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The bungalow makes a comeback

Architect J. Robert Green tore down walls to open the space in his bungalow. The kitchen, in which he's standing, is filled with his artwork. The deck and landscaping in the back gives that area a modern feel.
Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 22, 2008 - About 20 years after he remodeled his childhood home in Brentwood, architect J. Robert Green still enthusiastically shows off the property he inherited. He enjoys having visitors pull up to his modest, one-story brick bungalow and seeing their expectations of a quaint interior shattered after stepping inside.

The updates made by Green, who owns J. Robert Green Architect and Associates, included adding a courtyard in the back of his property and knocking down the walls of two bedrooms to create a more open living space. The home has a decidedly modern feel but still carries the design trademarks of an early-1900s-style residence.

Green said some homeowners -- himself included -- prefer the aesthetics of a smaller footprint. "It's just perfect for me," Green said. "There's a nice scale about it and I don't need any more space.

Back when Green completed his renovation, he said few clients were looking to follow his model of modernizing but not expanding. They wanted larger rooms and bigger homes in neighborhoods well outside the St. Louis city limits. But now, Green's firm, which specializes in single family residential projects, is seeing much of its business come from homeowners who want to renovate and keep to their current footprint. And he expects that to continue.

With a sluggish economy and a renewed interest in the urban lifestyle, many homeowners here are turning an eye toward buying smaller properties or staying put and remodeling without increasing their square footage.

Thinking Small

The supply is there: Scroll through regional home listings these days and you'll find plenty of one-story, one- or two-bedroom properties selling from the low to mid-$100,000s. Some real estate experts say the demand is already strong and increasing.

Some of these smaller homes are considered "bungalows," what's become a generic term for a style of home - typically single level, brick and under 1,250 square feet -- that became popular in the 1910s and remained so for decades.

Michelle Swatek, executive director of the St. Louis chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said that after decades of being seen as old-fashioned, the bungalow is making a comeback. Not all one-story homes are bungalows, though, and many other styles of small homes that line the city's streets, such as the narrow "shotgun" home, have also become sought after.

Many of these one-story structures are found in south St. Louis and other urban neighborhoods, as well as in inner suburbs such as Richmond Heights. They are often found on streets or in neighborhoods that have made it onto the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Register of Historic Places. Homeowners and developers who work on projects in such historic districts can be eligible for tax credits if they choose to remodel.

In these same south St. Louis neighborhoods with storied architectural histories, older residents are leaving homes they have owned for decades. Families, young couples and single people are moving in, said Carolyn McAvoy, a broker and owner of McAvoy Realty in Lafayette Square.

"These are homes where you get a lot for your money," McAvoy said. "You have tree-lined streets, garages, fireplaces, hardwood floors, stained glass in windows. It's architecturally interesting and appealing to a first-time homeowner who's looking to move back into the city."

People have been coming back to the city, rehabbing affordable properties and reinvesting for years, according to Carolyn Toft, executive director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis, a group that nominates sections of the city to be historic districts.

There's nothing new, of course, about some homeowners thinking small and downsizing. Middle-aged parents often trade down in square footage after their children leave home. But the attention of older buyers is often focused on condominiums or smaller homes that aren't in St. Louis' older neighborhoods. What makes the current level of interest in smaller properties and in moving to St. Louis proper noteworthy, say some real estate experts, is the reason that underlies this choice.

The Energy Factor

Rising energy costs make the bungalow's size and typical urban location all the more appealing to many homeowners. High gasoline prices, in particular, make minimizing the commute to work an obvious benefit. McAvoy, the broker, said that while young homeowners aren't necessarily downsizing when they move into small city houses, they are often moving to be closer to where they work.

According to a June survey of 903 real estate agents from the national brokerage firm Coldwell Banker, nearly 80 percent of prospective home buyers report that higher fuel costs are increasing their desire to live in an urban setting, while 81 percent cite minimizing a reduced work commute as the primary reason for this interest.

Swatek, the AIA director, said she is fielding more calls -- prompted by both financial and aesthetic concerns -- from people who are interested in making their current living space more efficient.

"People ask us now, 'How can I age in place?'" Swatek said. "We're getting more interest in one-level houses that aren't so expansive."

Green, the Brentwood architect, said that a smaller home, particularly if it's well insulated, will use considerably less energy. (In Chicago, a nonprofit group offers bungalow owners financial incentives to take part in restoration projects, including efforts to make homes more energy efficient.)

But it's not just about practicality. Since the economy has soured, there's been a slowdown in both new construction and remodels, even in small homes, said Mark Gettemeyer, a design principal at M2 Architecture Studio, which designs homes of various sizes. Still, Gettemeyer said he's noticing an increasing willingness among St. Louis residents to invest in the city's housing stock.

Swatek agrees. "This movement isn't just about housing prices, sustainability or gas prices," she said. "Density is becoming attractive again, and it's about appreciating good-old-fashioned architecture. We're keeping the character of the city."

Elia Powers is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

Elia Powers
Elia Powers is a Freelance Writer in St. Louis. He worked on several stories for the STL Beacon.

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