HOMES: Local architect shares tips on what to think about when considering an old home

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Lawrence architect Stan Hernly is pleased with how a major rehabilitation of this 1870s home at 11th and Rhode Island streets turned out. The long kitchen bar is made from a reclaimed timber beam that was part of an early 1900s truck barn that was next to the house.

Stan Hernly knows the possibilities of old homes. After all, he started his Lawrence architecture practice in an old home along Tennessee Street.

It was more than 35 years ago that he founded his architecture practice, Hernly Associates, in that 1907 house, and since then the firm has grown and done all types of projects — ranging from 200 square feet to 200,000 square feet, with price tags between $1,000 and $10 million.

But projects that involve old homes — even if they are not on his drawing board at the moment — are never very far from Hernly’s mind. His offices now are in the historic Delahunty Complex on Rhode Island Street in east Lawrence. The property, at the corner of 11th and Rhode Island streets, was the site of one of the city’s first hauling companies — an operation that used horses and wagons to move freight before later switching over to trucks.

Offices for his firm’s architects are in a rehabilitated and revamped truck shed that was built in the early 1900s, and the complex also includes a home that was built in 1871. Hernly designed an addition and rehabilitation project for that old home, and now leases it out for short-term rentals.

For this year’s edition of the Journal-World’s Homes section, we caught up with Hernly to primarily ask him about thoughts to keep in mind regarding old homes, but we also delved into topics about new home trends and what can be done to make housing more affordable.

The following interview was slightly edited for length and clarity.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

The old home at 1106 Rhode Island Street is an example of how a homeowner can take an old property and make it comfortable for living, while still respecting its historic integrity, Lawrence architect Stan Hernly said.

Q: How do you describe what is so appealing about old homes that you have made them such a large part of your career?

Hernly: They have a lot of unique features to them, a lot of unique character. When we were walking through the house (next door) I don’t know if you got the feel for the natural light that comes into the space. Most older houses tend to have more windows and bigger windows so you get better light in them. Older houses tend to be in walkable neighborhoods, so you are living in a place where you can just walk down the street and in a few blocks be downtown.

Q: If someone is trying to decide whether living in an older house is for them, what should they think about? What are some of the tradeoffs they should consider?

Hernly: It depends on what kind of condition the house is in. Whether it is an old house or a relatively new house, they both could have a lot of maintenance issues. If you are moving in a brand new house, you’re pretty good on maintenance things for 20 years. If you are moving into an old house that has been completely rehabbed, you should be in relatively good shape for 20 years. But if you are buying an old house and buying it as-is, there is going to be maintenance things. It could give you a good opportunity for a lot of do-it-yourself projects. If you are handy, old houses are good for people who like to take some things on. . . You end up with features that aren’t what you would find in a brand new house. But a lot of projects we have worked on tend to include adding some of those types of features, like expanded closets into attics or bigger bathrooms or adding bathrooms. . . If somebody wants to move into a house and not have to do anything, they should either move into a house that has been completely rehabbed with everything they want, or move into a brand new house. Other than that, you are going to be doing some projects.

Q: What is generally the most difficult part of a renovation or restoration of an old home?

Hernly: Sometimes it is just being able to see what is possible. A lot of times if you look at a house that is in really rundown condition, it can be hard to have the vision to look past that stuff. Physically the hardest part is when you have foundation issues. If you need to redo foundations and waterproofing and all of that, because old basements weren’t built to keep water out. Because nobody (back then) would ever use a basement except for utilitarian stuff.

Q: How do you describe the resources — whether they be grants, whether they be tax credit or other such programs — available to older homes? Are they widely available or just for special projects?

Hernly: Grants are really difficult because they are always competitive. Getting grants for residential projects is hard. Tax credits, if you are listed property or in a historic district, tax credits are easy. You just have to go through the processes. It is not competitive. In Kansas there is a state rehabilitation tax credit that can be used by homeowners. In Lawrence — population over 50,000 — it is a 25% tax credit. If it is in the county or in Baldwin City or Eudora, it is a 40% tax credit. It is a really generous tax credit. The key is if you are interested in rehabbing a house, finding something that can use the tax credits can really help a project go a lot further.

Q: Can residential property owners use the tax credits the same way that commercial developers use the tax credits? Often they don’t use the tax credits on their own tax return, but rather sell the tax credits to someone else who will use them on their return. The developers then gets money right away to use for their project.

Hernly: The state credits can be transferred, and they have been going for like 90 cents on the dollar. (Example: Selling $10,000 worth of tax credits would result in $9,000 worth of money for the person selling the credits.) . . . The key is, you have to spend (the money) first. You have to pay that, and then you get the tax credits and sell that and then sort of replenish your funds.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Lawrence architect Stan Hernly is shown inside an 1871 home at 11th and Rhode Island streets that his firm rehabilitated.

Q: Are there any trends in new construction that excite you? Are there any examples of the old becoming new again?

Hernly: In Lawrence the trends that I kind of like is the infill housing that is happening older neighborhoods. A lot of people don’t like the modern style houses that are being built, but I think they are fine. They are tending to fit into the neighborhoods better than new residential did 20 or 30 years ago. They are including things like front porches, they are making the garages a little bit secondary and they tend to be a little bit more compatible scale wise.

Q: As an architect do you have any thoughts on how homes can become more affordable for a larger segment of the population?

Hernly: That is a really hard one. Fortunately here in Lawrence, Tenants to Homeowners is a great organization that really helps along those lines. The thing I was thinking about generally is we have really gotten away from the idea of starter homes. In the post-World War II homes that were built, they were starter homes, and they were small. Two bedrooms and one bath, maybe a garage or maybe not. But they were intended to be small to keep the costs down. You don’t see small houses built very often. The cost of the house is going to be directly proportional to the size of it. . . Building a small house in an already established neighborhood cuts down on infrastructure costs that typically would get added to a new house that is built in a new subdivision. So, in my mind, one way to keep costs down is to build small houses in old neighborhoods. . . But is hard to do that for a large developer because it is harder to do those one-off, two-off type of projects. It tends to be the smaller builders who are tackling those type of projects.

Q: That of course creates a question of how many of those can you really do in a year to move the needle in a town the size of Lawrence?

Hernly: Yeah it does. There are lot of houses that need to be built.


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