Washington, D.C., architect Stephen Muse has noticed a major change in the types of remodels his clients request. “Ten to 15 years ago, they tended to be additions,” he says. “Now whole-house redos are more popular. By the time you've put in a new heating system, lighting plan, sound systems, computer system, insulation … you've poked so many holes in so many surfaces that it makes more sense to go back to the frame.” (Except, he notes, in the case of a historically significant, preservation-worthy house.)

Muse has tapped into a trend that's happening across the country, especially in the pricey suburbs and cities where many custom builders work. The American housing stock is aging, and the income of the wealthy continues to rise. “We think there's going to continue to be very strong demand at the top of the market,” says Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures Program at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. “We're guessing the upper end will probably soften through 2007, but [in the long term] it will be a very, very strong driver of remodeling growth.” Even when they don't choose to completely gut a house, many deep-pocketed homeowners are still opting to remodel from top to bottom. Over the following pages, we take a look at four shining examples of the whole-house remodel, an important project type for custom builders in the years to come.

Victorian Revolution

Most people who buy a dilapidated old house eventually face a decision: Either tear it down or remodel. Demolishing and starting over can often be the cheaper route—but sometimes other factors outweigh simple economic considerations. In the case of a boarded-up, 1890s Victorian Mansard-style house in Jamestown, R.I., the building's three-story height and short setback weren't allowable under current codes. A remodel would let the clients keep those advantages, and it would provide an opportunity to maintain the home's relationship to its sister house next door. “We felt it was part of a historic fabric,” says architect Jim Estes.

So he and his clients decided to renovate. They kept the home's basic shape, taking it down to its still-strong balloon frame and rebuilding from there. According to builder Steve Ray, the structure needed straightening and smoothing out. “It was three inches out of square,” he says. The upper floors of the house look out onto Narragansett Bay; Estes realized a standard layout would deprive the owners of these views during their waking hours. So he reversed the floor plan, placing guest bedrooms on the first floor, the master suite on the second, and a large kitchen, living room, and dining area on the top level. Ray left the walls and floors on the first two levels fairly intact, then gutted the third floor to make one big open space. Now the owners, New Yorkers who use the house as a vacation residence, enjoy views of the boat-speckled bay from the rooms where they spend the most time. A dumb-waiter carries up groceries from the first floor to the kitchen.

A mix of shingles and white-painted pine siding references the old house while presenting a fresh new face to the neighborhood. Extra-large double-hung windows replace the smaller originals. The home may inhabit an 1890s form, but its new identity belongs entirely to the present.

Project Credits:
Builder: Ray Construction, West Greenwich, R.I.
Architect: Estes/Twombly Architects, Newport, R.I.
Landscape architect: Martha Moore, Tiverton, R.I.
Living space: 3,100 square feet
Site: .2 acre
Construction cost: Withheld
Photographer: Warren Jagger

Resources: Bathroom plumbing fittings: Kohler and Porcher; Bathroom plumbing fixtures: Dornbracht Dishwasher: Fisher Paykel; Entry doors/windows: Pella; Hardware: Valli & Valli; Kitchen plumbing fittings: Franke; Lighting fixtures: Bruck; Leucos, and Lightolier; Oven: Thermador; Paint: Benjamin Moore; Refrigerator: Sub-Zero; Roofing: Certainteed; Wood stove: Rais & Wittus.