Katy Elliott

A daily design journal about new england life, home decorating resources, and renovating a 257-year-old house in Marblehead, MA.

House Renovation: Called An Architect

Posted on | March 19, 2010 | 29 Comments

back of house

I’ve been ignoring talking about one the biggest projects/problems in our house renovation. The back wing of our house is caving in, sinking, and in utter disarray. Did I mention we’ve seen squirrels in the downstairs stealing scraps of paper. We have large holes in the side of the house where the local squirrels and cats come in to party.

About a year ago I talked about gutting, redesigning, or fixing the space. The wing effects all the other projects we have started. I’m not going to lay marble tiled floors in my bathroom if they are going to crack from the back wing continuing to sink or being raised during a renovation. The bathrooms are all stacked on top of each other in the narrow tower. The effects of us not taking care of the problem goes on and on…

We know we need to call an architect but our hesitation has always circled back to money—we don’t have any. The first year after buying a house is really hard. After spending your life savings on the down payment your basically surviving from month to month till you build up a little cushion again. Me loosing my job in January 2009 didn’t help matters. I got a more full-time freelance gig this spring so I’m hoping I can start contributing more cash to the renovation.

Monday I finally took the leap and called an architect. He comes in two weeks. I’m a little nervous about costs and where we are going to find the money. But I am glad I actually called someone rather then over anticipate and dramatize the cost which was causing us to do nothing and sit idle. We can still renovate project by project but we need a better plan. Stay tuned…

side of house

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29 Responses to “House Renovation: Called An Architect”

  1. Taryn
    March 19th, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

    Ugh, it’s always the old add-ons that cause the most problems. My husband and I are dealing with the same issue with the add-on next to the kitchen which looks to be sinking. Our little attached greenhouse is also contributing to water damage in the same area.

    We called an architect and he estimated his cost would run around 7k. That’s just too much for us to afford (we just bought the house in November so our nest egg was pretty much wiped out on the down payment too!). Now we play the waiting game until we have enough money to purchase a plan. That could be a while though.

    It’s very frustrating playing the renovation game. I just keep looking at the big picture, but it’s tough sometimes. I’m just glad spring is here. Spring sun at least makes everything seem better!


  2. erica
    March 19th, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

    these old buildings are tough cookies. we’re actually selling our condo in a c.1900 brick building in cambridge. the plumbing is a time-bomb, and we just had to pay a $4k special assessment for a tear down and rebuild of the back decks. the maintenance never ends, and i can’t even imagine dealing with an entire house. good luck with your architect. i wish my architect husband knew a thing or two about these things, but he’s just starting out.


  3. Jean Molesworth Kee
    March 19th, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

    Hi Katy,

    If you think you’ll be in this house for awhile- go for it. We have done extensive remodeling in 3 stages to our 1937 cottage and money spent on an architect was the best investment we ever made. Get the “bones” right and u can always tweak and upgrade the other stuff as it becomes affordable. We have been in this home for 20 plus years! Time to remodel again!


  4. HenryT
    March 19th, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

    We live in Marblehead as well. Two of our friends are very good architects and have each started their own businesses. They might be able to give you a competitive quote.


  5. Emily
    March 19th, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

    If you’re in an old, historic house, you either love it or you don’t, and it’s either worth the investment or it’s not. I’m in historic preservation, so for me it’s always worth it, but I realize that everyone can’t always make that kind of emotional commitment to a building… although I wish they would :)

    I can’t wait to hear how your meeting with your architect goes, and I just want to say how FUN it is to read your blog (as a Bostonian who can’t afford to buy) and how great it is to see you tackle the restoration of such a gorgeous, historic house!


  6. Jennie
    March 20th, 2010 @ 7:02 am

    Good for you. Finding the ‘right’ architect isn’t always easy, but once you do the money will be well worth it (especially in the long run). Best of luck to you on this grand adventure. And, btw, I really enjoy your blog.



  7. Sage
    March 20th, 2010 @ 8:00 am

    Hi – if I might make a suggestion for those of you struggling with money? You really don’t need an architect – look for a builder who does his own design work and has a lot of experience with period homes. You pay far far less for consultations and design work. Plus they do the work themselves which saves more money and time too. These guys are hard to find – they usually only have one or two jobs going at any given momemnt, they don’t advertise much, so you might have to rely on word of mouth. My father is like this (sorry, he’s in NH)No formal training but years of working on older houses. He designed my house and everyone thinks it’s an antique.

    Good luck!


  8. Mary Shawcross
    March 20th, 2010 @ 10:21 am

    Hi Katie,

    I’d like to recommend my brother-in-law
    Angus MacLeod, he is a designer who specializes in design for historic homes.

    His website is: DnAdesigns.org, his e-mail is angusonack@gmail.com, (not the e-mail that’s on the website!)
    His phone number is
    (508) 257-6789,

    He has a really sensitive eye for older buildings and his designs make use of space in a practical way, yet retains as many historical aspects as possible.

    I’m not sure what is rates are, but I would discuss that you are on a budget.

    Also re. those pesky squirrels, you have to get them out. I would recommend getting rat wire from the hardware store and placing it over the holes, they can’t chew through it.
    I had one living in my soffit. That was fun trying to get him out, as it was up 30 ft.
    Also I’ve heard ammonia soaked rags keep evil critters out.

    All the best,


  9. Katy Elliott
    March 20th, 2010 @ 11:22 am

    I understand calling a GC would be cheaper but are problems are beyond bad and I need help redesigning the back entrance.

    The architect I called has done work on a number of historic homes in my neighborhood. And he has a good relationship with the Historic Society which is key in this town…

    But of course I have to wait to see. I’ll know more about our next steps after our initial talk in a few weeks.


  10. Donna
    March 20th, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    Glad you made the call Katy! Of course you need an architect—you need the stamp for the building inspector and the Historic Commission contacts. I admit that I’m absolutely biased because my husband is an architect here in Salem, but I really don’t understand why people skimp on architectural services. Make sure that your architect’s proposal is divided by his services: design, phases of design, construction management, etc… so you can hire him for exactly what you want and need. If it’s just the former, the price should be very small relative to your total renovation costs. Good luck!


    March 20th, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    I hope it turns out to be manageable for you. I think you did the right thing in at least getting someone to assess the situation. I’ve been going through something similar with our new house. There have been some problems and initially, I put off calling people in but slowly, I just did it. And most of the time, it’s been less painful than I had anticipated. Good luck with it all!


  12. dallas
    March 20th, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    good luck katy!
    your blog is great. not only do you have great taste and excellent interests (in my opinion) but you don’t only tell the stylized version of your life and home, and that’s what’s truly inspiring. it’s a well needed dose of reality in the internet design blog world!


  13. Patty
    March 21st, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

    Oh wow that sounds like a crazy amount of work, hope your renovations turn out just the way you want them to!


  14. Jane
    March 21st, 2010 @ 9:46 pm

    Doing the fun decorating part will be even sweeter knowing that you’ve got a structually sound building.


  15. emily @ thirtyeight20
    March 22nd, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    Smart move on getting those structural things taken care of! I’d recommend getting a 2nd opinion if you can as well. We had an engineer tell us it was fine to install hardwood flooring upstairs before we installed a steel i-beam on a lower floor… We had doubts but did it anyway based on his recommendation. When we put the i-beam in, our upstairs flooring developed some small gaps in a few areas. Now we pretty much have to live it– which is not the total end of the world, but stil quite disheartening after so much work. Even if it’s costly, the peace of mind and solid advice you’ll be getting is worth it in the end!


  16. Patsy
    March 22nd, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    I’m so interested to hear what the architect thinks!

    If you choose to use just the architect’s designs consultation, there are any number of terrific builders in M-head & Salem who also have excellent relationships with the Hysterical Society and the ZBA.

    Good luck!


  17. mopar
    March 22nd, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

    Wow, this is quite the bombshell. Don’t worry, sometimes structural stuff can be easier and cheaper than you think. We tried to hire a local engineer-expediter firm but they said the job was too small so instead they told us what to do (at no charge) and gave us the contact info for someone who could do it. He was super fast, reasonable and good. We paid $2,000 for a ton of stuff, including replacing and sistering beams and joists in the rear of the house, and other things to stop leaks in the basement — it could have been done for even less. Good luck and get those squirrels out of there as fast as you can. :)


  18. jen jafarzadeh
    March 22nd, 2010 @ 9:26 pm

    Good luck, Katy! Sounds like a smart move to call in an architect.


  19. monica
    March 23rd, 2010 @ 3:21 am

    Katy,it’s good to get an architect in before you go any further.It costs a lot more to find out what you should have done, rather than what you need to do.Best of luck.Someday this will all be behind you and the pride you will feel by saving this piece of history will be immense.


  20. pleasesir
    March 23rd, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    Sounds like a scary step, but also a necessary step. I think it’s a great move and can’t wait to hear more…good luck!


  21. Polly
    March 24th, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    I am letting you know about some dates that I thought you might be interested in

    Running 3 day antiques & collectibles show
    Sage Farm Antiques
    April 2nd to the 4th…Singin’In The Rain
    May 7th thru 9th…….The Secret Garden
    June 4th thru 6th……Father of the Bride
    maybe you are on their email list but just in case you are not….


  22. Wendy
    March 24th, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    Hi Katy. You’re going to need to get a structural engineer. The architect will help but he’s not the expert for these problems. Sistering beams isn’t expensive work. Hopefully you’ve had the place checked and treated for termites–especially with swarm season starting soon. I’m not trying to add to the worries. The termites can be treated for 1,800.00 by Orkin or Terminix. They drill holes every 16 inches around the perimeter of the house and fill them with termidor poison. I’m in a 1902 Victorian wood-frame house and I know what a can of worms it can become. I’m so envious of your fireplaces and your location!


  23. Cindy
    March 24th, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

    It’ll be gorgeous when it’s done.


  24. Gail J Richardson
    March 25th, 2010 @ 10:08 pm

    What a project you have taken on, my hat is off to you. One time I had squirrels eating into my attic and they made so much noise I couldn’t sleep. Good luck on getting them to leave.


  25. Michelle Linden
    March 26th, 2010 @ 11:39 am


    Just stumbled on this blog from twitter…
    As an architect (originally from Gloucester, now living in Seattle, WA) I thought I’d add my two cents…

    Talk to a few architects, not just one. Pricing can vary widely, but it is also important to consider design aesthetic, personality, and schedule. Ask them to provide very specific itemized proposals, that way when you compare you are comparing apples to apples. If one provides a proposal for design/construction documents/construction admin as a lump sum and another provides an hourly estimate for design only… there is no real way to compare.

    And yes, you will need a structural engineer. People often wonder why you need both an architect and a structural engineer… but think of architects like doctors. Your doctor takes care of your overall health and has your best interests in mind, dealing with most issues. However, sometimes you need to call the specialist in…

    The money you spend will probably be less than you are anticipating, but it will absolutely be worth it. After all, your home is the biggest investment of your life, why would you want to cut corners?

    Good luck on finding the right architect! I can’t wait to hear more about your project!


  26. Rob
    March 26th, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

    Hi. I was reluctant to get an architect for the same reason as you but I’m so glad we did. They thought of things that had never occurred to us and the results are fantastic. In a nutshell I found the main difference was that they are trained to think in 3 dimensions while a plan is just 2 dimensions, and can’t really give the full picture. They also draw their plan after seeing the site which is more important than i realised. by coincidence $7k was the price we were initially quoted also and I balked at that, but in hindsight it was a bargain. The house is worth at least $50k more now than it would have been if I had just gone with our original ideas and it ended up costing us the same (because they identified several cost savings). If you have a plain flat clear block then an off the shelf plan is probably OK, but if you have any complications at all – and you clearly have those – I would strongly urge anyone to consult an architect.


  27. anne
    March 27th, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    An architect’s fees are 10-20% of construction costs, and it’s a bargain for what you’ll get. They’ll help you get the most value from the money you spend on construction, not to mention, good design decisions will add value to your property.

    Also, a good architect should also be a good collaborator and translate your wonderful sensibilities and affinity for the details into the architecture. Selfishly, I’d love to see what emerges on your lovely blog!! :)


  28. Hugh Greville
    April 12th, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    We have just done/still doing 36 State Street with similar issues with the same architect. Would be happy to show you around



  29. Ellard Martin
    May 12th, 2010 @ 4:38 am

    Renovating an old house is not easy. Perhaps you don’t need an architect, a contractor will do, besides architect cost more.
    Recently, I replaced the old roof of my house with an asphalt roof with cooling granules. Also, I replaced my windows with storm windows to improve energy efficiency by creating another barrier between the interior and the outside.
    I was lucky to find a NY Roofing Company that would do this for me at a reasonable cost. The roofers NYC are dependable and highly recommended.


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