Victorian Principles

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A 120-year-old home in the Boston suburbs gets a modernizing makeover to become a design award winner.

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Recent transplants from Boston to the city’s nearby suburbs found a 120-year-old Victorian with “good bones” but also some questionable renovations. These add-ons often reflected the styles of the times, which detracted from the home’s Victorian elegance.

“The [clients] asked us to expand the house for their growing family but in a way that brought a more contemporary aesthetic without turning our back on the Victorian origins — and do it all in a sustainable way,” explains Treffle LaFleche, principal at LDa Architecture & Interiors, in Cambridge, Mass. That was the design brief, and to achieve it, LaFleche “had to carve some things away that had been added over the years.”

Stair Masters

The new staircase is not just an architectural feature, according to LaFleche, it’s a sculpture you can occupy.

“Staircases are one of the few aspects of the home where humans and architecture kinetically become one,” he says. “Once you use a staircase, you are really much more integrated into the actual architecture because it has a very purposeful function.”

Rather than using traditional open and embedded stringers with conventional treads and risers, the new stair has a single steel beam down the center, creating a sculptured look. Welded steel plates cantilevered to either side support the treads, which stop short of the side wall, giving the stair more of what LaFleche calls a “swinging bridge” quality.

One of the biggest challenges of the new stair was the sleek 1½-inch-square wooden handrail, which was created without the benefit of modern technology, according to Russell S. Macomber of Macomber Carpentry & Construction, in Tewskbury, Mass., the project’s contractor.

“The CNC [computer numerical control] machine couldn’t interpolate the data, so one of the carpenters said to send us big chunks of wood and we’ll figure it out ourselves. We ended up making it on site the way our great-great-grandfathers would have done it. It was kind of cool.”

Something Old, Something New

After more than a century of different owners — each of whom saw the value in updating this home — the house was a mishmash of additions that reflected each homeowner’s tastes as well as the styles of their particular era. As shown in the floor plans of the main level, the home has good bones, but after a lifetime of renovations, a change was needed to pull the house together in a cohesive and contemporary manner. While the Victorian era facets remain highlighted, much of the home is a contemporary showplace.

Raise an Eyebrow

Winking from the roof of the third floor is an eyebrow dormer that gives a hint of whimsy to the remodeled home. Common in New England, eyebrow dormers evolved as a gracious gesture of how a roof meets the sky, according to LaFleche.

“It’s a subtle embellishment on the roof that has a functional purpose,” he says. “It ... brings light into the room, but not in a way that compromises the feeling of being on the third floor.”

Outside of New England, LaFleche says it is nearly impossible to find a carpenter who can frame an eyebrow dormer. “You have to build them like a boat,” he says. “They don’t really have rafters, they have ribs.” Most rooflines are regular and disciplined. Eyebrow dormers are the exact opposite of that.

The challenge in the framing is the radius of the dormer, which expands the farther it extends from the roof plane. “It evokes a contrast to the geometry of a typical roofline,” LaFleche says. “Instead of appearing to be constructed of sticks, it looks like it’s been carved out like a scoop of ice cream.”

Real Steel

The home’s third-floor office is in an attic that had wood collar ties on 16-inch centers. LaFleche wanted to eliminate 90% of the ties to open the space and make it brighter. He installed a quartet of steel channel beams that tie into reinforced rafters with strapping that runs along them, creating a huge diaphragm that allowed the elimination of the rafters.

“Steel is a blatant announcement of new technology in an old space,” LaFleche says. “Since it’s not a historic landmark, there’s no value to preserving the out-of-date technology in the restoration. Steel gives us the chance to transform the interior space without losing the exterior character of the Victorian roofline.”

Happily Ever Rafter

The curvilinear rafters in the master bedroom were crafted from Douglas fir and celebrate modern technology and craft. The rafters represent a distinction between the Victorian era and contemporary life since Victorians would rather hide the bones of a house and “clothe” them with decorative elements such as wainscoting, paneling, molding, and so on.

“I like to reveal what the Victorians would typically hide,” LaFleche says. “If you elevate it to the level of an aesthetic, it can become a decorative component. They activate the character of the room but they are not superfluous.”

Mark A. Newman, senior editor, REMODELING.

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Learn more about markets featured in this article: Boston, MA.