20 April 2018

Things You Should Know If You Own, Plan to Own, or Plan to Renovate A Mid-Century Modern House

Part II. Great Expectations

The second post in a five-part series of guest posts

Exemplary mid-century modernist house in Charlotte, NC
designed by Aubrey Youngue Arant in 1964.

By Arielle Condoret Schechter, AIA

Let’s say you’ve found a mid-century modern house with great flow and good “bones” that’s never been modified, so there are no inappropriate details or interruptions to the original floor plan. Fantastic! It’s also never been updated? Well, that’s both good and bad. Here’s why...

Old systems: If you’re buying a true mid-century modern house with all of its original systems intact, you can assume that a 50- to 60-year-old house will need updated plumbing, wiring, and a new HVAC system, updated kitchen appliances and (probably) bath fixtures for function and aesthetic value, plus a lot more insulation.

Glass: You can also plan on eventually replacing single-pane windows and glazing with more energy-efficient upgrades that simply weren’t available in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The original full glazing in the master bedroom of the 1954 Hammerman
House, designed by modernist master Richard Neutra, had to be replaced
with more energy-efficient, well-sealed glass during renovations.

And on that point: The brilliant minds that created the original mid-century modern houses were more progressive than the materials they used. For example, all of that glass was a wonderfully liberating way of opening the house to nature. But even the thick, tempered glass the MCM architects used for walls of windows was a terrible insulator. Operable windows were just single-pane. And sealants weren’t nearly as effective as they are today, so they failed easily and leaks were a constant concern.
There's no denying the cool
factor of jalousie windows.
Of course, not all replacement windows are the same. Some are more appropriate for MCMs than others.  It is important to consider energy efficiency along with the thinnest profile you can find.  The old steel windows used in many of these projects were energy sinks due to what is called “thermal bridging.”  If you want to replace your windows with steel, look for ones that have a “thermal break” to prevent energy loss. Also look for windows that have a clean, contemporary profile, without traditional moldings.

Roofs: The flat and shed (single sloped) roofs that set MCM houses apart from their traditional neighbors were another problem in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In cold climes, MCMs' flat roofs struggled under the weight of mounds of snow. And without today’s improvements to flat roof construction and materials, rain backed up into the original roofs and leaves piled up until the mess had to be removed by hand.

The result: leaks. Lots and lots of leaks. Which is why MCM houses that have been vacant for a while often display serious water damage on the ceilings, as you can see inside this MCM (pictured below) that has been vacant for 10 years and is now in danger of being razed. Again, brilliant minds were ahead of the technology their designs required. Even the great Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy includes a bounty of leaky roofs, windows, and skylights.

The sad result of vacancy and neglect.

In Part III, we’ll begin addressing appropriate ways to renovate a mid-century modern house, starting with interior finishes and fixtures.

ARIELLE CONDORET SCHECHTER, AIA, is a licensed, registered architect based in Chapel Hill, NC, who specializes in Modernist, energy-efficient buildings with a focus on passive houses, NET ZERO houses, her new tiny-house plans known as the Micropolis Houses®, and mid-century modern renovations, remodeling, and additions.  For more information: www.acsarchitect.com.

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