Anatomy of a Renovation

June 8, 2023 | by Joseph G. Brin

Other people’s lives. | Photo: Joe Brin

A soft breeze lifted curtains in sunlight on someone else’s former life. They left most everything behind. Apparently, no one treasured that plush furniture, after all. This quiet scene was the first hint that the 19th century brick building would be renovated for entirely new use and occupancy. As if emerging from a page in Richard McGuire’s classic, Here, one could imagine a parade of different families passing through this very same place, over decades, their joys and sorrows etched into ordinary days with occasional triumphs. 

People and buildings have their own personalities and history. Whether evidenced by rapid gentrification or more thoughtful, incremental urban planning, renovations, and additions, always embody a human story, sometimes a protracted human drama with multiple players and conflicting agendas. 

The first floor of this old brick building had once been a corner store with the family name, like a crest, tiled into the corner entry step–a common sight in Philadelphia. Long since emptied of its useful wares, save for the evidence of a decorative tin ceiling, the 2nd and 3rd floors above were likely the store owner’s family home. Long commutes to work made as little sense back then as they do today.

The Bones

Good bones. | Photo: Joe Brin

“Analogy drives design,” declared the late Professor Jim Fitzgibbon, architect and beloved teacher at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. If the human body is a complex, integrated system, so is a building. Foundations, floors, walls, roofs, columns, and beams comprise the skeletal structural support. Miles of color-coded wiring are the building’s central nervous system. Winding tributaries of silvery, mechanical ductwork are the breathing lungs. 

All architectural renovations start with a site visit to field measure and record spatial tolerances for new use. Uncovering the bones of a building initiates a forensic discovery phase to mine viable infrastructure as well as to determine structural load bearing points in collaboration with the engineer. The architect, as Sherlock Holmes, pokes holes in existing walls and ceilings, with a hammer, if necessary, to understand how the original, time-worn structure was put together so that the new work is a safe, precision fit.

Forensics can also anchor a project’s cost range. Time well spent on this initial effort eliminates many unknowns that would, otherwise, become the source of wasteful expenditures.

Moving Forward

Original details. | Photo: Joe Brin

Once an existing space is measured and documented, a project can begin to move forward.  The existing conditions have been drawn and now the fun of schematic design options, typically the floor plans, can begin as the owner and architect begin collaborating for the best layout and articulation of spaces.  However, for the building owner, excited to see dreams materialize, there appears to be immediate roadblocks due to mixed-use zoning restrictions. 

If you are doing a residential-use only renovation project your process will have similarities, but fewer limitations. A project address zoned for mixed-use, i.e. commercial and residential, may have more specific hurdles to clear. In our brick building renovation example, 2nd floor commercial instructional space requires a use variance from the norm, as does the proposed roof top deck and pilot house, both requiring approvals at both neighborhood (Registered Community Organizations) and City (Zoning Board of Adjustments) levels before the final design and layout can be assured approval.  Without such variances, the building permit process will likely stop in its tracks. While schematic design and budgeting strategies can continue, timely delivery for zoning variances has equal, if not more, importance.

The project now has to jump through a potential series of regulatory hoops whereby the designated neighborhood board (the local RCO zoning committee) and City departments (L&I and Streets Department for this design) must approve the proposed use and dimensional variances as requested.

Additionally, the Philadelphia Zoning Code requires that “neighbors of proposed developments are notified and have an opportunity to provide input regarding zoning decisions that may impact them… through a system of notification… to near neighbors and public meetings… held in communities and convened by Registered Community Organizations (RCOs).”

Best to do your neighborhood outreach very early on, especially the closest properties, enlisting their crucial support to legitimately allay their fears before any negativity or opposition sets in. One unhappy neighbor could tank your project’s variance requests. 

Suddenly, the whole building and permitting process has become much more complex and mystifying than one ever anticipated. A faux pas with the RCO or ZBA will compromise your chances for approval, setting you back sometimes for months. It is human nature. Boards already fatigued with your project on a second or even third attempt may be, thus, less likely to approve it.

Building a Foundation of Trust

Please use the other entrance. | Photo: Joe Brin

“How much is all this going to cost me?” One of the jobs of the architect and builder is to facilitate the difficult money conversation, even if it is only to have the owner draw up a contingency budget. This simple act can strengthen the relationship between the project owner and the architect and/or contractor. 

The owner’s job, frankly, is to trust in the process and be forthcoming about their finances. No project can occur without an accurate budget. If you find yourself resistant to sharing that information, if you sense you do not trust your designer or contractor, then it is time to find a new architect and/or construction team. Trust will not, magically, reappear. You need to start with it.

Understanding long term versus short term goals is also key. Contractors may be called upon to return, installing work that the customer, initially, insisted was unnecessary under the mistaken impression that they couldn’t afford it. Given the additional burden of extended and unpredictable supply chains, material costs and delivery times are now calculated on a more distant horizon. Contractors must order material shipments to your site months in advance to coordinate an acceptable project timeline.  Costs only rise, often unpredictably, making build work done now at least less than it will likely be down the road, even only a year from now.   

Face the Money 

As the owner, you will need to face the reality that things are sometimes exponentially more expensive now than they were pre-pandemic or what you may have presumed based on unrelated services or items you are more familiar with (i.e. groceries, clothing, cars). And yet, there are choices that do make an economic difference. Which is more expensive, a tile floor or a wood floor? The honest answer? It depends. Cheap tile versus imported tile. Natural wood flooring versus engineered flooring, and so on.  

Architects are adept at dialing a design up or down according to client/owner priorities and tastes. There is a saying that, “Good design doesn’t cost more.” An exquisitely proportioned room, sheathed in plain Sheetrock, comes with or without gold leaf finish. Your choice.

High Stakes

Fallen chandelier. | Photo: Joe Brin

Your architect is both morally and professionally bound to advocate for your interests throughout all phases of the project. The timing of your application to gain RCO approval for any zoning variance first and then to apply asap for the ZBA for the same, is a fast, yet delicate dance. Because substantial personal investments are on the line, stakes are high and timing can be critical. It is beneficial, even for a residential-only project, to ask your architect if a zoning attorney and/or outside expediter are needed. 

The value of an independently contracted expediter is access to all City departments, their functions, paperwork, personnel (i.e. whom to contact and talk to), and deciding what might need immediate resolution versus postponement for quicker approvals. The additional fee is worth considering if your deadline for completion and occupancy is pressing.

The Streets Department approval kicks in typically with any proposed changes to your sidewalk. The expediter can take care of this along with both zoning and building permit applications while monitoring approvals progress.  The often bureaucratic government zoning and permitting maze can be overwhelming and time consuming for a homeowner. The expediter, not the architect, is best positioned to move your project along in this tricky, staged process.

On a mixed-use project, where commercial use is also included, an attorney of record must be present at both hearings. For a residential-only project, it is optional, depending on the anticipated difficulty of attaining proposed variances. 

Before you sign on the dotted line with a bank, contract with an architect and structural engineer to determine the practicality and structural soundness of your soon to be acquired property. Will the bank approve your construction loan early enough based on their strict schedule for loan timing and payment terms? Perhaps not, as a zoning approval process can take three to four months, even at an expedited clip.   

A hazardous materials assessment by a reputable outfit (home inspectors may be insufficient) will spare you the surprise of necessary, licensed remediation costs, if discovered later by the City, instead. Neglecting to do so may compromise your own health and your investment, for full disclosure reasons, during a future sale. Good, preemptive strategies, like this, are meant to lower unexpected, often hidden, costs.

Follow the Maze of Zoning, Streets, and Building Codes

Entrance to private haven and spiral stairs to roof deck. | Rendering: Joe Brin

Zoning Department: Navigating the City of Philadelphia’s regulatory maze can be intimidating. If uncertain, set up a pre-project meeting and ask questions of these code officials first, rather than showing up with an armful of completed drawings they may only shoot holes through. 

Codes are the bible for these workers, and they know chapter and verse. If you are ill-prepared, plans examiners could send you packing with a bundle of RFIs (Requests for Information) that you must then account and gain approval for. 

Think the way zoning boards think. What is their agenda?  Zoning boards are tasked with safeguarding “quality of life,” not just yours, but the entire community. Are you showing proper deference to existing laws and requirements? Will your project be a community asset bringing new life, opportunity, and amenity or will it be an imposition?

These committees will want to know if the new property use and design will ensure proper life safety and handicap access. Will the neighborhood zoning board of the RCO approve of increased traffic (cars and people) impinging on their community? Will the ZBA hearing be a win? Unlikely, unless you receive prior RCO approval.  

For our mixed-use project, will handicap access with mandatory ramp and landing, large planters, and stroller parking be allowed for clear, public walkways? Will the 2nd floor proposed commercial use (zoned as residential use) be approved at both zoning board levels? Additionally, will a new rooftop pilot house and full deck design exceed all existing zoning setback requirements, or will it be a smartly reduced, hybrid layout–maximized for the client, with partial variances approved, while acknowledging setbacks that meet City codes? 

Streets Department: Review and approval from the Streets Department will be needed for anything proposed on or in the public right of way, typically the sidewalk zone.  Clearly determine and document where existing utilities servicing the building are buried under or above sidewalks, the location of tree planters, and the dimensions of a driveway curb cut, for example. The Streets Department even has purview over the minimum dimensions for car parking within your property for private garages.   

Department of Licenses and Inspections: In Philadelphia, a combination of the IBC & IRC (International Building & Residential Codes) plus City codes govern how buildings get properly built. Thorough adherence to these sanctioned life safety measures, and materials and methods use, all will be reviewed by plans examiners at the Department of Licenses & Inspections for eventual permit approval. 

In any project, there is pressure to meet genuine deadlines. However, artificially rushed deadlines imposed by any of the players, owners or consultants, is a distortion almost guaranteeing a schedule setback and higher costs. Daunted by the scope of a renovation project, owners are sometimes tempted to leapfrog the system and start construction without a legally required building permit. Construction permitting is seriously enforced to ensure the safety of the public. Many important building codes of today were born of tragic fires and construction failures of the past. Be grateful we don’t live in a country where building code violations run rampant. Violators can and should be immediately shut down.

Demolition and Discovery

Demolition derby. | Photo: Joe Brin

To paraphrase Picasso, “You have to destroy in order to create.” But you don’t want to live in the chaos of a gut demolition. It is impossible to avoid the dust, noise, and fumes, not to mention the discouraging sight of a major disaster zone in your own home. At this point, it feels like the disruption to your life will never end. But the value of uncovering all the surfaces of the building’s core is to attach a realistic price, as much as possible, for remediation or replacement.  

Someone, the architect, has to be able to wade through the detritus, maintaining the project’s design vision, while commanding the expansive territory from big picture to the smallest detail. Imagine listening to a symphony orchestra play without a conductor. That is your demolition and renovation/addition without an architect to, yes, orchestrate the entire project. At this discovery stage, a walk-through of the recently exposed property by you/the owner, the architect, and contractor is, therefore, advised. This site meeting yields, for everyone, a robust, grounded overview of scope and prospective pricing. The design process begins here, in rough plan layout form, with schematics by layering new design possibilities over the fully revealed existing conditions plans.

Spaces viewed through exposed studs appear to, temporarily, open up and expand. As walls and ceilings are finished, however, that illusion will vanish and must be offset with design strategies for ample, new space and light based on the reality of these more closed surfaces.

Above the ceiling, old roof rafters are sistered (bolted) between new rafters for structural integrity and a level, finished ceiling surface. Below, a simple quarter circle in sheetrock, between the wall and ceiling, adds a spark of life to a plain, rectilinear space. 

Rafters and curves. | Photos: Joe Brin

The “Austin Powers Room” design option, at left, seems claustrophobic and dated compared to the “Alvar Aalto Room,” on the right, with only one of its sides curving into a soaring space. In any creative endeavor, the key is selectivity–knowing what to keep in, what to leave out. 

Renovate Naturally

Architectural renovations and additions are the crucible for a refined blend of old and new functions and enhanced spaces glowing with natural light. Studying your home closely may reveal craftsmanship, graciousness, and subtle patinas of an earlier time. Or maybe there’s nothing of historic value worth saving, and you simply desire an upgrade and/or addition. 

These days, as the pandemic mostly winds down, people are looking for a healing refuge, and many are still working from home. Nesting and functionality are undergoing a sea change with flexible work/home/recreation and entertainment/guest room spaces, green roofs and gardens, meditation spaces, and passive cooling strategies. Although the catalyst and vocabulary may be new, we have come full circle to the prescient design philosophy of Modernist architect Richard Neutra, who in his book, Survival Through Design, coined the term “sensorium” for architecture that engages all our senses in harmony with nature.

Understanding the anatomy of a renovation brings a sense of order to complexity and may inspire you to pursue a calm, personalized sanctuary and world of your own.


About the Author

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, documentary filmmaker, photographer and writer based in Philadelphia. He has covered Philadelphia architecture, preservation, design and culture. His residential architecture website can be seen HERE and photography website HERE. Brin's new film, "A String of Pearls: The Small Miracles of Charles Middleberg," is the story of a childhood witness and survivor of the Holocaust, with trailer seen HERE.


  1. Looks interesting

    thanks for sharing.

    I recently made a film and series of photographs on a building that I restored on Baring Street a new years back.

    Stop by sométeme and will share with you.

    Laurence Salzmann

  2. Joe Brin says:

    Thank you, Mr. Salzmann, for your interest and comment. Would like to connect. How best to reach you?

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