4 Smart Home Secrets to Steal from Famous Houses

published Oct 30, 2018
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(Image credit: Neil Landino)

Some of the world’s most iconic homes, such as Philip Johnson’s Glass House, now function as “House Museums.” Every day, numerous visitors enter the homes to marvel at their style—and every day, the buildings’ house managers are tasked with creating an intimate, homey setting, and keeping up with maintenance so people can continue visiting for years. Finding this balance is a big challenge for any homeowner—and even more so when the house happens to be a Cape Cod Modernist icon or a masterpiece by Philip Johnson.

While you may not have people touring your home daily, you still probably want to have it as well-kept. I reached out to the house managers at iconic homes across the world to find out how they keep them in tip-top shape. Here, four of their best tips.

1. Keep your home and building records together

The first step to maintaining a historic home like the Sonoda House by Junzo Yoshimura? Stay organized, says Toshiko Kinoshita, director of the Heritage Houses Trust in Tokyo, Japan. “In order to ensure that the maintenance of a historical property can be done smoothly and on time, it is very important to keep a well-organized file with all relevant information regarding the building,” she says.

For the iconic Japanese Modernist home, this means having the original drawings, specifications, photos, building estimations, and material samples all in one place. That way, it’s easy to draw from when maintenance or larger restorations need to be planned. “Without this information it could be challenging to take the right decisions when making repairs or renovations,” Kinoshita explains.

This principle can be easily translated to your own home: Establish a binder for all of your house records, documents, receipts, samples from renovations, etc.

This can save you money since you know how much repairs and maintenance have historically cost, so you can have more leverage for negotiation down the line.

2. Assemble a team of on-call experts

It’s important to establish a Rolodex of people who know the building to call on if anything goes awry. Kinoshita says that, in the homes she manages, she files the contact information for all the people who took part in the design and construction process for historic homes in case an issue arises. “Having direct input from the original architects’ office or building company can help to clarify many issues that never made it to the drawings such as sudden design/building changes decided on site,” she says.

If you’re building your own home or living in a new building, you should have the contact information for all contractors and suppliers.

However if you’re in an older home, you’re likely unable to get touch with the original architects or building company. In that case, you should build this knowledgable team of your own. After buying, establish relationships with a handyman, plumber, electrician, and HVAC specialist as soon as possible. Make sure they are trusted, knowledgeable, and available to help out when homeownership gets tricky. These contacts will provide the best professional advice—and save time once a problem occurs—if they know who you are as well as the general history of the home.

If you’re renting, you can also have a quick conversation with your building’s super to know what problems to look out for in your unit, the best lines of communication when a problem occurs, and the typical timeline for fixing things.

3. Regularly schedule maintenance

One of the most iconic houses of all time—the Glass House by Philip Johnson—might also be one of the hardest to maintain: “We clean the glass on an alternating schedule during the tour season—inside one week and outside the following week,” says Brendan Tobin, the grounds manager of this modernist home in New Canaan. “In the off-season, we will clean it once or twice a month.” The lawn is mowed on a schedule as well, twice a week in the spring and fall and once a week during the summer.

Translating this Glass House tip into your own home is easy. While cleaning the whole house and cutting the grass may be overwhelming to do in one day, you can instead pick a day for maintenance tasks, put it on your calendar, and alternate each week. Maybe you clean the sink in your bathroom every Tuesday, change your sheets the first and third Sundays of the month, and clean the gutters the first Saturdays of April and October. Building maintenance tasks into your calendar like this is a surefire way to make sure they don’t slip from your mind.

4. Don’t be afraid to get others involved

(Image credit: Antoine Lorgnier)

Maintaining iconic homes is too big a job for one person—sometimes, it’s necessary to get the larger community involved. Architect Peter McMahon’s Cape Cod Modern House Trust revives houses in the Cape through grassroots support. “Buildings have to have a constituency, both locally and nationally,” he said in an In an interview at the 2018 Iconic Houses conference. “You must convince both audiences. These days you can build up international support too, thanks to the Internet.” One way he’s made the homes he maintains top of mind in the larger community? Kickstarter. One campaign he supervised for the Weidlinger house restoration raised $68,246 from 229 backers.

While your home may not require tens of thousands of dollars in international support, you might find that the funds needed to replace a roof or get a new floor may be beyond your immediate means. If you think your home is something that the community will be happy to preserve, or if your family is invested in keeping it for generations to come, try setting up a crowdfunding campaign to finance the renovations. You might be surprised at how many people in your life view your home as a thing worth preserving.