There’s not a lot of raw land for new homes in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia, where Renehan Building Group operates.
Filled with aging but charming homes along an old rail line, the Main Line is affluent, unique, and occasionally funky. So with vacant lots at a premium, many of the builder’s projects end up being remodels or tear-downs, demolishing a home down to its foundation and replacing it with a new custom dwelling. Leaving a partial foundation can, in some cases, qualify these type of projects as a tax-advantaged renovation, says Christopher Lake, Renehan’s director of operations.
With builders nationwide reporting lot shortages, tear-downs are one way builders can find land to build on, especially in old, desirable neighborhoods. NAHB tabulations showed that the number of single-family tear-downs doubled in the Northeast between 2016 and 2017 and made up 6.8 percent of total single-family starts nationally.
But existing lots in an older suburban region like the Main Line can also present challenges when it comes to energy choice, Lake says. “You have these pockets, these old roads 30 or 40 miles outside of Philadelphia. The local natural gas companies haven’t spent the money to do the infrastructure on the roads,” he says. “You’ll have a main street that has gas on the street, but the smaller off-streets don’t.”
Decades ago, these homes typically used oil heat, but that’s not an acceptable option for clients looking for a clean, efficient heat source. So Renehan rips out those old oil tanks and replaces them with propane. “Probably half the projects that we end up building or even remodeling are using propane,” Lake says.
Keys to a successful tear-down
Switching to propane was the ideal choice for a tear-down project that Renehan built for a couple of University of Pennsylvania professors nearing retirement. The lot is perched high on an embankment with a scenic view of a river that cuts through Philadelphia. The existing structure looked like an old party house from the ‘60s or ‘70s — an ideal candidate for a tear-down.
Renehan used a portion of the old cinder block foundation as a crawlspace for an entirely new one-bedroom home where the couple, seeking to downsize, could be closer to Philadelphia and eventually age in place over the next 20 years. It has a trendy, eclectic feel, with a lower level that includes a yoga room, sauna, and a countercurrent swimming machine (or “endless pool”).
With no natural gas on the street, the previous home had used oil heat. But Renehan and the clients never considered keeping the old oil tank, preferring to heat the home with a cleaner and more economical propane furnace.
Switching to propane also opened up the opportunity to include other desirable gas amenities throughout the home. A 75-gallon propane water heater and a propane clothes dryer offer cost-efficient domestic hot water and drying compared with electric alternatives.
The kitchen is one of the home’s most unique spaces, furnished entirely with modern IKEA cabinetry, countertops, and appliances, including a propane stove. “Ninety percent of the time in our world, they would go towards gas [for cooking], whether it’s propane or natural gas, as opposed to electricity,” Lake says. Renehan also ran a gas line for a propane grill on the home’s 10-foot-by-10-foot deck, saving the owners the trouble of needing to replace a portable tank.
The modern aesthetic carries through to the home’s living room propane fireplace, which is installed seamlessly into the wall with no hearth or mantle. It’s a look that couldn’t be pulled off with a wood fireplace and is a convenient, easy-to-use feature for the owners. “You don’t have to build a fire; you don’t have to put up with any odor from the fireplace,” Lake says. “You switch a remote on and, boom, you’ve got a fire going.”
The home’s amenity package is fairly standard for Renehan’s projects, which typically range from about $750,000 to $1.5 million. Some of the builder’s homes also include propane generators — which are popular in an area with large, mature trees that could snap a power line — as well as propane fire pits and pool heaters.
For clients like the professors, tear-downs offer an opportunity to truly customize a home in a way that a resale or spec home can’t match. Lake says the clients are ecstatic about their home, which they describe as beyond their wildest dreams, and he’s proud he was able to achieve their unique vision. “Having somebody who knows exactly what they wanted and they build something differently — they’re not so concerned about resale value,” Lake explains. “This is what they wanted. They were head over heels with the project.”