GREEN Interviews: Duo Dickinson on Why Sometimes It’s Better to Stay and Fix Up Your Current Home or Investment Property

Next up in our monthly series of profiling an architectural trendsetter: Q and A with Duo Dickinson


It’s easy to dream about moving—to a larger home—or smaller one; one that’s fancier—or maybe less costly, in the mountains—or by a lake, and so on. The scenarios are endless. Yet, sometimes it’s better to stay put and fix up your current dwelling for yourself or for an investment rather than undertake the hassle and expense of selling and switching houses, condominiums, apartments or entire buildings.


Duo Dickinson graduated from Cornell University 40 years ago and has had his own firm for 31 years, building more than 800 “things,” writing eight books and receiving more than 30 awards.

We recently talked to Madison, Conn.-based architect Duo Dickinson, who has written and co-authored eight books about homes and edited many more. And whether he’s writing about New England houses—the subject of his most recent book, or small homes—the topic of two others, or even deciding to stay put—yet another topic, there’s a common denominator in his work. Dickinson believes in the importance of doing extensive research about what you want and prioritizing what’s most important to how you or your renters want to live. Following are his edited and condensed remarks.






Staying Put, published by Taunton Press, shares how 21st-century clients can adapt 20th-century homes affordably. It also reflects on design options they have.

Question: Seven years ago, you wrote a book about the importance of staying put and fixing up a house rather than moving, titled Staying Put: Remodel Your House to Get the Home You Want (Taunton Press, 2011). What you stressed could apply whether you lived in the house or rented it out? Is that message still on trend?


Answer: I wrote that book after the real estate market crashed in 2008-09. The entire country was slammed into a defensive posture where nobody felt they could sell for the right price. Home owners felt stuck in their homes. That’s no longer true. In San Francisco, many builders, developers and architects can’t design and build fast enough to meet market demand. The same is true in parts of Texas, Boston, and New York City. While some have discretionary income now to do what they want to their homes, many—and even a majority—don’t. So, the point is that today we have more options than when I wrote the book. Most have a choice to decide if it’s worth the cost and time to sell and move and fix up or if it’s better to stay—and maybe fix up what they have.



Q: You’ve covered a lot of architectural ground in your books and articles and built more than 700 “things” as you say. What’s the most important lesson to share when designing a house for a client, either as home or investment?


A: The number one lesson is to understand the difference between cost versus value. Most don’t. Cost is an undeniable metric; how much something costs. A house may cost $150,000. Making a mid-century house energy efficient may cost $40,000 to $60,000 for insulation, windows and doors. That cost may be worthwhile and important for some. Yet, for others, it won’t be since they may not get a good payback over the course of the time they live in or rent out the house. Or here’s another case. If you remodel your home with IKEA cabinets that cost you less than $20,000, you’ve saved money, but the value may not reflect your personal style. You prefer more expensive cabinets. Or another example. You can get a $500 or $5,000 front door. Each does the same thing—keep out the bad people and cold or hot air. What you spend depends on what value you place on buying each of the doors. So, my lesson is that it can be a false economy to look at a home strictly from the point of view of costs rather than the values certain features and the entire house provide. Most people equate the two, which they shouldn’t. How you make the decision should be a matter of taking time to understand what you value based on a scale from a minimum to a maximum, not one specific cost.


The House You Build, was Dickinson’s second book under the American Institute of Architects imprint. It was the first book to cite full construction costs and architect fees, advocating for value in architecture by fully dealing with the costs of building.

Q: Similarly, what’s the biggest mistake you find home owners and investors make in designing a new home or remodeling or having someone else take charge?


A: I challenge them to decide what they really care about. Almost nobody can afford everything they want, so this forces people to prioritize. I listen, ask what they can spend on a project or house, and then we evaluate all the things that go into a room or rooms. There are hundreds or thousands of decisions. Working this way takes longer versus buying from a list but it puts the home owner in control and reflects their set of values. Together we can get costs down by eliminating what’s less important. For example. I had clients who said they had $100,000 to spend so we worked with that figure rather than have them tell me what they wanted in the house and have me say, “I think it will cost X dollars,” which would have been so much more than what they could spend.





Q: There’s a lot of concern about making homes energy efficient to keep costs down. What features should be the priorities?


A: The number one priority in the Northeast where I live and work should be foam insulation in the roof to control thermal efficiency. We have huge swings in temperature from minus 5 degrees to 95 in a single year. That’s the place to put dollars since heat rises. We take such factors into account when we design and remodel, but home owners often won’t get that if they buy stock plans off a website to build new, for example. The second priority should be to facilitate movement of air through the home through operable windows and save on the cost of an air conditioning system. After that, consider replacing old windows or furnace.


Q: What about going off the grid to produce energy; is that important?


A: We do very few houses that do that because it costs so much money and time, and few clients I’ve found are willing to sacrifice other things they want more. Again, it’s about the value they place on that. However, one third of homes we design are using a photovoltaic system to cut electrical costs.


This book was among the first to advocate the positive qualities of sizing a home to fit its occupants. The home depicted on the cover is Dickinson’s own, which started life as a 1,100 square-foot-design with one bedroom. It allowed for a two-bedroom addition five years after the initial home was built.

Q: There’s a big trend now to go small—maybe not tiny but smaller, which may mean downsizing. How should home owners or investors decide how small? Is this one of the best ways to make housing more affordable?


A: This is the best way to make housing fit better for home owners or for investors to have homes that work for their target market. At least one quarter of my new houses are smaller than they might have been years ago. But you shouldn’t think in terms of square footage since it’s relative. What one person thinks is small may not be what another does. Size should be equated with fulfilling desires, which is why it’s important to hire a professional to help.


Q: Besides size, do we focus enough on choosing sustainable materials?


A: I think many home owners are. With the downturn in the economy, I think many people see the logic of going with materials that will last, which sometimes may cost more initially. That way, they don’t have to keep spending on maintenance and repair. And if it’s an investor making the choice, they can share with the renter or buyer what they’ve done to help sell a home since many now like to avoid doing work. LED lights may still cost a bit more, but they don’t require replacement as often as incandescent. Likewise, certain insulation will cut energy bills and some materials don’t need painting.


Q: What’s the best way to learn about what to do?


A: Take your time to do research. Talk to lots of people—homeowners, architects, designers, and builders doing the same things—as many as you can to get the broadest insight. It’s better than learning from books or shows on TV. There’s no way this information can be contained in a single episode or even 12. Look at projects you like and learn what went into them. Develop a budget and see where you want to spend dollars. Take classes but know one two-hour seminar is just the beginning. Know what your goal is: to make a house for yourself or to rent or sell it to someone else. All takes work; it’s not a matter of luck. And remember to focus on value; it’s the word that’s often missing in these conversations.


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