Real Estate

Electrically eclectic Eichlers

Architecturally modern homes require electrical improvements

Often described as "having character" or "being interesting," old homes can just as often be described as "challenging" -- both to maintain and to renovate.

All older homes, which were not designed to anticipate today's electricity requirements, need electrical updates.

"If original wiring was used for what it was intended, it is fine," said Tom O'Connor, who owns O'Connor and Sons Electric in Palo Alto. "Lots of people have a lot of stuff in their homes now that no one imagined 40 years ago."

Sean Smith, who owns Smith Electric in Los Gatos, agrees.

"Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the biggest piece of (kitchen countertop) technology was a toaster or maybe a plug-in waffle iron," Smith said. In addition to the refrigerators, stoves and ovens that would have been in a 50-year-old kitchen, today's kitchens have dishwashers, powerful stove hoods, microwaves and many other countertop appliances that run on electricity.

Eichler homes, built throughout California for approximately 25 years starting in the early 1950s, are known for being among the most challenging older homes for electrical upgrades. Inside, Eichlers are not very different from other homes -- modern and old -- because the interior walls are standard 2-inch by 4-inch framed lumber, except these are covered with wood paneling instead of Sheetrock, Smith said.

What separates Eichlers from other older homes are the logistics required to get electrical wires inside the home.

Eichler homes are named after Joseph Eichler, a developer who oversaw the design and building of entire neighborhoods. The homes were designed in the style of midcentury modern architecture, with simple lines, open floor plans and exterior walls with many floor-to-ceiling windows and large glass sliding doors.

Certain aspects of the simple and clean Eichler design make performing electrical work more laborious than other older homes. Eichlers have no attics or crawl space; the underside of the roof is the home's ceiling. The homes also have a concrete slab foundation that includes embedded radiant-heating elements.

Some original wires lay directly underneath the roof and some run through metal pipes, called electrical conduits, beneath the concrete slab, Smith said. One or two conduits supplied power to the kitchen while others powered the washing machine and dryer, Smith added.

"We do not typically reuse any of that (original) conduit because most of the time the wires will not move in that old stuff," Smith said of the subterranean conduits. "Most people do not want to (replace) their flooring and concrete (slab)." The radiant heating elements embedded in the concrete, Smith added, further complicate working with the conduits beneath the slab.

Much of the electrical work on Eichlers is done via the roof. New electrical conduits can be secured on the roof, Smith said, and a small hole can be cut to bring wires inside the home.

"I like to do my own (roof) patching," Smith said, to facilitate work being completed on schedule.

Smith added that in spite of the added time and effort required of Eichlers, he enjoys working on the homes.

"I like (Eichlers) because you don't have to go in an attic or into a crawl space," he joked.

"It's ... surprising how old (an Eichler home) is; it's still modern by today's standards," Smith said.

Cristina Davidson and her family live in Greenmeadow, one of Palo Alto's original Eichler neighborhoods. Davidson's husband bought their home, which was built in 1964, 10 years ago because he loved the modern aesthetic, she said.

"(Living in an Eichler) feels like you are bringing the outside inside," Davidson said. She also said that she loves the natural light the many windows bring into her home.

The roof has been redone, all the electrical has been updated, Davidson said, and they recently completed a remodel of the original galley kitchen. Throughout all the renovation work done on their home, Davidson said she and her husband have always aimed to maintain the original aesthetic of the home.

"We've never tried to make (our home) something it's not," she said.

"We respect the beauty of this place and the way it was built," she added. "It has its boundaries, but there is always a workaround. Especially if you have the right electrician."

Davidson and her husband hired Smith, who they found through the online community Eichler Network.

"He's an Eichler expert," Davidson said, "and he whistles while he works. It's just pleasant."

Both Smith and O'Connor run small businesses, and both said they value quality over quantity.

Smith said he does not move from job to job as fast as he can. Instead, he said he designs the safest circuits possible for the home on which he is working. The electrical upgrades Smith performs on homes, he said, usually include circuit designs that surpass code requirements.

Davidson added that having Smith do the electrical work on her home made the entire remodeling process seem easy.

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