With real estate prices sky-high throughout metro New Orleans, what’s a growing family to do?
If you love your neighborhood but you need more space, you could face a real dilemma. It can be an ordeal to sell your home and shop for a bigger one in a comparable area, only to find you can’t afford a larger home in a neighborhood you like.
Some homeowners are opting to solve their space issues the old-fashioned way: by adding a camelback to their existing residences.
Christopher Johnson, an architect who has designed camelback additions for several clients, believes that “building in place” makes sense for many homeowners.
He will explain the concept on Tuesday at the Preservation Resource Center (923 Tchoupitoulas St., prcno.org) in the final installment of “Renovate Right.” The program begins at 6 p.m. and includes presentations by additional renovation pros.
“Camelbacks,” or second stories at the rear of a home, certainly weren’t prevalent in Johnson’s native Rochester, New York.
But after moving to New Orleans 20 years ago to study architecture at Tulane University, Johnson became intimately familiar with local vernacular house types, including shotguns and camelback houses.
In the late 19th century and later, many houses were built incorporating camelbacks into the original structure. Many more were expanded later when a vertical addition — the camelback — was added.
The beauty of adding a camelback, or half-story, is that the appearance of the house from the street changes very little, as the vertical extension is usually added over the rear two or three rooms and is minimally visible from the street.
“The addition of a camelback can be a great solution to a space problem, as long as homeowners understand what they’re getting into,” Johnson said. “They may need to live somewhere else while some of the work is going on — especially when the utilities are out. They need to think about climbing stairs to the second floor every day, a consideration that may determine where the master bedroom is located. And ultimately, there are structural matters that need to be considered.”
Noting that rising real estate prices have outpaced incomes, Johnson said adding a camelback is a wise economic move when a 21st-century family has outgrown its 19th-century house.
A second floor addition will always require the services of an architect and sometimes that of a structural engineer because plans will be required for submission to the city’s Department of Safety and Permits before a construction permit can be issued.
“Often, the only structural requirements will be the addition of extra piers and beefing up the sills, but that will change when planning a camelback addition to a barge board structure,” Johnson said.
In the case of bargeboard houses, where walls are made of wooden boards arranged on end, a new wall may need to be constructed inside the bargeboard wall on the first floor of the house to support the “stick framed” camelback above.
“In some cases, it may be necessary to bypass the first floor structure completely by installing posts that extend from the second floor all the way to the ground,” Johnson said.
Often, when a homeowner contacts an architect about adding square footage to an existing house, the client may need help envisioning how the additional space can be worked into a coherent floorplan with the layout of the existing home.
Inevitably, the vertical addition will alter the floorplan of the original house, if only because of the need to carve out square footage for the stair.
“I worked with one client who wanted to have the master suite downstairs and use the upstairs for guests. … When no one is visiting, they can simply turn off the lights upstairs and live on the first floor,” said Johnson.
“In another case, all bedrooms moved upstairs, opening up additional space downstairs to expand the kitchen and family room. It’s a matter of the client’s personal preferences and also of their age and stage of life.”
Finding the best place to position the new stairs to the camelback presents both opportunities and challenges.
The opportunity — if space allows — is to make the new stairs a focal point of the house. The biggest challenge is to find a location for the stairs that won’t waste space by creating the need for an upstairs hallway.
“That’s why I prefer to put the stair in the middle. I find it makes for the most efficient use of space upstairs,” Johnson said. “Sometimes — if the lot is wide enough — it’s possible to build the stairwell out to one side so that little or no square footage of the original one story house needs to be involved.”
The cost of adding a camelback to a home varies widely, depending on the condition of the existing house, the size of the addition and the finishes desired.
But Johnson believes going up — instead of selling and risking being priced out of a larger home — is smart financially for clients who love their neighborhoods and want to stay put.
“There seems to be a lot of out-of-town money impacting house prices in New Orleans these days,” he said. “Adding a camelback to your home can be a good way to keep you in the neighborhood of your choice.”
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. She can be reached at email@example.com.