By Ken Kirsch
MAK DESIGN + BUILD
I’m thinking of remodeling my Streng home — How do I make the most of my investment?
As a remodeler in Davis, it is with great respect and careful consideration that MAK approaches any project in an iconic Streng brothers home. The builders Bill and Jim Streng — in partnership with architect Carter Sparks — created affordable, thoughtfully designed homes in the Central Valley. At the time when the university was becoming a fully realized university and academic life began to exert greater influence on local culture, these modernist homes brought visionary architecture to our rural community.
When considering any improvement to these homes, maintaining the architectural integrity should be the first concern. These homes were intentionally simple, but not casually designed. Reason replaced ornament as the esthetic focus. From a remodeling standpoint, there is little room for error within this carefully balanced program. Without thoughtful design, it is easy to make changes that undermine the original intentions and provide little added value to the home. On a less abstract level, there are performance issues that need to be addressed to make the most of your investment. New materials and technologies can add immediate value to these mid-century modern homes. Here are three of the most common areas that can benefit from newer technology and building science:
1. The roof structure
The typical Streng home has a flat roof. When these homes were built, tar and gravel was the most commonly installed flat-roof material. This material breaks down quickly and requires frequent maintenance. New Foam roofs and single-ply membranes are advanced materials that last much longer—and require much less maintenance — than the tar and gravel systems. As part of pragmatic beauty of the flat-roof structure, exposed Douglas fir beams travel across the interior of the home and extend past the eaves on the exterior. The ends of these structural beams are vulnerable to damage by rain and sun. It is often only a thin film of paint that protects the wood from rotting. In this particular instance, a simple metal flashing can be installed to the top surface of the beam for more durable protection against the elements. Beams that are already damaged can often be repaired with epoxy wood fillers.
The original construction method was to install copper pipes below the concrete slab and bring these pipes up through the slab into the walls of the bathrooms and kitchens. Pipes embedded in slabs are at greater risk for developing leaks. When leaks do occur, the fix is often urgent and does not allow for a properly planned solution. In addition, access to the pipes for locating or repairing leaks is tricky at best. In anticipation of this potential costly mechanical failure, an overhead system can be incorporated into the scope of any bathroom or kitchen remodel. Streng homes do not have much in the way of attic space, so copper pipes installed overhead can be noisy. PEX piping—made of high-density polyethylene — is a good alternative to copper in this situation. It is less noisy than copper and is often easier to install. A manifold can also be installed in an accessible area to allow a separate shut-off for each fixture.
3. Building performance
The iconic architectural glass of the Streng homes is part of the original passive solar heating system. The climate in the Central Valley often makes keeping houses cool in the summer more difficult than keeping them warm in the winter. The effectiveness of the passive-solar design depends on how each individual home is situated in relation to the sun’s path. Streng homes built on a north/south axis benefit from the warmth of the winter sun while staying cool in the summer. Homes built on an east/west axis tend to overheat from the late afternoon summer sun and stay chilled in the winter due to very little direct solar heat gain. These homes were also built with drafty single-pane windows – the best available at the time but poor performers by today’s window standards. The insulating value of the architectural glass can be improved by retrofitting the windows and patio doors with double-pane glass. This can be done while maintaining the low profile frames that are the signature style elements for these homes.
Carter Sparks’ modernist vision still shines through the airy interiors that the Streng brothers constructed decades ago. Making the most of your remodeling investment will help maintain this vision for decades to come.