Intelligent renovation

I have lived in this home for over two decades. When I first bought the house, it had two bedrooms each with a closet, a small bathroom, a small kitchen, a coat closet on first floor, an enclosed porch that pretended to be an addition, a rec room in the cellar that pretended to be a basement, and a tall open deck overlooking the back yard that sloped steeply down to a stream. The house did not have a driveway.

When I purchased the property, I had no intention to change anything and in fact I naively thought I would not have to even do much to replace anything. I really expected that I would keep it as is until I was ready to sell it later.

The house itself is on a narrow road that does not connect to anything so there is not much traffic. However, the place is walking distance to a district of high-rises around a metro station so the neighboring houses were frequently rental properties with multiple room mates in each. As a result, the street typically was full of parked cars.

The lack of driveway suited me because at the time I did not have a car and hadn’t had a car in over a dozen years. I did not expect that I would buy a car, but within a year after moving in, I decided to get a car. As I recall, it was the home ownership that convinced me to get a car: I wanted to make trips to get things for the house.

I was content parking along the street, assuming my neighbors would be courteous enough to leave a spot open in front of my house for me to park. That was naive, of course. I then contracted out my first renovation by adding a driveway. The ideal location for the driveway would have been on the side of the yard occupied by a mature and reasonably attractive tree. The second option was blocked by a water meter. After resurveying the lot, I found I had just enough space for a minimum width driveway that would miss the water meter. Then I had a driveway, and I was content again.

My contentment did not last too long though. Shortly after entertaining some guests on the deck, one noticed a slight wobble in the deck. I had it checked out and it was determined to be expected for such a high deck, but I decided to modify it by replacing the stairs that ran along the width of the house with bracing joists to the house. This requires building a separate set of stairs along the side. I was satisfied again, but not for long.

I became annoyed with the space that pretended to be a kitchen. There was only two cabinet widths of counter space to work on and one of those widths was used up by a microwave. In addition, the original design did not anticipate refrigerator technology so the refrigerator was in the middle of the floor, severely blocking the path to the stairs to the basement. I decided to renovate the kitchen by expanding into the coat closet on the other side, giving spot for the refrigerator, and a wrap-around counter design that sacrificed the side-facing window. To compensate for the lost window, I had a new one added over the sink, allowing a view to the backyard. I was proud of the result.

By the time, my attitude toward home ownership changed. The kitchen renovation came at the loss of rather valuable coat closet. Also, my new design dispensed with a dishwasher. This had the effect of transforming the property in a significant way. It was significantly less appealing to potential future buyers, particularly couples.

This transformation encouraged me to consider renovating the bathroom. it too was a tiny design with a very short tub hugging the side of the house and having a window in the center. Though a shower was installed, it is apparent that the original design did not anticipate a shower because you would be standing in front of and right next to the window, and even with the frosted windows it would be easy to see from the street. To be clear, this is standard for all of the houses on this neighborhood but I hated it.

I noticed that the bathroom was next to the second bedroom’s closet and that closet was exactly the size of a standard sized tub. This led to a the renovation that eliminated the closet and thus demoted the status of the second room to a den. That further diminished the attractiveness of the house for either a couple thinking of starting a family, or someone wanting room mates. The house progressed further into a space for a single person.

Two additional observations came from the bathroom renovation. One was the contractor’s observation that if I had planned in advance to renovate both the kitchen and bath (the bath was on top of kitchen) I could have come up with a better design for routing the plumbing. When I renovated the kitchen, I left the basic vertical pipes in place to not disturb the bathroom, and when I renovated the bath, I could not change the kitchen. Doing both at the same time could have provided more space both both!

There is a level of intelligence in considering the whole plan up front. Had I known where I was heading at first, I could have a house built with the same foot print and height and use space much more efficiently and effectively. I didn’t know where I was heading and I probably couldn’t have guessed if I tried. Each stage changed my thinking, encouraging me to take the next step at the cost of narrowing the appeal of the house for future buyers.

The bathroom redesign had another consequence. Rotating the tub in the way I did shifted the weight from the stronger point along the exterior wall, to along the joists. There was the kitchen wall underneath that could transfer the load but there was no similar supporting wall in the cellar. This will eventually cause a problem.

At this point, I began to realize that the house was fundamentally different from what it was before. In analogy to biology, my house evolved into a different species of house: starting from a two bedroom house suitable for a starter family and ending up with a one-bedroom plus den that was suitable for a single person.

This led me to consider the space the pretended to be a dining room. When I first bought the house, I sought out a dining set and found out that most standard sized dining tables would have taken up the entire space, requiring squeezing past the chairs to get to the kitchen. This appears to be what the previous owners did. When I described my space limitations to furniture stores and described the size of table I wanted, they directed me to what they called a breakfast table: a table meant for a nook at the side of modern kitchen separate from a formal dining room. That is what I bought, but even that felt like it occupied too much of the space.

The dining room also had a side window that faced directly into the neighbor’s house who had previously build an addition with a picture window facing me. I could look directly into their house from that window and they could do likewise into my dining room.

I came up with an idea of closing off that window like I closed off the same-wall window in the kitchen. Instead of using the space for cabinetry, I used the dining room window to have a direct-vent fireplace. This renovation killed the dining room status for two reasons. It robbed the room of more floor space, and it was so hot that it was uncomfortable to sit where the “breakfast table” was. I liked the fireplace for its warmth in winter, but I struggled for several years to make the dining table work. The only way to restore the room as a dining room was to get rid of the fireplace, and left with that choice, I preferred the fireplace.

The next area to receive attention was the space that pretended to be a living room. I had the same problem trying to furnish it. Standard living room sets would not fit. In particular, a full sized sofa was out of the question. A television or stereo set on opposite wall would be too close for comfortable enjoyment. The biggest handicap was the need to keep a walking path in the middle of the room in order to access the stairs to the second level. What was designated as a living room was actually just an inflated hallway.

The other problem was the need for a doorway into the side addition that was really just an enclosed porch. The addition was outside the main structure and lacked any provision of ventilation. I first attempted to use it as a den, but it was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer.

I considered my options at this point. I wanted a larger open space but the basic construction of the house prevented that on the main floor. At around this same time, I received noticed from the county that due to the backyard accommodating a stream feeding the Chesapeake Bay, my entire property was in a resource protection zone that for all practical purposes prevents rebuilding the house with a larger more modern footprint.

I was convinced (or I couldn’t get out of my mind) the image of the first floor being essential a spiral staircase with some wings on the side to accommodate a few furnishings. That staircase terminated on the second floor that was divided into two rooms intended for master bedroom and child’s bedroom. Due to the other changes made, the house no longer qualified for that kind of role, so the obvious next renovation was to tear out the walls on the second floor and make it into one room.

Given that this would become the largest room in the house, it would be odd to designate it as a bedroom. Instead it is the main room of the house. It accommodates a bed at night, but the bed is a murphy bed that is drawn up every morning, and pulled down every night. By day, the room is not a bedroom.

I think the county now describes the house as a one bedroom house, but in apartment terms it probably is better described as a studio. There are studio apartments with similar numbers of total usable square feet (after subtracting the space needed to resolve for stairs and the path to reach them).

In terms of real estate, the house is classified as a single family house, but with a studio floor plan, the house does not really qualify as such. The house is something different. In its current form, it can not accommodate a family, or even a couple unless they are unusually inseparable.

Shortly after the top floor renovation, we had an earthquake that exposed the flaw of the bathroom redesign. The joists cracked and for many months later, there was a regularly popping sound on the wall under the tub, indicating the wall was sagging. This lead to a need for reinforcing the joists in the cellar (ceiling is too low to be a basement in my definition). This ended up dismantling the rec room that previously used that space. The house specialized even further as a single person’s space.

I recall describing the house to a prospective girlfriend who laughed at the description, calling it a bird cage. Proportionally and functionally, the analogy was perfect. Around the same time, there was a popular meme of man caves: a space within a man’s home that he has exclusive use of, but usually a tiny fraction of the entire house. This is my man cave, but I have the entire place to myself. Combining the two concepts, it is like a bat cave.

Meanwhile, time elapsed. The consequences of the county’s declaration of my property as a resource protection area (for the bay) began to take its toll. My backyard has turned into a miniature forest when it previously way a yard that I would cut. The forest presented a new appeal that was not there before. The sight lines from inside the house were blocked by the deck, the last vestige of a spot suitable for entertaining guests.

Meanwhile, my neighbors were taking their own approaches of renovations, but in direction of expansion in contrast to my contraction. The deck became useless to me. Using it gave me direct sight into either of the neighbor’s houses, and they can similar see me even with casual glances from their windows.

The latest renovation is to demolish the deck, finally reducing the house to its original foot print, but transformed into a completely different species of house, not just from the neighbors but from the original intention.

Throughout all these renovations, the thing the never changed was the basic structure of exterior walls, supporting walls, and floor joists. Despite those remaining constant, the house has evolved to fill a completely different niche from where it started and from the niches filled by the neighbors. If the house is ever sold, it would need to be sold completely differently from the other houses on the block. Likely the buyer would be someone with plans to demolish and rebuild entirely. The house evolved into a different species that will soon go extinct despite thriving for a while with the current occupant.

The house always retained its basic structure, but it underwent a series of renovations that were at the same time intelligent and incompetent. Each renovation satisfied some goal but each one also introduced the need for the next renovation either due to problems caused by the previous, or due to transforming the life goals of the owner.

This story is an analogy to the inference of intelligent design for the origin of new species. The evidence of intelligent design in biology is abundant but there are dismissals of the intelligence as either being unnecessary (random variations can accomplish the same thing), or being incompetent (so many designs having flaws or so many species eventually becoming extinct). The latter objection assumes a biblical creator that can form a new life from a lump of clay and merely breath life into it. An intelligent designer working from scratch, starting with clay, should be able to design more perfect structures that will last indefinitely.

Early in my career as an engineer, I imagined a biological designer in those terms because it matched my aspirations as a design engineer. I wanted to design something where I would be judged by how well I could select and arrange the parts to achieve some objective with an affordable cost. For such a design, I had a wealth of options of what to pick and where it should go.

In terms of building homes, this type of intelligent designer is the building architect that would start with a topographic map of the plot of land and an objective of room types and sizes and then lay out the one house that best satisfies everything.

Such an option is not practically available to me because of the restrictions of being so near a stream that feeds the bay. I had to retain the original structure, or at best replace it with a structure of identical dimensions. I could have done so more intelligently, but that would have required anticipating 25 years ago that I was going to end up where I am now in terms of living alone. Had I that foresight, I could have chosen a more suitable house in the first place, or if I was stuck with this property, I could have gutted the entire house and laid it out with similar functional spaces but more efficiently and elegantly.

I did not have that foresight. Instead the innovations were incremental where each one was to a different goal, where later goals were transformed by what happened by the previous renovation.

At this now older age in life, I can imagine a biological designer as acting in a similar away that I approached renovating my property. Each time making some minor modification of the existing structure in order to meet some goal that may end up making survival (house resale) more difficult. Eventually an entirely new species emerges occupying a unique niche unlike its neighbors.

The problem with this analogy is that the constraint on the basic foundation and support structure that is obvious with a house is quite different with biology. The comparable structural constraint for the biological designer is the need to reproduce. Reproduction requires building a new organization from a single cell, though a sequence of successive and increasingly specialized cell divisions until a living being is produced that can live on its own. The early stages of this development requires some form of protective accommodation from a parent.

The structure of a house is immediately apparent in the form of a static presentation in 3D space. The comparable structure in biology is at least 4 dimensional in the constraints of developing an organism from a single cell. The only way to build an organism is to start with one cell.

Given the 4D structure of developmental biology, the structure is harder to visualize. Consequently, it is hard to recognize the renovations that do occur to organisms because the renovations occur in the process of development itself. I expect the renovations to be similar to my own experience with my house, the renovations occur infrequently with long periods of no changes suddenly interrupted with an abrupt change without anyone else aware that the change is being contemplated.

I think there are a multitude of designers at work within biology. Even within a particular specie’s evolution, different designers may be at work at different stages, comparable to house-flipper real estate speculators. The house survives through multiple owners each adding something that they think will make a profit for them. The resulting house, even when marketable, is incompetent in its implementation of the floor plans it offers. A similar process is probably involved in biology.

There is intelligence in biology but the intelligence is more like a house renovator or house-flipper than like an architect or design engineers of some project built from scratch.


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