The challenge of renovating

Star architect Tilla Theus puts the shine back on old buildings.

April 23, 2013, Jürg Zulliger (text), Gerry Amstutz (photos)

New buildings are springing up like mushrooms in Switzerland, Ms. Theus. What's your take on this change?
Population growth and the desire for more living space are stimulating house construction. I think the counter-trend of "high-density building" is the way to go, because land is scarce in Switzerland. There are many places with single-family homes like in the US, but we can't afford to continue like this. We're seeing encouraging evidence of more density in many cities today. We need intelligent solutions that combine high-density construction with individual living.

At what point is the right density achieved?
Everyone has to answer that for themselves. Anyone driving through a city sees fairly quickly if it offers a good standard of living. New neighborhoods must be planned for both living and working, shopping and entertainment, and with places for meeting as well as for getting away from it all. It takes time for a quality of life to emerge from the interaction of all these functions. Our city centers didn't develop their urban characteristics and identities overnight.

Which older buildings are worth preserving and which aren't?
A neighborhood is a living organism. Every single architectural intervention has an impact on the immediate and even on the wider environment, and can be vitalizing or fatal. Any decisions about demolition, new structures or rebuilding can only be made after carefully analyzing the effects.

You have renovated numerous buildings. What approach do you take?
First, my team and I go into the building to research it like detectives. We collect information, try to understand it, and then see what changes it allows. The new is hidden in the old. You just have to discover it. Bold solutions are definitely possible based on the sensitive development of what exists.

Have any renovations gone wrong?
Oh yes, there's a long list of sins. They're caused by misunderstanding older buildings - and often also an excessive focus on profit, for example overutilizing a space at the expense of quality. Or the owner wants to save money for landscaping. The mix of these factors guarantees failure.

What makes good architecture?
I think it's when a building fits into its surroundings, when materials and proportions come together in an exciting way, when there's a special atmosphere both inside and out, and when users of the building feel comfortable. Architecture should be challenging and demand some getting used to. Quality takes time to be recognized. Architecture is love at second sight.

It's often said that old buildings aren't sufficiently energy efficient. Is that true?
People who are only concerned with energy consumption overlook the qualities of old houses and how comfortable they are. Thick, conventional walls can contribute more to this quality than a thin, highly insulated, multi-layered construction. An old house with a unique atmosphere offers a special living experience.

Is it expensive to restore old buildings?
The costs of any construction depend on what's required. They increase with excessive perfectionism and an overlong wish list.

How can costs be reduced?
If you stay reasonable you can save a lot of money! In older buildings, for example, it's hard to avoid cold walls in the winter. However, the indoor climate in an old building is often healthier than in many new buildings. If you want an older building with the same standards as a newer one, you'd be better off thinking again.

What is your own dream home?
I've always been able to live in my "dream home." Wherever I live and work I have tables that are four, five, or even nine meters long. They are my centerpieces. Now I live in a house on the lake, which offers my husband and me a retreat - and lets us invite others in when we want to.

Tilla Theus in the Gran Café Motta, Zurich, which she renovated. Her projects include FIFA's headquarters and the interior design of Swissair planes.


The market

Houses are still in demand

Asking prices for single-family homes have also risen sharply in the fourth quarter of 2012. Growth of 1.5 percent over the previous quarter was higher than the long-term 0.5 percent average quarterly growth. At 4 percent, the price increase for the full year 2012 was only average. While prices in central Switzerland increased by a whopping 12 percent, they only rose 1 percent in southern Switzerland and in Bern. Due to favorable financing conditions, single-family homes are expected to remain in demand in 2013. UBS estimates a price increase of only 2.5 percent, however.


The UBS "renovation" mortgage offers interesting conditions for financing renovations. Energy-efficient renovations before December 31, 2013, will be rewarded with a cash bonus of 2,500 to 8,500 francs.