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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tear Down or Convert an Old Property: What is Required

Many envision their property’s old barn, a detached garage, or even the unused garden shed transformed into everything from an artist’s studio, children’s playhouse to a guest cottage. While the imagination is fertile, often the plan is futile due to the structure itself.

Remove the rose-colored glasses, dust off the romantic notions, and face the building in the full light of day.

If it leans like an iconic Italian tower or creaks worse than 98-year old great aunt Tilly – that is not a good sign. Does furniture bounce and rock against the walls when walking on the floors? Cracks in the plaster, drywall, and masonry wall can also tell a tale - sometimes a horror story.
How can a property owner or potential one decide how to proceed?

"Call in an architect," said Thomas M. Leigh AIA.

Leigh, owner of Peekskill NY's Hudson River Architecture, said an architect’s inspection of the structure’s major and minor problems determines if the battle to both time and gravity has been lost. He noted many owners are dismayed at the architect’s assessment to “pull it down” and build a new building.
Before one shrieks about historical value and preservation certain facts need addressing, he advised. Few structures possess a direct connection to the past. Nor do they warrant the crew of “This Old House” to pull into the driveway ready for renovation. Instead, back in the day the buildings’ construction met an immediate need. Often, untrained hands built them and with materials meant to last several decades at best - never a century or more.

Should a design professional deliver the happy news that preservation is possible, important steps need to occur prior a building’s rotted and damaged beams, foundations and the like are torn out or repaired.

Leigh suggests starting with a written plan of the renovations’ goals with design concepts. It is essential for establishing budget. A general rule is if more than 50% of any key elements such as windows, doors, roofing, walls, floors, HVAC, insulation, mechanical, electrical, and/or plumbing systems are replaced the owner might be required to bring all fore-mentioned elements up to current codes.

The architect, knowledgeable in local building codes and zoning laws, will begin the process for proper government approval and permits.
Local building and zoning laws might find the intended renovated building needs to be a certain distance off a property line. If it is not, at a cost averaging $300, a zoning variance application is the next step. However, Leigh advises that the there is no guarantee a variance will be approved. Should it fail the project is far from dead, the project will need adjustment.

Building departments also require proof of insurance for the structure and on-site workers, even if the workers are the property owners and friends and family. Additionally, if everyone is working full-time statutory workmen’s compensation insurance is a possibility. The homeowner has in effect become the general contractor. They also assign building permit fees to the homeowner/general contractor for time and labor.
In the hope of saving money, some property owners chose not to be upfront in their plans. Doing any renovation work under the cover of darkness and without local governmental approvals may cost additional penalties.

While Leigh acknowledges the initial process can be frustrating the conversion of a formerly uninhabitable space into one of function and beauty is well worth the struggles.