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Good Design Pays Off
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Kingston Whig-Standard. Oct. 25, 1997

By John Thomas

“Will I get my money back?”
That’s often the question I’m asked by people contemplating a renovation.
When I first started renovating, twenty years ago, I used to wonder the same thing. Here we were putting $10,000- $50,000 into a house and I would think, “How can they possibly recover their investment?”
As the years passed, however, I saw that what seemed like a questionable investment at the time, usually paid off in the long haul.
Real estate agents will tell you the best renovation money is spent in kitchens and bathrooms and finished rec rooms.
At the same time, however, a couple of issues are critical.
   First, if you put a ton of money into your house and hope to sell it next year, the chances are you won’t come out ahead.  You probably have to live in the house for at least five years, depending on market conditions, to get your money back.
 Second, the renovations have to be well thought out, well designed, and well built. Shoddy or ill-conceived reno work can actually detract from the value of a home.  At a recent home show, a couple told me of a Century stone home in Belleville they would like to buy except that the price had been inflated by renovations that were so poor they had wrecked the character of the house and were, in fact a liability.  In this case, new solid vinyl windows had been installed. Windows totally fine in another application, but totally out of character here. The windows had obviously been put in to “save money.”
This brings up the perennial problem of cost versus quality. Of course, we all want to save money. And at the same time, we all want the job to look good, beautiful even. When I first started building I thought everyone’s priority was cost.  Most of us find it very difficult to resist a bargain. But now I know that price is the second priority, regardless of what people may even think themselves.  The first priority is quality. Because what’s the point of cheap if you’re not satisfied with the work?
And although better quality renovations may cost more at the time, they may be adding more to your bank balance in the long run, when the house is sold. We’ve all seen houses that sit on the real estate market for month after month, even in these days of low interest rates, even though they’re located in a prime location, even though the owner “must sell!” Why? Because the house is ugly as sin. An eyesore.
This brings to mind my friend Tom, who recently returned from a vacation in Scotland. Everywhere he turned there was some beautiful building to photograph. “Not just the building,” Tom said, “but the details. They don’t just build a wall or a ceiling, there’s always some added detailing that you hardly ever see here…”
Why is that?  Expense of course. In the old days, labour was cheap.
  But, perhaps, we also have a suspicion of anything suggesting ornament, as though it is pretentious or even morally suspect. We seem to think good design is a frill, an extravagance, an unnecessary appendage to the essential bones of the structure.
Maybe that’s our Protestant upbringing, our survival ethos. Architecture in North America seems to have been dominated by a sense of function over all.  A building is a machine; high-tech materials are the visible parts.  The quest for clean lines and minimal effects seems to have robbed us of our appreciation for the “unnecessary” artifice of the past. Building systems have become the whole building.
Following this “logic,” elegant design elements are at best unnecessary, at worst, dishonest.  I know. I used to feel the same.  Many years ago I built a portico for a professor who was an amateur architect. I wanted a basic roof and rafters. He wanted to add a cambered arch, a cornice, other elements to soften and weight the design. I thought all this stuff was unnecessary and probably revealed some character flaw. But I had to admit when it was done, he was right. The details made the job.
That’s why when people tell me they want “ nothing fancy, but we want it to look nice,” I know they’re expressing our need that things be more than simply functional, that things be beautiful.
 We can understand why bricks are better than vinyl siding. And, as we see from the unsold eyesore, in the long run, good design is as tangible and sellable as bricks.
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