Some people spruce up vintage houses with an emphasis on period details. Others update old places to suit life today.
In restoring an 1860s farmstead three miles west of Stockton, N.J., over the last two years, Lise Thompson has done a bit of both.
The result is a historically accurate, "green" reinterpretation of a Victorian-era farmhouse - energy-efficient, wired for technology, and with a more open floor plan. The simpler structure of a bygone time blends seamlessly with an addition that more than meets demands of modern living.
Part of the first-floor family room in the addition, for example, evokes the look of a wrap-around porch. A second-floor family room provides transitional space between the master suite in the addition and the three bedrooms in the original house. And the kitchen - or rather, the space for it, since Thompson didn't want to anticipate the taste of the eventual buyer - opens to a bright, naturally lit breakfast room.
Yet the old house - from its molding profiles, to the antique smoked glass, to the porches recreated from original photos, to the refinished walnut stair railing and oak double entry doors - has been preserved.
Facing land protected from further development, floor-to-ceiling windows also provide an inspiring view of the Delaware. Centuries-old trees and shrubs will shortly burst forth in spring colors of pink, red, yellow and white.
The property - purchased for $340,000 and for sale for $2.45 million after several hundred thousand dollars' worth of painstaking renovation and reconstruction - is dotted by barns and other outbuildings in various stages of restoration.
But as impressive and conscientious as the efforts of Thompson, principal of Conservation Development L.L.C. of Hillsborough, and her cabinetmaker husband, Robert J. Brander, are, the biggest "wow" doesn't come till almost the end of a lengthy tour of the house:
It's the second-floor "family" bath, with clerestory windows on all four sides of the tower-like ceiling that remind Thompson of a painting of a medieval Japanese palace.
The room features a walk-in glass shower with a bluish-gray and white marble-tile floor and bench and off-white subway-tile walls; an oversized rain-shower head in brushed nickel; a white porcelain platform soaking tub; double sinks with marble countertops that match the shower; radiant-floor heating; and a spot Thompson says was designed to incorporate a "substantial armoire."
More important, she says, the tower and its bathroom, designed to have a "serene, contemplative feeling," serve as a "demarcation between the restored 1860s original and its addition."
"This is all about scale as well as detail," says Thompson, 47, daughter of Bryce Thompson of Thompson Land in Princeton, one of the state's largest private land-investment companies. "I've tried to avoid a McMansion scale and retain the intimate feeling of the original house."
The addition, a collaborative design by Thompson, Brander and Entasis Architecture L.L.C. of Hamilton, N.J., is not an appendage, "but part of a new-old hybrid," says Thompson, who sits on the New Jersey Nature Conservancy board. "It is designed to be part of the house, not an elephant on its back."
Green, or sustainable, building is the housing industry's latest buzzword, but it's typically applied to new structures, rather than historic restorations like this one.
"The one thing we've learned about green is to pick your battles," says Brander, 48, a designer and builder of furniture who has taught at New York's Parsons School of Design.
For example, green practices mandate replacing old windows with new Energy Star-rated ones, which would have violated the spirit of the couple's preservation efforts.
Instead, all the windows were reglazed and as much of the older glass preserved as possible, says Brander. He copied the profile of the window and door casings, the baseboards, and the moldings and reproduced them for the addition, as well as repairing, rebuilding or building doors, windows and staircases in a workshop set up on the first floor of the barn. He also did a lot of the framing work.
"We replaced the chains and weights on each window with a spring-driven system and then insulated the spaces around the windows," Brander says.
To ensure energy efficiency, custom aluminum storm windows were installed.
Low-emissivity Energy Star windows were reserved for the addition. They are aluminum-clad, Thompson says, "since they have a life cycle two or three times longer than wood windows."
But more often than not, preservation and sustainable building went hand in hand here.
Holes once used for pipes in the ceilings are now vents for a high-velocity combination heating, cooling and ventilation system. "The oil-fired boiler that provides radiant heat and hot water can be converted to biodiesel," Thompson says.
The flooring in the original house and the addition is hemlock, yet the "new" floors were made from lumber (not flooring) harvested from a Lancaster County barn. All the floors were sanded and polished, not stained, to match each other exactly, Brander says. They were sealed with two coats of Bona Mega polyurethane, a green product that dries in a couple of hours and can be walked on thereafter.
Use of this polyurethane, and Sherwin Williams' Harmony paint containing no volatile organic compounds, reflects Thompson's concern with indoor air quality. "We could stand in the middle of a room with five people painting, and there was no odor," she says. White was used for the interior and exterior, to allow the future owner to make color choices.
A whole-house ventilation system exchanges air throughout the entire 4,956-square-foot house every 20 minutes.
One of the principles of green building is using products with high percentages of recycled content, Thompson says. So parts of the house's foundation, the rock-lined wells built around trees at the sides of the small hill created by the new septic system, and the low walls around the bluestone patio leading to the addition were created from fieldstone on the property.
Lumber, windows, doors, knobs, locks, and other fixtures were salvaged from previous additions that were beyond repair. Although the former owner's decision to rip out old plaster and lath and landfill it might seem wasteful, "it opened up the insides of the house and allowed them to dry out and breathe," Thompson says.
It also made it easier to add electrical capacity (400-amp service in the house, 200-amp in the outbuildings), advanced communications wiring, and rigid-foam polyurethane insulation. Plus, it allowed mold-resistant drywall to be used in the house's old and new sections.
Even the basement, which also has radiant heat, has been repaired and is ready for finishing. A cistern, with a consistent temperature of 55 degrees, would be perfect for a rotunda-shaped wine cellar, if the buyer chooses, Brander says.
The outbuildings - a 1,200-square-foot barn with radiant heating, a three-bay garage barn, two smaller barns (one a chicken house), a circular metal corncrib, and a well house (perfect for a potting shed) - have been repaired and restored. The largest barn has been readied for solar panels.
Even the smallest details were carefully considered - like the paw prints found in some red-clay floor tiles for the newly added mudroom.
"In Mexico, tiles are left outdoors to dry," Brander says, "and sometime early in the drying process, an animal walked across these three."
"I wanted to throw them away, but Lise said, 'Let's use them.' "
So they did.
Going for the Green
Contact Lise Thompson and Robert J. Brander at 908-369-1224 or info@ conservationdevelopment.org about the house they restored. A Web site about the project is being readied at www. conservationdevelopment.org.
To find information about green practices and building, Thompson and others recommend these Web sites:
Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or firstname.lastname@example.org.