Preservation, Restoration, and Rehabilitation

Iconic photo of the Singleton House by Julius Shulman

Few would question that architect Richard Neutra was one of the preeminent modernist masters of our time. Some of his most famous works – the Lovell House, the Strathmore Apartments, the Kaufmann Desert House – are considered museum-quality treasures to this day. He had the unique distinction of being featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1949 – before some of his best works were even on the drawing board. So does that mean his houses should be faithfully restored and impeccably maintained in their original state, frozen in time as the master created them? Or are they homes for the living that need to evolve and adapt to ever-changing lifestyles and to remain viably marketable? (Especially when the alternative is, too often, the wrecking-ball.)

No house has energized this debate more then Neutra’s magnificent Singleton House in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. Built in 1959 for the wealthy industrialist Henry Singleton (Teledyne Corp.), and purchased in 2004 by the hair-care tycoon Vidal Sassoon for a reported $6 million, the house was extensively renovated and reconfigured by his wife Ronnie for an attempted “flip” project during the height of the real estate boom. The results, unveiled when the house hit the market in 2008 for an eye-popping $24.5 million, were nothing less than controversial. The milder reviews called the renovation “an act of architectural vandalism” and “hostile to Neutra’s entire vision”.

I’ve toured the house and it remains jaw-droppingly stunning. But is it still a Neutra? What Ronnie did would have been considered brilliant in any other house. She essentially flipped the floorplan around. A small kitchen facing the driveway was moved across the hall to the south side of the house and opened-up to take in the commanding views of the pool and sun-filled vista beyond. This is, after all, where we now spend most of our time with family and friends. (In 1959 the kitchen was strictly the domain of servants.) A row of small bedrooms that turned their backs on the pool and view were moved to where the kitchen used to be on the dark side of the house. A small master bedroom tucked off the living room was converted to additional entertaining space with a built-in bar. And a new wing housing a state-of-the-art master suite with spa-style bathrooms and a screening room was added along the far end of the pool. Ronnie did her best to respect the spirit of Neutra by retaining or replicating the many built-ins throughout the house and matching the original materials in the new bathrooms, down to the 50 year-old fixtures still available at Sears.While still retaining the look and feel of Neutra’s original, there is no doubt the house makes better use of the siting and is far more livable than its predecessor. But the question remains – is it still a Neutra? How would the master himself feel about it? How it will stand the test of time is yet to be determined. After two years on the market, it remains unsold despite a price reduction of over $5 million. And the debate rages on.

Architects! Who Needs ‘Em?

You do.  If you want superior results and the best return on your investment.

 

Architects are kinda like prostitutes.  They perform a service we could do by ourselves, if absolutely necessary, but the process goes a little more smoothly, and the results are far more satisfying with the aid of a professional.

 

Almost anyone with an ounce of taste and good sense can execute a remodel without an architect.  And for your average run-of-the-mill middle-market or down-market flip or rental property, that may be all you need – a slap of paint, whatever tile you can get on sale, some inexpensive fixtures from Home Depot and voila!  Job done. 

 

For more extensive remodels (moving walls, building additions, etc.) a good contractor can get your ideas drawn-up and signed-off by an engineer.  Some contractors consider themselves amateur designers or (unlicensed) architects – and some of them are pretty adequate at meeting the needs of their clients.  But if you’re dealing in the luxury market, or even want to get top-dollar for an ordinary house, get yourself a pro.

 

Design Integrity

Designer showcase houses where every room is done by a different designer may be fun to look at, but would you really want to live in it?  A good house calms the spirit and lifts the soul.  A poorly designed home creates visual chaos and subliminal stress.  Think about houses you’ve been in that please you versus those that confuse you.  Room flow, sight-lines, massing and proportion are vital – but they’re only the foundation.  The finishes, the hardware, the lighting, the colors and textures – they can make or break an otherwise good house.  It’s what I call “design integrity” and what one of my architects calls the “language” of the house. 

 

Here are some basic rules of design I’ve learned from working with architects:

1.  Be consistent with finishes:  Carrying the same cabinetry finishes and countertops throughout the kitchen and baths makes the house feel larger, calmer, and more “designed”.  Some designers even believe in using the same tile throughout all the bathrooms, but I sometimes like to vary tile color or shape to give a powder room or guest bath a different attitude than a master bath, while staying within the same family (glass, stone, ceramic, etc.)  When done right, this doesn’t result in a bland house, but in a house with a strong visual presence.

 

2.  Be consistent with your hardware and fixtures:  Doorknobs and drawer-pulls are called the “jewelry” of a house.  Like jewelry on a beautiful woman, it should all work together.  A well-dressed woman wouldn’t mix gold and silver jewelry and neither should your house.  Whether it’s polished chrome, satin nickel or oil-rubbed bronze, pick one finish and carry it throughout the house – everywhere – including window and door hardware, cabinetry knobs and drawer-pulls, plumbing fixtures, everything.  Mixing and matching confuses the observer and creates subliminal stress. 

 

3.  Be consistent with flooring:  A different floor in each room adds to the visual chaos and breaks up the spaces into separate smaller spaces.  Whether you’re using hardwood or tile, carry it through everywhere you have a solid floor surface and the house will feel more expansive.  When you do alter the flooring, use it to define different spaces – carpet in the bedroom or tile in an entry foyer, for example.  But try to limit it to no more than two or three flooring materials for your house and carry them throughout.  Using tile, slate or concrete indoors and continuing it out to a patio brings the outdoors in.  And blurring the line between indoors and out is what mid-century modern design is all about.

 

4.  It’s not just visual, it’s tactile.  Think about the things you touch most often in a house – doorknobs, drawer-pulls, faucets, etc.  These things should feel solid and rich and work with precision, this is not the area to go cheap to save money.  Think of the sound you get when you shut the door of a Bentley versus a Yugo.  You want your house to be the Bentley.

 

A good architect is certain to do a better job of this than you could do on your own.  The benefits may seem intangible but I assure you this will add real value by creating a house that stands apart from the rest.  And if done correctly, the added cost of engaging an architect will more than pay for itself in substantially higher returns. 

 

Remember, you are creating a product with lots of competition and it’s your job as the owner/builder (or “flipper”) to create a house with a competitive edge that people will remember – whether it’s in Beverly Hills or Compton. 

 

Read about how to find and hire a contractor here.  And look for other postings here about design and how to find, hire, and negotiate a contract with an architect as well as the option of working with a “design-build firm”.

Bad Design is Bad Economics

  

You’ll see me harp a lot about design issues in a blog about real estate flipping, but design is what makes or breaks a house when you’re selling it.

 

This may strike you as obvious, as it does me, but it’s not obvious to everyone.  The wide proliferation of ugly spec houses throughout L.A. attests to that.

 

I know a team of developers who once showed me a high-end multi-million dollar house they were flipping in the Hollywood Hills.  They bragged to me about the deals they got on materials and how they bought overstocked flooring, doors, hardware, vanities and fixtures at huge discounts off Craigslist and eBay.  There was hardwood flooring of one color in the sunken living room, another kind of wood on the stairs to the dining area which had cheap-looking engineered flooring of another color.  There were at least six different kinds of doors in the house – solid flush wood stained, solid flush wood painted, doors with clear glass panels, doors with frosted glass panels, louvered closet doors and mirrored closet doors.  There was different door hardware in every room – some knobs, some levers, some chrome, some brass.  There were even windows of aluminum, black anodized, and white vinyl clad.  Outside they had aluminum railings, white light fixtures and a faux gold-leaf door.  And some of their ideas were just plain asking for trouble – a faux-concrete finish over drywall in a shower?  A large wood-framed window in another shower?  Both disasters waiting to happen.  The place was a mess.  It looked like the showroom at a bad Expo Design Center.  Think I’m exaggerating?  I’m not.  And these guys were both real estate agents who thought they knew their market.  What they didn’t know was anything about design or the value of working with an architect. 

 

The end result?  Their house sat on the market for almost a year with repeated price reductions and eventually sold at a loss for about $450 per square foot.  My smaller house directly across the street sold in 60 days with multiple offers at $1,200 per square foot.  Those guys ended up hiring my architect for their next project.

 

See other postings here about why you should work with an architecthow to find, hire and negotiate with a contractor and the option of working with a design-build firm.

Hiring a Contractor – Fixed-Price or Cost-Plus?

There are two types of contracts when working with a contractor – “cost-plus” or “fixed-price”.  Under cost-plus, you pay the contractor for the cost of materials and labor plus a commission to cover his compensation – typically 20% but it can range anywhere from less than 10% to over 25%.  Of course both parties work to a pre-determined budget so you have a pretty good idea of what the total job will cost.  With a fixed-price contract, you pay a set amount and it’s up to the contractor to make it work – if he’s over budget, it comes out of his pocket and the more money he saves, the more he makes – you pay the same either way.

 

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Real Estate section [“Digging – It’s Your Job” 7/13/08] suggested always negotiating a “fixed-price” contract, never a “cost-plus”.  Their reasoning was that it left it up to the contractor to lose money or turn a profit.  I couldn’t disagree more.  What contractor is going to choose to lose money?

 

I always work on a cost-plus basis and here’s why.  I want to know what I’m paying for, and I want control over my budget.  The estimated cost of the project is just that – an estimate.  Every job is full of surprises and budgets need to be flexible.  You never know what you’re going to find when you’re opening walls or removing flooring.  No contractor is going to want to lose money and with a fixed-price contract, he’ll do everything possible to cut corners including using inferior materials or skipping important steps to maximize his profit.

 

If you want to know exactly what you’re paying for what, negotiate a cost-plus contract within a set budget and insist on detailed invoices with back-up.  My contractor’s invoices generally have up to five or more pages of Excel spreadsheet showing over 200 or more line items detailing what’s being billed against the original estimate.  Changes to the original estimate are discussed in advance, solutions worked out between us and billed separately as a change order.

 

The only time I might make an exception and opt for a fixed-price contract would be for a small job like a closet make-over, a bathroom remodel or maybe even a kitchen – but never for a major house remodel.

To learn more about finding and hiring a contractor and why to work with an architect, read “How to Find and Hire a Contractor” and “Architects!  Who Needs ‘Em?” here.