An expression that is thrown around a lot these days about buildings and sites is “good bones.” What does it mean? How can you tell if a home or property has good bones? The answer is a balance of physical evidence and emotional response, and it’s different for everyone. At Berkshire Design, Inc. & Bradley Architects, Inc. in Pittsfield, when we visit a job site, we look at the structure of the building, the foundation, the systems, the flow of the spaces and a sense of place, the amount of natural light, and the site location in reference to views and orientation. We balance that against our instincts, how the site makes us feel in the present and what the potential is for amplifying that feeling after a rehab or creation of something new. All of that, the emotional and the physical, then gets measured up against a reasonable number to pay for new dressing on those good bones.
In residential architecture, from a design standpoint, good bones are the backbone of the home and project. What you hang off of those bones allows for endless possibilities that can address budget, breathe new life in to a property, and maximize flexibility. We apply good bones not just to existing home and property renovations and additions, but also in design for new construction (future good bones).
Two projects that embody our good bones approach are a recently completed renovation and addition to a Great Barrington home, and a currently under construction pole barn renovation and addition in Tyringham. We’ve been watching both projects undergo dramatic next chapter changes that illustrate not only the advantages of starting with good bones, but also the benefits of having great project teams that utilize architects, contractors, civil engineers, local craftsmen, and landscape designers – everyone working together to help bring the project vision to life.
The Quiet Knoll in GB
The program for this existing house and property purchased by new owners was simple: infuse it with some TLC and make it a home. The bones were very good and with some minor reworking of the floor plans, better dressing on the exterior, a lower level redesign and a master plan to include another garage and better access to the home’s entries and landscaping, the property became eye catching. Working with Mark W. Holmes Builder, we polished this property for the future and helped it embrace a new chapter.
A small addition off the rear of the home added a sun room and allowed the kitchen a bit more elbow room. As the land was cleared of overgrowth, it became clear that the sun room was actually an opportunity to provide a better connection to the landscape and should be more of a transition space to the outdoors instead of an enclosed, conditioned space. Even though the Construction Documents were nearly complete and it was new construction, we were able to keep the design bones and simply change the materials hung on those bones to turn the conditioned sun room into a screened porch and provide that transition space. The kitchen that had been designed to bump out of the rear of the home by a few feet and inio the sun room now was closer to nature through the screened porch. It also became a working kitchen with more room, a new layout, fresh cabinets, countertops, plumbing and appliances.
The front elevation of the house had all the right proportions and structure, but lacked the welcoming feel of a home. The upper windows received bold blue shutters while lower windows received new trim and paneling beneath. The existing entry porch was removed and replaced with a wider and deeper porch. The front door was enlarged to 42” wide with new side lights and a paneled transom. Inside the new entry are two new closets that bump out on to the porch and frame the new entry on the exterior. The existing stacked stone retaining wall at the driveway remained in place, but new stone stairs, landscaping, and wood staircases were installed at the front and back of the home for better access to the entries.
The interiors provided a canvas for the owners’ incredible design sensibilities. The stairs and fireplace were lovingly recrafted. The stair to the lower level was opened up to the kitchen and a custom book shelf was incorporated into the stair. All new lighting and plumbing fixtures were installed throughout the home. New flooring, fresh paint and trim further enlivened the spaces. The owners truly saw the potential in this house’s very good bones that, with a lot of TLC, became a home.
On the Cobble
This property is part of a larger estate that had been divided up into a few parcels. The views alone are enough for anyone to say yes to this property, and the new owners were able to see the potential for turning the very good bones of an old pole barn with finished living space above into a destination. The property is undergoing a full reimagining, from the top of a newly installed driveway all the way down to the built-in eave cabinetry. It’s coming to life under construction with a master plan that includes a renovation and addition to the pole barn, a new carriage barn, landscaping and infrastructure improvements. And it all started with good bones.
The site is quite steep and previously could only be accessed by parking at the top of the mountain and walking down the hairpin drive. A new driveway has been added to allow safer access to the barn. Even so, after crossing a bridge, one enters the barn on the upper level, previously fashioned as living space, and uses an interior staircase to access the pole barn beneath. The pole barn was unfinished with a dirt floor. Very large barn doors gave access to the land on one side, and the site continues to steeply drop off at the far end of the barn. The back side of the barn was overgrown and not easily accessible; it has now been cleared. The idea was to renovate the upper level of the barn, while also adding a master suite and screened porch, and to turn the lower level in o finished living space.
The existing timber frame structure provided the organization for all of the spaces, with opportunities to expose more of it. The kitchen, while remaining in the same footprint, has been uncovered and opened to the adjacent great room. A new screened porch has been added to take advantage of the southeast views and allow more light into the kitchen and great room. An additional dormer has been added to the great room to capture more of the sweeping northeast views. Each of these moves has revealed the organizational beauty of the existing timber frame.
The entry wall configuration has remained as is, but with replacement windows and a new door. A new entry canopy has been installed just outside to provide cover. The existing bridge from the driveway to the entry door is still in place, but will be freshened up.
In order to convert the pole barn into finished living space, the contractor levitated the entire upper level while working to install a new foundation and concrete slab. It was a remarkable sight to see and a testament to the value of truly good bones. Rooms and built-ins are currently being arranged around the old timber frame post locations. A family room on the lower level will spill out into the landscape under a pergola. Once again, with vision and commitment (and good clients!), good bones can completely transform a property.
You could say that our office has good bones, too. In 2018, Berkshire Design, Inc., & Bradley Architects, Inc., renovated the space that Bradley Architects had inhabited since the 1970s. We stripped the space down to its bones and collaborated on creating our next chapter in a space that fosters our sense of teamwork. We are two independent full-service architecture firms that share space, knowledge and time together. After all, good buildings come from a team…and good bones.
Kerry Bartini, AIA, NCARB is a principal at Berkshire Design, Inc., in Pittsfield, MA. She is a licensed architect in the state of Massachusetts, serves as an executive board member of WMAIA and is the AIA MA State Licensing Advisor to NCARB.