How I Preserved A Historic House While Making It More Energy Efficient

by |May 14, 2018

By Lynnette Widder, as told to Sarah Fecht

lurie house

Earth Institute architect Lynnette Widder has been recognized for her work in restoring a home designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright student. Photo: Thad Russell

By day, Lynnette Widder teaches sustainable architecture in Columbia’s Master of Science in Sustainability Management program. But in her free time, Widder has spent the past four years renovating a historic house in upstate New York. Her hard work has paid off; she recently earned a Citation of Merit from Docomomo US, an organization that conserves modern architecture. The award praises Widder’s success in revitalizing the Lurie House, originally designed by Japanese-American architect Kaneji Domoto and completed in 1950.

Domoto wasn’t well-known, but he is nevertheless a significant figure in architectural history. He grew up in a family of landscapers, and later studied under the famous Frank Lloyd Wright. Domoto’s architecture and landscape design projects, which spanned more than five decades, reflect Wright’s emphasis on organic forms and biomimicry.

After the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, Domoto was imprisoned in an internment camp in Colorado, where he worked on the construction and gardening crews. Immediately after his release in 1941, he was told to report to the draft board, though he was never conscripted. He ended up working as a draftsman for several well-known architects, including Skidmore Owings and Merrill.

In the late 1940s, Wright was asked to design a community in Westchester, New York, and he tapped Domoto as one of the architects for the project. Domoto built five houses in the community, including the Lurie House.

Over the decades that followed, the aging home fell into disrepair. Nevertheless, it was love at first sight for Widder. In the paragraphs below, she explains the challenges she faced in preserving the original character of the home while updating it and making it more sustainable.

In Widder’s own words:

It was a total fluke that I found this place. I had a student who was doing an independent study project on sustainable architecture with me, and she was very interested in Frank Lloyd Wright. She came into my office one day and said something like, “There are two houses for sale in this community. We could go up and look at them,” and I said “Ok.” I walked in and I was so taken with the house, and the fact that so little had been changed. Almost all of the other houses in this neighborhood have already been renovated, and usually they’re not renovated in a way that’s particularly sensitive to what’s important about the house’s construction. I also liked the compactness of it. That was part of the culture and frugality of that style, and I think that’s part of being environmentally responsible. I had recently inherited some money, so I bought the house, and I’ve been restoring it for the past four years.

lurie house kitchen

The Lurie House kitchen in 1950 versus today. Photos: Jack Holmes, Thad Russell

The previous owner lived in the house until he was in his 80s, after his wife had died and his children left. There’s a limit to what an 80-year-old man can do in terms of upkeep, and then the house was rented for 20 years. When I first saw it, it had been hit by a tree during Sandy. They had replaced the roof but not much more. It was a mixed blessing. It meant that everything was intact—all of the old 1940s solid cypress windows were still there, and much of the original cabinetry, plywood, and interior siding. So there was a lot to do, but a lot to work from.

I teach sustainable architecture at Columbia, so for me it was a great opportunity to think about how you do a renovation like this, where you not only think about the performance of the building, but also about the resources and the energy that are represented by what’s already in place. I was very careful to retain as much of the original material as I could while I was working, which my contractors thought was lunatic. They would ask me, “Why are you saving this? This is birch plywood. I can buy you birch plywood at Home Depot.” And I had to insist, “No, you don’t get it, this is 1949 birch plywood.”

Red birch plywood and concrete floor with radiant heating. Photo: Thad Russell

Domoto designed with environmental responsiveness in mind. The dark gray concrete floor absorbs sunlight, so it increases the temperature of the house without the need for any energy input except for the sun. Also, all of the glass areas of the house face south, and the roof protrudes in an overhang. The depth of the overhang is more or less perfect so that in the winter, when sun is low in the sky, I’ll get light 15 to 18 feet into the house, and in the summer I get no direct sunlight at all. The house is naturally cool in the summer, and there is cross-ventilation everywhere.

The knee-jerk response to things like energy efficiency would have been difficult in this house. About 35 percent of the facade is the windows, and they’re built with thinly dimensioned wood. You can’t put thermal glass into frames that thin, so people end up taking out all the windows to put in double glazing. One of the important compromises that I had to make, if I wasn’t going to replace all of the windows, was: how was I going to make the house efficient? One of the ways I was able to do that was simply to focus on every other surface of the house besides the glass.

So I insulated the foundation walls. We took out the old floors and put in new concrete floors with radiant heat, and put insulation underneath them. I did a kind of passive house treatment on the north walls, to add airtightness and heavy insulation. I put a lot of insulation into the roof. That’s been super successful in terms of efficiency, and you have to look very carefully to know what’s been done.

An overhang allows plenty of light in during the wintertime, but provides shade in the summer. Photo: Thad Russell

The other thing I did was to remove a buried oil tank, which is no longer permitted by law, and a very old, inefficient oil burner inside the house. By using a high efficiency boiler, which makes hot water on-demand, I was able to move the entire utility area—which had basically taken up an area the size of a bedroom inside the house—into a closet in the garage. So I essentially gained an entire new room that had never been in Domoto’s plans. I tried to reference the way he used windows to frame the natural landscape, so that the spirit of what he would have done would resonate even in the new room.

I’ve been doing a lot of the work myself. I think I’m pretty skilled as an architect, but I’m at best semi-skilled as a construction worker, so I’ve had a pretty significant learning curve. I worked with contractors for anything that was heavier than I could do, and for the fairly standard work. But for things that were finicky and bespoke, like refinishing all the plywood or putting in wall brackets to hang a sink the way I wanted to—things that any contractor would look at you and be like, “Why are you doing this?”—those were the kinds of things that I was doing.

It was nice to be recognized by Docomomo. They’re one of the real pioneers in trying to recognize that modern architecture is at an age and a value where it needs preservation advocacy. A lot of modern architecture was very experimental. People were excited about new materials and new technologies, and that means that there are problems in a lot of modern buildings that have led to their deterioration. There’s always a stylistic backlash, too, from one period to the next. So a lot of mid-century architecture has already been lost. Traditionally, what people did when they restored modern architecture was to get rid of the technology and keep the image of the building. I think what’s important to understand is that a lot of the materials and the technology are part of what you need to hold on to. That material culture of modernism is a big part of what Docomomo has advocated for, and certainly something that I really tried to respect in this house.

lurie house living room

Large windows in the south-facing wall provide light and heat during the winter. Photo: Thad Russell

Docomomo also advocates for the idea that history isn’t written by big names. It’s a much more complex story. Someone like Domoto was barely recognized during his lifetime, yet he was relatively prolific and he was not unimportant. His story touches so many different aspects of the United States in the 20th century.

For now, the Lurie House is my country house. It’s a wonderful place to go to work, to think, to hike. I’ve also started farming, and I’ve been talking to a solar power startup  about trying to move the house off the grid as much as possible. So it’s becoming kind of a testbed, let’s say, for some of the things that I teach that are less mainstream than usual.

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