Beauty Is Only Skin Deep

by Maurice Levitch, AIA

Is it true that the inherent value of a home is directly related to what someone sees when they drive by? Absolutely! But that is not all. A homeowner may get so caught up in this concept that if they are remodeling to sell they can lose sight of other important upgrades. Making “curb-appeal” changes that are inconsistent with the architectural character of the home may even reduce its value.

In the Bay Area it is likely that as architects, builders, and homeowners, we will have more of an opportunity to improve upon existing homes than to create new ones. While with new construction we can choose to blend in, complement, or contradict the existing fabric of a neighborhood; in remodeling existing homes there is an additional challenge: how to restore or improve a home that already has a history.

I have had few clients over the years ask for a complete makeover – a change from one style to another. I think this is rare in part because the client probably bought the home because something appealed to them from the start about the way it looks.

On the other hand, perhaps they inherited the home or purchased an ugly duckling with the notion of turning it into something more in character with the rest of the flock. There is nothing wrong with that as there are plenty of examples of homes originally built with little design distinction. For example, a flat roof bungalow could turn into a sloped roof “Craftsman” as long as close attention is paid to the siding, overhang, and fascia details.

It concerns me when someone asks to change their home into a “Mediterranean” or a “Craftsman” from a completely different style, even when there are other homes with the desired appearance nearby. Unless the project involves a complete remodel with additions and other major changes, usually transforming the style is too involved to be successful.

For many, the outside look of a home trumps the more important floor plan and arrangement. In many cases improving a poor floor plan is more difficult and expensive than making exterior changes. When done well, a remodel gives even consideration to floor plan, building systems (including structural, exterior shell, mechanical, and electrical), and interior and exterior finishes.

Today a homeowner can easily go to a home center and pick up a pre-finished “grand” oak entrance door with leaded glass sidelights and an arch top transom. They can install it themselves or find a handyperson to install it. While perhaps a beautiful product in itself, it will likely not fit in with the overall design of the home.
An educated buyer looks beyond first impressions, sees the intrinsic value of a home, and takes notice of a slapped-on candy coating. This buyer would appreciate it more if the previous owner hadn’t done anything to “spruce up” the place.

Just as with people, a home is made up of many elements that combine to define it. Sometimes the beauty is only skin deep, and sometimes there are contradictions and surprises. For example, a remodel that tastefully incorporates updated or more modern finishes contributes to both the current enjoyment and the history of the home. Make sure the beauty of your projects runs more than skin deep.

This article was originally published in the September 2006 issue of Builder/Architect magazine.