Architectural Alchemy

The Belle Meade area of Nashville, Tenn., may be best known among thoroughbred horseracing aficionados as the location of the breeding farms to which most Kentucky Derby winners can trace their lineage, but local residents are equally proud of the neighborhood’s oak-lined boulevards and historic mansions.

It may be surprising, then, that the winner of what could be considered a Triple Crown in Qualified Remodeler’s 2011 Master Design Awards program stood virtually unnoticed for decades on one of Belle Meade’s most prominent sites. Nashville-based Huseby Homes LLC’s faade renovation of a 1940s, 5,000-square-foot ranch home won Gold in the Exterior Facelift and Residential Specialty categories plus Best in Show in the Under $250,000 category.

According to Huseby Homes’ owner and co-founder, Craig Huseby, the lackluster appearance of the existing house, combined with its 3-acre front yard and a median price of $3 million for surrounding properties led most real-estate experts and home buyers to view it as a teardown. “Fortunately, the owners recognized the home was well built and simply needed some basic repairs and improvements,” Huseby says. “They chose to build on the home’s good bones rather than fight its original form.”

After watching Huseby Homes construct a conservatory (a Gold winner in the Conservatory/Sunroom category of Qualified Remodeler’s 2009 Master Design Awards, May 2010 issue, page 36) across the street, the owners of the ranch house liked what they saw and hired the conservatory project’s architect, Eric Stengel of Eric Stengel Architecture LLC, Nashville, to create a design that would better relate their home to its surroundings. Stengel referred them to Huseby Homes when the design was developed enough to obtain a construction proposal.

Nicer, Not Bigger

“The overarching objective was to give an architecturally modest home a more distinctive presence on its gateway site,” Stengel says. “The clients didn’t want to make it bigger; they wanted to make it nicer.”

Stengel started by identifying the major challenges the design needed to resolve. “The existing house was relentlessly horizontal,” he says. “There was no hierarchy. The wrought iron around the main entry wasn’t enough to create a clear focus. We also discovered the window to the left of the front door was several inches closer than the one to the right.”

The home’s basic forms, however, were a plus. “Each structure has a voice, and in this case that voice said: ‘I want clarity to survive.’ So I applied Frederick Law Olmstead’s philosophy, which is to ‘keep the best and throw out the rest.’”

Opportunity for Clarity

The shutters were one of the first details Stengel “edited.” The renovation design omits these for the windows in the middle section of the home because the existing shutters had called attention to the asymmetry of the fenestration. Stengel made this decision after the construction team considered, then ruled out moving one of the windows or the door because these options would have been too expensive. “Not using shutters also makes the main body of the house a bit more formal and distinctive,” Stengel says. “So the discovery of asymmetry became an opportunity for further clarity.”

The brick quoins closest to the entry were also problematic. Achieving a flush fit between the smooth wood of the new architectural details and the rough, rhythmically recessed surfaces created by the quoins typically would have required a carpenter to use a coping saw to make sure the old and new surfaces mirrored each other perfectly. This method would have been time-intensive and, thus, more costly than the solution Stengel devised, which was to insert wood into the recesses of the quoins so the pilasters and new exterior cladding could be easily and properly attached to this flat surface.

“The brick quoins at the edges of the house are still rusticated—still made of brick,” Stengel says. “The refined wood surfaces near the door invite people to touch them.” They also help to unify the faade’s appearance by referencing the profile of the quoins.

As an expert in classical architecture, Stengel drew upon his extensive knowledge to establish the front entry as the home’s main focal point and develop a clear hierarchy of primary and subordinate forms. According to Stengel, using classical Doric order design made sense because “the existing home’s detailing was basic, not exuberant.”

Retaining and Blending Features

To achieve the “beauty and economy” desired by the owners, Stengel also had to determine which existing details to retain and how to efficiently blend these with new architectural features. For example, gutters are not historically included in classically designed buildings. However, they are absolutely necessary in Nashville’s climate where several inches of rain can fall in a single hour. Although Stengel would have preferred to remove the gutters and fascia and extend the entablature across the front faade, the project’s budget did not accommodate this.

The final design keeps the existing fascia and references the dentils of the home’s brick cornice with the modillions and other details of the new entry’s entablature. The cyma (upturned edge) and corona (vertical surface with soffit) of the entry porch’s cornice are visually and physically integrated with the gutters. Storm water runs off the roof of the entry addition into a trough behind the cyma, down pipes routed through the Doric columns, and into an underground drainage system.

Deferred maintenance issues were folded into the scope of the faade renovation and addressed by replacing the existing roof, gutters and jack arches. The new jack arches are made of limestone as are the base of the new porch and stone steps.

The technical complexity of the design required meticulous execution by Huseby Homes’ team of carpenters and specialized subcontractors. “Each piece of wood had to be carefully and properly installed,” Huseby says. “If one piece was out of place or slightly off, the proportions of the ‘golden section’ would be negatively affected.”

Simply assembling all of the custom-milled pieces for this project was an extraordinary feat. “One day, one of the owners came out and started counting the individual pieces of wood,” Huseby says. “He stopped when he realized he might be there half the day calculating the quantities.” In the end, it took more than 2,000 pieces of wood to construct the entry addition and complete related faade alterations.

Huseby Homes’ team achieved the necessary precision through the use of 3-D modeling and other sophisticated technology combined with field verification and the work of highly skilled carpenters and craftsmen.

Technology and Classic Columns

“Our excavator used satellite technology that could pinpoint a location down to the diameter of a nail head to make sure the drainpipes could properly connect to the inbound gutter system,” Huseby says. The Doric columns also had to be perfectly placed to achieve symmetry for the rounded roof of the entry porch, which, in turn, had to be attached to the existing home so the trough cut behind the cyma of the entablature aligned with the reinstalled gutters.

Huseby Homes’ lead master carpenter, Steve Walker, met with the staff at Nashville-based Vintage Millworks Inc. more than a dozen times to plan the angles and cuts for the new entry entablature. This allowed the project team to build this piece on the computer before beginning any work in the field.

“Every time I work with the staff at Vintage, we have had a beautiful concept that faces challenges in the application,” Walker says. “So we have to figure out how to make the concept work with the existing conditions. This takes teamwork between the artist at the desk and the artist at the site. Vintage created a 3-D computer model that allowed us to look at the design from all angles—to rotate it and even view it from behind—so we could work out any kinks in advance.” For example, the project team resolved how to build the trough for the inbound gutters and get water from the drainage system to the pipes in the columns without cutting through the classical entablature. A mistake would have meant the loss of expensive materials and required extra time to recreate the millwork.

Marrying Old and New

The specifics of actually marrying old and new architectural elements, however, still had to be worked out on-site. “I used an old-school, story-pole approach to build a basic frame for the new porch,” Walker continues. “There were so many layers and steps to the design that we had to start by seeing where it would end, then work backward from the most distant point. The construction team positioned this framework at the proper elevation, replaced the gutters, and then added the steps and layers of the entablature.”

Although most companies are not willing to submit to the strict financial accountability that was also required, Huseby Homes was able to deliver the completed project on budget through clear communication and close collaboration with the owners. “The owners wanted us to provide pricing by the area affected—such as the roof, dormers and porch addition—rather than by line items for construction materials, such as concrete, plus the total labor costs,” Huseby says. “We did this and included a contingency amount for each area. Every two weeks, we provided an updated spreadsheet that summarized cost information and reviewed it with the owners.”

Although Huseby had not used this approach in the past, he says it worked well. “I told the clients upfront it would be difficult to know exactly what the labor costs would be to complete the porch addition,” he says. “Since we met the budget for all the other areas, we were able to preserve those contingency amounts and apply them to the entry to hit the budget for the entire project.”

Huseby says the owners are quite pleased with the way their renovated home expresses their personalities with an understated elegance. “Eric [Stengel] listened to them and provided a vision for how their house could become much more than a ranch without drastically changing the overall structure. The renovation transforms a plain home into an architectural gem that is in keeping with its surroundings.”

Now, people who used to pass by a nondescript house pause to comment. “Neighbors have said they didn’t notice the house before the renovation,” Stengel says. “So the design achieved what I call ‘architectural alchemy.’ It gives the impression of greater value being provided than was actually spent. It is as though the owners got a new house for the cost of a porch.”


Heather Beal writes from Minneapolis about design and remodeling.