newly arrived middle-class family could literally step off the boat into home ownership while paying no more for it than for rent in town. However it actually 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 with no immediate neighbours, which was actually a selling point in those days!
Fate, luck and timing landed the Savages on their upland parcel on the edge of an area known as Strawberry Vale, while skill, artistry and the magic of old growth timber (rendered dimensionally in Victoria mills) created the building. It was lucky too that the few owners prior to my buying the house in 1988, on a Friday afternoon in early March, hadn’t altered the footprint or ‘upgraded’ the look of the exterior. For the ensuing quarter century I’ve been stewarding this heritage resource, gradually correcting some errors of decor (1980s kitchen, Cubbon Home Centre bog with cultured marble countertop and shower tub sans shower, back porch with a wall summarily ripped out to accommodate overscale appliances, and damaged built-ins like the glazing/surround over the LR fireplace) while enjoying the many artistic features of 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  development run the risk of further subdivision, an arbitrary process of infill gridding that typically takes no account of landscape features. Subdivision is exactly

Retaining wall for a two-house infill development - an 'engineered' solution leaving everything to be desired
what happened when the Savage bungalow (on its original half acre lot) passed to the next generation: the large holding was subdivided into three separate parcels, with two new houses settled onto what was once enjoyed as a single landscape. Fortunately these homes came to be built at the same scale as the original Savage homestead, so they don't visually encroach on the original dwelling and, as a result, now amicably share the landform they're all built on.

I sometimes try to visualize what it would have been like out here without a built-up neighbourhood around it. But I always end up thinking that it was a miracle that just enough land remained around the original homestead to retain the sense of a house placed relatively comfortably in a natural setting, a rare and unusual attribute in our more closely built suburbs. Many an historic house has had its entire landscape context filched from it by insensitive infill 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 by 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 centennial party we intend to hold, but I know from experience that ‘fully restored’ is a moving target. In effect, with an older building like this, there will always be things to do, in order to meet William Morris's maxim of watchful stewardship and timely repair.
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 in order to understand its character better, to inquire about the intentions of its designer and the influences swirling around and through him, and also to sing its many praises, all the while creating a record of its condition as it turns 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 all of you.

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