Case Study: Jackson Avenue House by Messana O’Rorke

Renovation is often a wonderful thing, but in the wrong hands—whether client or architect—it can inflict greater harm than good. Careless renovation can gradually erase the character of older towns. With each major change in scale and style of older buildings, the history and specificity of the place begins to disappear. And that’s a loss that can never be recovered.

The instinct to replace rather than repair is understandable, because it can be more expensive to deal with old structures and outdated systems. And your client has to make do with compromises in size or function when the quirks of the old home dictate important design decisions. Reassuringly, there are clients in the world who fall in love with old towns and old buildings and want to preserve what’s best about them. 

Messana O’Rorke’s clients on this house felt that way. In fact, they are committed to saving not only this sweet 1920s bungalow, but several other commercial and residential buildings around town. Their ultimate goal is to help elevate the quality of design in their hometown, and they’ve picked Messana O’Rorke to guide them.

The New York-based firm has a long history of surmounting existing conditions, especially apartments that are never big enough for life’s needs and wants. They were the perfect architects to make this compact house live large enough for a lively family of five.  “I’m not a boat designer, but I think about boats and recreational vehicles in cases like this because space is so limited,” says Brian Messana. 

“This project got back-burnered for a while, because my client’s business had grown so fast that he outgrew his office space. He bought a building on the main street, and we developed that for him into a multiuse project, including a restaurant, gallery, and office space. Meanwhile, his family grew from one child to three—in this three-bedroom house with one bath.”

The clients wanted more open family space and more natural light than bungalows typically provide. And they hoped to have some outdoor space for family dining—all on their tiny corner lot. “This was a modest program and a modest budget,” Brian says. “Primarily, they wanted a great room where the kitchen, living, dining room supported and promoted family life.” They also wished for a bedroom suite with an updated bathroom.

“They weren’t interested in maximizing the potential building envelope,” he adds. “They wanted to maximize the quality of design and their quality of life.” Given the configuration of the lot and the orientation of the existing house, a typical addition with great room below and primary suite above was not going to accomplish anyone’s goals. 

“We had to pull away the addition from the original, otherwise we were going to landlock some spaces and block the western light,” the architect explains. This solution provided an opportunity to differentiate the new work from the existing building in a precise and thoughtful way. “We wanted to make sure the addition doesn’t dwarf or consume the original building. Most people either tear down and build a massive new house, or they just glob on something new that has the same vocabulary as the existing building, and it just becomes a bigger mass. We wanted to highlight and celebrate the existing cottage.”

Pajamas Required

The clients’ loved the quiet old bungalow, but they were game for something bolder for the new addition. They embraced a more modern language, knowing the firm would hold the height of the new pavilion below the ridgeline of the older home and otherwise moderate its overall scale. 

Clad in horizontally applied cedar siding, the addition contains a 250-square-foot garage below and a primary suite above that’s just under 500 square feet. The outdoor deck between the bungalow and the new building is elevated to provide level access from the kitchen and mitigate the lot’s downward slope. “It becomes like another family room,” says Brian. 

Once the broad strokes of the addition were settled, it came time to decide how to connect the new with the old. The design team suggested something a bit radical: a glass bridge. “The new portions are all about connecting to the outside and creating indoor/outdoor space,” Brian observes. “The bridge takes that to another level.”

Understandably, the bridge became the talk of the town. “The neighbors were like, ‘Oh my god. Are they going to walk across naked or in pajamas?’” Brian recalls. “We thought about adding a frosted film, but we’re from New York City, where you are always about 30 feet from your neighbor. You don’t care what people see inside your window—everyone does what they want.”

Although the bridge is on display, the new primary bedroom has a window shade system to shield the south-facing windows. A custom platform bed floats at the center of the room, and a custom LED light bar adds an architectural element in the otherwise minimalist space. Hallways are eliminated to harness the square footage for more compelling needs—the primary closet and bathroom open directly into the bedroom.

Across the bridge, the children’s bedrooms were redesigned with custom beds, making the best use of quirky ceilings and walls. Unified ebony wood flooring ties new and old spaces together. The dark floors, white walls, and black aluminum windows keep the palette “pure,” says Brian, further amplifying the sense of spaciousness. 

The design team gutted the first floor of the existing house, combining a handful of small rooms into one great room. A bump-out toward the new addition augments family dining space. To differentiate it from the old portion of the house, the architects topped it with a sedum roof, added a new horizontal corner window, and applied the same cedar shiplap siding as the new pavilion. 

The architects pushed storage to the walls without windows, and found room for a compact workstation in otherwise dead space—all accessed by sliding doors. A powder room slots in at the end of the entry hall behind the main stair. “We’ve been designing apartments—small and large—for more than 20 years,” says Brian. “The task is always about maximizing functionality, volume, and space. We think about urban interiors as blocks within spaces, and there are parts of the program that don’t need to be seen.”

With Messana O’Rorke’s expertise, the pieces of the puzzle came together perfectly in the old bungalow and the new addition. All tallied, the revised home is still just 2,200 square feet, in keeping with the scale of its neighborhood. It preserves the charm of the old home, while injecting a fresh new vibe —and giving the neighbors something to talk about.

Jackson Avenue House

Rutherford, New Jersey

Project Credits

Architect: Brian Messana, Toby O’Rorke, Messana O’Rorke, New York

Builder: Built Tough Construction, East Rutherford, New Jersey

Lighting Designer: Lana Lenar, zeroLUX Lighting Design, New York

Project Size: 2,200 square feet (1,470 existing; 480 square feet, primary suite; 250 square feet, garage)

Site Size: 0.11 acre

Photography: Costas Picadas

Key Products

Appliances: Miele 

Door Hardware: Colonial Bronze; Häfele; Accurate

Faucets: Blanco (kitchen); Waterworks

Fireplace: Stüv woodburning stove

Humidity Control: Nortec

HVAC: Mitsubishi

Kitchen Counters: Absolute black granite, honed

Lighting: Lucifer Lighting, Bartco Lighting, Viabizzuno, Selux (kitchen pendant) 

Medicine Cabinets: Robern

Paints/Stains: Benjamin Moore,
Penofin, rosewood oil

Sinks: Lacava

Tile: Basaltina

Toilets: TOTO

Window Wall System/Patio Doors: NanaWall