For Kirsten Thoft, architecture is a labor of love, one she pursues successfully in the renovations and additions she does for he clients at her firm at 16 Park Place. “It’s nice to make money doing what you love, but the joy of it is doing the project. I enjoy building them, conceiving of them, and making them happen,” she says.
But as she saw her clients’ homes increase dramatically in value due to her work on their homes, she wanted to cash-in herself. “I started to think, ‘Maybe I should make my labor of love a little more lucrative,” she says. So she and her husband, Ted Nadeau, a software developer, bought their own property at the corner of Hawthorne Avenue and Linden Lane in 2001, which they rented, then renovated and sold in 2006 at the peak of the market (see U.S. 1, May 17, 2006).
Her latest project has an additional twist; she has completed a green renovation of a 1905 Queen Anne at 50 Wiggins Street, where she has renovated four existing apartments into condos whose projected energy and water usage is 50 percent less than when she got started.
Thoft and her husband, along with her mother-in-law and brother-in-law, purchased the Wiggins property in 2004 for $873,000. After nonstop occupancy of the four rentals for several years, one renter moved out just as Thoft was getting ready to implement plans for a large-scale renovation. She had planned only minimal exterior wall changes or added insulation — until she found herself responsible for a very hefty heating bill.
This was a wake-up call for Thoft, who had studied sustainable building at the University of Pennsylvania 20 years ago, when it was not a part of people’s everyday conversation. While she worked at Hillier, she did work on one green building, the Hoffman-La Roche corporate headquarters in Nutley, finished in 1994. “It was pretty out there for that time,” she says.
But over the past decade, none of her clients have asked for green building. “It’s something I’ve always cared about but didn’t have a chance to put into practice,” she says. At least until that high heating bill inspired her to attend a weekend workshop on energy efficiency in Vermont. She came home with plans for a complete redesign that included upgrading the building’s insulation and getting the condos certified as green.
She and her partners purchased the Wiggins house for several reasons. First of all, it fits with Thoft’s predilection for houses of the early 1900s. She was drawn particularly by this house’s generous size and its wealth of natural light. Without electricity, builders in that era had to bring in as much natural light as possible, and the house’s multiple windows reach high up toward the ceiling, where natural light reflects, providing more daylight.
The house also made sense as an investment. “It was rented and had not been updated,” says Thoft. “I don’t want to pay for updates that I have to remove.” Also at 50 Wiggins no floors had been ripped out, and the original trim was in place. “I like to find things that have as much of that intact as possible,” says Thoft.
In the two two-bedroom units, Thoft opened up the kitchen, dining area, and living room into one well-lit space, adding a door to the condo’s new deck. On the same floor is a bedroom with bay windows and a large, walk-in, windowed closet that may originally have been a sewing or baby’s room. A full bathroom sits at the top of the stairs, behind the kitchen wall.
On the third floors Thoft transformed two 10-by-10 bedrooms and a tiny closet — which looked like servants’ quarters — into loftlike bedrooms with a big window on the side, two skylights, a large closet, and a second full bathroom.
The two-bedroom units each have two floors and two parking spaces, and their entrances are on Wiggins Street. The two one-bedroom units, entered from the deck in the rear, consist of three rooms and are 625 square feet each. Entry is through the kitchen; a very large doorway opens onto a living room, with a bath off to the side; and another door leads to the bedroom with bay windows. Closets line the walls of the living and bedrooms. These units each come with one parking space.
As much as possible, Thoft retained the original features of the house, for example, the floors. “I tried to save everything that was distinctive and visually valuable,” she says. “When I see old wood floors, I keep them. They’re quirky and not perfect, but they’re 105 years old. They’ve been here, and they should stay here.”
Thoft says she is not averse to teardowns, just that she prefers to “respect the work that came before me” when she acquires an old property. Directly across from 50 Wiggins is a teardown/new construction project under construction by Roman Barsky and R.B Homes (see sidebar). Thoft says she was not in the market for 46 Wiggins because she could not afford it at the time and cannot say whether that property would have been good for renovation.
But she does have an affinity for old-school architecture, evidenced by her membership on Princeton’s Historic Preservation Review Committee and the borough Environmental Commission.
She is, however, stepping down from the HPRC next month, due to mounting commitments elsewhere.
To penetrate to the original facade, she had to take off the front porch and strip the aluminum siding that had been added after 1980. Under the siding she found lovely diamond shingles above the bays and between the windows.
Although the brackets were broken, Thoft was able to copy them from another Princeton house, on Park Place, near Moore Street, that looked identical to 50 Wiggins but was a foot wider. “We call it the ‘the Doppelganger,’” says Thoft. She replaced the front porch with a portico whose gable matched those above the two-story bay windows. The decorative, wooden front door is original.
Thoft has carefully blended in more contemporary elements to complement the old. The subway tile lining the kitchen wall was a traditional bathroom tile, but looks modern. The kitchen cabinets are reminiscent of the older, Shaker style, but the black-brown color she chose is very contemporary. Outdoors she used a minimalist, modern aluminum cable rail on the deck to keep the view as open as possible.
Thoft and her co-owners invested $470,000 in the renovation, with most of the money going into gutting and remodeling the bathrooms and kitchens, building the decks, restoring the exterior, and putting in air conditioning. She estimates that only about $30,000 went into greening up the space.
Because adding insulation and achieving energy and water efficiency would require a significant investment, Thoft decided she should try to find an accreditation that would reflect the substantial changes she had to make but that people would not be able to see. Because LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) did not have a green building standard that covered remodeled, multifamily dwellings, she investigated further and found that in January 2009 the National Association of Home Builders had established such a standard.
To start the accreditation process, she did an energy audit to be able to assess the before and after of the greening process. Then she proceeded to add the triple-whammy insulation and sealing that made a noisy and drafty old house into four comfy condos.
The building’s outer structure, a balloon frame with wall studs rising from the basement up to the roof, created an open space running also from basement to roof. “The whole exterior wall was like a chimney, sucking cold air up and cooling the walls,” says Thoft, “and you had air blowing through the baseboards when it was windy outside.”
To eliminate these unwanted breezes, they first sprayed foam insulation that puffs and hardens on the entire basement ceiling; along the outer walls this insulation blocked off the wind tunnel created by the balloon frame. Spray insulation was also used around all of the small holes created by pipes and electrical wiring; otherwise the accumulated air coming through them would be “like having a window open in the middle of winter,” says Thoft.
After completing this air sealing, her contractors drilled holes in the exterior walls and pumped in densely packed cellulose both inside the outer walls, and on the walls and floors separating the four condos. In the bathrooms, they were able to use traditional fiberglass insulation because all the walls had to be stripped for the renovation.
The insulation and new windows had another side benefit, adds Thoft. Condos are quieter.
The greening process, which also included Energy Star appliances; super-efficient air conditioning; compact-fluorescent lighting; faucets, shower heads, and toilets with an EPA WaterSense label, was successful, and the project received the emerald rating, the highest granted by the National Association of Home Builders, and was in fact the first multifamily remodeling in the country to receive this rating.
Thoft has also used many recycled materials in the house. One example is the Parallam beam that replaced the bearing walls in the two-bedrooms, which Thoft left exposed. “They are usually covered, but I thought it worked well with the flooring and color palette.”
A native of Marblehead, Massachusetts, Thoft says she was destined for architecture from a young age. “I have always, whenever I go into a building, started imagining ways in which it could be improved,” she says. “I see good stuff and bad stuff; and I start working on it in my head.”
Thoft studied design as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania (Class of 1986) and earned her graduate degree in architecture in 1991. She has worked for Michael Graves and Associates, where her projects included the Denver Public Library and the Library of Congress Exhibit Hall, and for Hillier.
Thoft has already sold one of the smaller condos to a young woman who was attracted to its green design. She envisions the remaining condos as particularly appropriate to singles, divorced parents with children nearby, or couples downsizing. Their prices were recently reduced in response to what Thoft calls “a lot of squeamishness in the market.” The two-bedroom condos are going for $485,000 and the one-bedrooms for $399,000.
Thoft has more potential remodels at the ready, on two duplexes she owns on Linden Lane and a single-family house on Green.
#b#Kirsten Thoft Architect#/b#, 16 Park Place, Princeton 08542-6919; 609-947-8982; fax, 609-497-0223. www.kirstenthoft.com.