Group of architects rises up against tearing down

When I wrote a column a few weeks ago about a Charlotte couple's decision to tear down their 1928 bungalow, e-mails came flying.

About 10 architects wrote to express frustration that another piece of Charlotte's heritage was disappearing.

Some background: I had written about a newlywed couple who live in Crescent Heights near uptown. They wanted to renovate the Craftsman home where one of their grandparents had lived.

But they changed their minds recently after getting eye-popping bids of $220,000 for a partial renovation that didn't include a kitchen update. Instead, they reluctantly decided to demolish the old house. It's gone.

Now, a builder has started work on a 2,300-square-foot house to replace the old bungalow. The couple chose a style and size of house they believe will fit in with other dwellings on Crescent Avenue. Their budget is about $300,000.

It was a wrenching decision, but one they believe is best for their family. After the grandparents died, the house sat empty for a few years and needed extensive work. The couple were surprised to hear about the architects' concerns and declined to comment on them.

The architects, mostly members of the Charlotte chapter of the Congress of Residential Architecture, sent lengthy e-mails to each other and me expressing disapproval of the demolition. While they didn't want to criticize one family's decision, a half-dozen Charlotte architects met with me recently to share thoughts on renovating versus rebuilding.

The newly formed Charlotte CORA chapter is part of a national group of architects promoting improved homebuilding design and standards. The Charlotte members say they're looking for ways to create better conversations among architects, homebuilders and homeowners.

The group's Web site says in part, “The vast majority of single-family house plans built today are simply variations of a few dozen house plans that are decades old. … Our built environment is plagued by sprawl – by a relentless consumption of building materials and land, with little attempt to honor either.”

Architect Lindsay Daniel said that for 32 years she lived in the same neighborhood as the couple I wrote about. She said she and her husband bought a house early in their marriage and faced a similar situation. Their house needed lots of work.

Daniel said she and her husband renovated their old house slowly over the years to accommodate their budget. They renovated in four phases as their family grew. Last year, the Daniels downsized and sold the house for about $900,000. Their long-term investment paid off well in the end, she said.

Daniel and other architects said they often advise clients to tear down houses if the cost of renovating is more than the finished house will be worth.

But they said homeowners should always consult architects. The couple I talked with worked with a builder they trusted to modify a three-bedroom, 21/2-bath plan they found on the Internet.

The architects said they can work with owners to modify an Internet or “stock” plan. They said such plans often lack many details that can personalize a house and keep it true to a style.

If the homeowner leaves all the decisions to the builder, the house may not turn out the way the homeowner envisioned and may not mesh well with the neighborhood, the architects said.

Old houses often feature solid materials and designs that aren't duplicated easily with today's synthetic materials, they emphasized.

Architect Alina Bartlett said Charlotte's uniqueness stems from the look of its older neighborhoods, such as Dilworth and Myers Park.

“People have a right to build whatever they want to build, but Charlotte is going to pay for it” by looking less distinctive, she said.

Architect Don Duffy said members of his profession need to educate homeowners on authentic styles and on the concept of doing what's best for the larger community.

“When you walk the streets of Charleston, the houses have pleasing details you don't automatically see but you can feel,” he said. “You can't imitate authenticity.”