GUIDELINES FOR MODERN PRESERVATION
Renovating a modern residence requires patience, passion, and perseverance.
There are so many advantages to buying and living in a modern home: open floor-plans, beautiful built-in features like prominent fire places and wooden beams, large glass windows that connect the interior of the home with nature, and so many more. Like any building, modern homes require maintenance. Keep in mind that the greatest lie in contemporary building materials and home construction is that any material is “maintenance-free.” When one purchases a modern home, renovations are likely required. The below guidelines list a few common issues that nearly every modern home renovator will confront and offers starting points for sensible solutions to these problems.
1. Environmental and Safety Issues: Asbestos, Lead, and Other Harmful Materials
Many of the experimental materials considered to be a hallmark of the modern movement have been proven to be harmful in recent years. Asbestos was a preferred material because of its heat resistance, strength, and affordability. It was used in almost every construction project from 1946 to 1980. The material was outlawed in 2003 due to its links to cancer and early death, but remnants of the asbestos age remain in the built environment all over the United States, especially in modern residential architecture as it was popularly used as flooring adhesive, plumbing vents, and as ceiling popcorn. Asbestos, if undisturbed, is generally safe. However, if asbestos is disturbed and particles of the material become airborne, which happens frequently in a renovation, the material can be extremely harmful and require immediate professional attention. Asbestos evaluation and remediation should be performed before any historic home renovation. Lead is another prominent poisonous material frequently found in old houses. Unlike asbestos, however, lead is not exclusive to midcentury modern homes. Lead was used in many paints, varnishes, and glazes meaning that it can be found on windows, trim, walls, cabinetry, furniture, plumbing/pipes, faucets/fixtures, ceramic tiles, porcelain enamel sinks and bathtubs, varnishes on flooring, in old linoleum, and a variety of other locations. Safety is paramount in the preservation of historic modern residential architecture. The preservation of a character defining feature or material is not as important as the health of the residents. If a feature must be removed due to its toxicity, properly document the original and replace in kind as best as possible.
2. Systems Revamp: Updating “Functional Fundamentals”
Many of the electrical, plumbing, insulation, heating, and cooling systems of midcentury modern homes have not been altered since their original construction. It is important that new modern homeowners in the process of renovation tend to these updates before turning their attention to aesthetic problems with the home. Updating these functional systems is imperative to the preservation of modern residential architecture as the main purpose of a modern home is that it remain a machine for living. The best way to ensure this is by properly maintaining the systems that keep a home habitable. Contemporary systems should be selected with a licensed professional to determine what is most practical for the space and should be installed in a manner that does not interrupt interior architecture integrity of the space.
3. Window Replacements: Tempered, Double-Pane Windows
Glass in modern homes is frequently used as a floor to ceiling curtain wall allowing nature to become a vital feature of the interior of the home. If the existing glass is in good condition and properly insulates the home, it is perfectly fine to retain the original glass. When these homes were built, single-pane glass was used to create these curtain walls and frequently did not act as a proper seal and insulator for the interior environment. Sometimes, this can cause mid-century modern homes to be exceedingly expensive to heat and cool if the glass is not replaced which perpetuates the negative rumors that midcentury modern homes are not environmentally friendly despite the fact that the greenest home is the home that has already been built. In addition to the concerns about energy cost and sustainability, there are many other downsides to retaining single-pane glass in mid-century modern homes. Large swaths of single-pane, untempered glass curtain walls are also a safety hazard since they are not as strong as double-pane, tempered glass and are much more prone to cracking at the slightest increase of stress or pressure putting the residents at increased risk for injury from glass shards. Since the notable characteristics of glass curtain walls in midcentury modern homes are their clean lines, clear view into nature, and blurring of interior and exterior space, not idiosyncratic detail, it is easy to replace single-pane glass with double-pane and preserve the aesthetics proportions of the home. Fortunately, there are many companies that specialize in producing sustainable, double-pane glass that perfectly mimics the aesthetics of the original single-pane glass without the negative characteristics. The following are a series of window and door manufacturers recommended by Dwell, a publication that specializes in the preservation and renovation of modern residential architecture:
4. Preserving Natural Materials and Original Fixtures
When modern homes are renovated, one of the first instincts of many homeowners is to gut the interior and essentially build a new home from within. While the spatial distribution of many midcentury modern homes is quite different from that of contemporary homes, people often see the benefits of the modern floorplan after living in the house for a few months. Many renovators recommend that new homeowners take a few months to live in the home before making major changes to the interior. One of the primary reasons for this recommendation is that many precious natural materials are carelessly discarded in impulsive renovation decisions. Wooden features such as paneled walls and exposed ceiling beams are crucial to both the renovation and preservation of a modern home as they are beautifully characteristic of the local materials that became a hallmark of the American iteration of the modern movement. Other features that should be seriously considered for preservation are original doors, cabinetry, and hardware, such as doorknobs, handles, latches, and lighting fixtures.
While the above guidelines specifically confront issues in preserving mid-century modern residential architecture, many of the above guidelines are still applicable to the preservation of modern commercial architecture. However, as the rules and regulations surrounding commercial renovation are much more complex than residential, consultation with experts in the field of commercial construction is recommended.
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT RENOVATING AND PRESERVING MODERN ARCHITECTURE?
With the popularity of Mad Men and the growing ubiquity of IKEA furniture, the fan base for mid-century modern furniture, residences, and commercial buildings is ever expanding. Listed below are a few excellent resources for connecting with other modern enthusiasts and learning more about the process of renovating a modern property.
Guidelines for Modern Preservation
Kristin Dowding, “Asbestos 101: What’s A Nightmare + What’s Reality,” Atomic Ranch (August 10, 2017), https://www.atomic-ranch.com/asbestos-101/.
Pam Kueber, “Be Safe/ Renovate Safe,” Retro Renovation (2017), https://retrorenovation.com/renovate-safe/.
Miyoko Ohtake, “Home Tours: Green Is in the Details,” dwell (January 23, 2012), https://www.dwell.com/article/green-is-in-the-details-3b43a60d.
Pam Kueber, “Just bought a midcentury house? My 9 tips before you start remodeling + 21 more from readers,” Retro Renovation (September 15, 2014), https://retrorenovation.com/2014/09/15/9-tips-start-remodeling/.
Emily Patz, “The First Steps to Owning a Mid Century Modern Home,” esurance on: tips & hacks for smarter living (2017), http://blog.esurance.com/the-first-steps-to-owning-a-midcentury-modern-home/.