When it comes to homes, what's old is new again

As the producer of Restoration & Renovation 2001, a large annual conference and trade show, Ellen Glew keeps a close eye on the restoration and renovation field. She likes what she sees.

Money spent on rehabbing or remodeling rose 5 percent to $150 billion during the past year, according to figures that she has seen.

People are increasingly interested in working with existing structures rather than building new ones, Ms. Glew says.

"The whole antisprawl thing is gaining momentum," she notes.

There's a financial motive, too.

"Because of the environmental movement, the cost of disposing of demolition debris is going up," says Glew, the managing director of Restore Media LLC of North Reading, Mass. At the same time, tax incentives are making renovation and remodeling more attractive.

As a result, the industry - with its array of products and services - is booming.

As the largest Restoration & Renovation conference and exhibition prepares to open in Washington Jan. 14 to 17, Glew spoke about the boom and its impact on home-improvement projects.

For a homeowner, what does the industry's growth mean?

You now have new materials - made of fiberglass, foam, gypsum, etc. - that replicate with incredible accuracy the old moldings and architectural details. It looks like wood, it's lighter weight, and easier to install. Ornamental plaster is really big in Victorian houses. You see a lot of that now in precast sheets. Everybody is going to historic paint lines, and a lot of them are under license, so you can go and find Victorian paint, Colonial paint, etc. More people are specializing in this market, and as a result, the prices are coming down.

How do preservationists view the use of reproductions?

The standard-bearers are becoming more open-minded. They recognize that there are other solutions that make more sense from an economic standpoint.

Why are people more interested in history and living in old homes or ones that look old?

I think a lot of it is being driven by baby boomers. I'm of that generation, and I see in my peers a sense of wanting to go back. Nobody embraced the Space Age more than we did, but now we're looking for comfort. We want nostalgia. We want life the way it was even before we were born, that puts us back before the automobile, Interstates, urban sprawl, and suburbia.

Isn't owning an old house burdensome?

It's true. My husband often says you don't own an old house, it owns you; and he's right. You constantly have to do stuff, and it can be horrible to clean. I know that from my own house, which is 300-plus years old. The joints aren't as tight, and there are lot of crevices and crannies.

So what options exist for people who like old-looking homes, but don't want the hassles?

There are reproductions or historically inspired houses. Some of the repro homes are phenomenal. You can get just about anything that once was. There are builders who specialize in this, and [the] salvage business - people who recycle old flooring and hardware - is getting bigger and bigger.

In terms of a home's visual impact, what is the top spending priority?

The windows. Fenestration [the arrangement of windows and doors] is one of the key items. If I was really going for the traditional look, I would go for a wood window, a true divided-light window with actual panes separated by muntins [instead of snap-in grids]. Sometimes brand-new construction lacks proper fenestration. The proportion is wrong, and exterior architectural detail is missing. The house has a flatness about it.

Are there window products that people who want traditional-looking windows can afford?

Yes. There are more and more window suppliers coming out with reproduction, historic windows. Most of the major manufacturers now have what they call an architectural line, with double-hung, divided-light windows. You can get a custom look without going to the complete expense of custom.

Will we start seeing renovation products for ranch-style homes?

Oh, yes. It's already here. The ranch is a quintessentially American style, an evolution from Arts and Crafts, so it's taken its place rightfully in architectural history.... There's a whole movement starting to take hold to keep the classic ranch.

What do you expect to be a hot topic at this year's Restoration & Renovation conference?

Beyond individual homes, people are concerned about keeping the historic quality of older neighborhoods. That's being fostered by cities that are encouraging such activity. More and more historic districts are being designated. People are ... looking to bring back mixed-used neighborhoods, where you can buy a cup of coffee on the corner.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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