Renovate or Build New?

A Contributed Article
By Kathy Calnen
Michael McKinley and Associates, Architects
Stonington, CT

Historic Weekapaug, RI Summer House

Homeowners in historic beach communities frequently grapple with this question when deciding what to do with a newly purchased property or a beloved summer home that’s been in the family for generations. Faced with a significant investment of time and money, you don’t want to go down the wrong path and that’s why we suggest the answer can be found by initially going down two paths.

Hiring an architect to conduct a feasibility study weighing the pros and cons of renovation vs. new construction will give you an objective evaluation of design options, project complexity and projected construction costs. One of the first steps should be an assessment of the building envelope and the foundation to determine if there are significant structural problems or costly repairs needed. The value of this information far outweighs the cost of the study.

In coastal areas where many cottages and summer homes were built after the 1938 hurricane, renovation can be advantageous in some cases because you can keep preexisting zoning non-conformities. If you tear down the structure, you generally have to conform to current zoning regulations and that could result in a smaller building footprint.

Our firm designed extensive renovations to this historic Weekapaug, RI summer house.

The other major consideration in coastal communities is the elevation of the lowest habitable floor. If the first floor of a home is below the flood elevation and the structure needs to be raised, you will be paying a premium to raise and restructure the building. A related consideration is an aesthetic one and that’s the appearance of the elevating the existing building.

Alongside potentially raising the house, buildings in wind/hazard zones must be brought up to code and that can mean installing windows with impact glass, making the structure wind resistant and building foundations with deep pilings. While renovation derives financial equity in the existing structure, site work and utilities, that economy can quickly disappear in this scenario. In some cases, the cost of renovation can exceed the cost of new construction. This is due to the extensive labor required to carefully dismantle a structure by hand.

New elevated beach house designed by Michael McKinley and Associates.

Major advantages of new construction are freedom to design with all new materials and systems and create a new site plan that may have better views or more privacy. It also allows you to design to your current lifestyle without making compromises such as living with the 7-foot first floor ceiling height in the original building.

The completed renovation/preservation of the Weekapaug, RI residence.

However, for some homeowners, intangibles such as an attachment to a longtime family home or a chance to preserve a piece of history outweigh the financial factors and become the deciding factor in their decision to renovate rather than build new.

Michael McKinley and Associates, Architects is licensed in NY, CT, RI, NJ, and FL.

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