Project Spotlight: Rewriting history

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Custom Kitchens by John Wilkins restores Craftsman home with eye toward future.

May 06, 2013
A new front porch and terrace with French doors were added to create a warm, wel

A new front porch and terrace with French doors were added to create a warm, welcoming effect.

When Dale and Kay Emerson purchased their Craftsman-style house in Alameda, Calif., in 2006, they knew they would eventually pursue an exhaustive remodel that could restore the Gold Coast home to its architectural roots and accommodate the couple as they aged.

After hearing about the renovations Custom Kitchens by John Wilkins of Oakland had successfully completed regarding other historic residences in the area, the Emersons approached the design-build firm in 2007 with a relatively clear idea of what they desired.

“[Kay] showed up with two boxes of hardbound books on Craftsman books with all the pages marked,” says Jerry Wilkins, president and CEO of Custom Kitchens.

Company Snapshot

Company: Custom Kitchens by John Wilkins

Owner: Jerry Wilkins

Location: Oakland, Calif.

2012 sales volume: $2.8 million

Projected 2013 sales volume: $4 million


But the Emersons didn’t foresee a prolonged struggle with the local architectural preservation group just to obtain approval to start construction. The house, built in 1910 by architect Albert W. Cornelius, had been registered as a historic building; thus, any remodeling work was required to conform to all national, state, and local rehabilitation standards.

Custom Kitchens approached the city planning board in 2008 with some preliminary construction ideas. The firm basically wanted to cut the house in half and demolish a meritless room attachment in the home’s rear, replacing it with a new addition that would afford a spacious kitchen and family room. Custom Kitchens also sought to dig a full basement and create a third story because the house occupied a small lot.

The local commission worked with the firm and made suggestions about the proposed restoration. In 2009, Wilkins and his team took their plans before the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society (AAPS), an entity separate from the city government that would have to sign off on the project before work could begin.

Custom Kitchens encountered considerable resistance from AAPS, which was not fond of the firm’s intentions and preferred the company not make any alterations to the home, says Wilkins. In fact, the group inspired surrounding homeowners to oppose the remodel. “Almost the entire neighborhood was against it,” recalls Wilkins, despite affirmations from architects outside AAPS who had reviewed the renovation plans and didn’t find anything objectionable in the changes.

Eventually, the Emersons hired Robert E. Mackensen, an architect and former director of the California Historical Society, as a consultant. Mackensen testified before the city council and the neighborhood in October 2008 about the renovation’s validity. The measure passed by one vote.

Breaking ground

After the city council approved Custom Kitchens’ preliminary conception, the firm’s designers worked with the Emersons during the next several months on the details and product selections. Construction began in March 2009 after all materials had been ordered.

Product list

Entry door: International Doors

Interior doors: Simpson Door Company

Interior door hardware: Schlage

Kitchen cabinets: Bentwood Cornerstone

Refrigerator: Sub-Zero

Oven: Miele

Microwave: Dacor

Dishwasher: Miele

Sink disposer: InSinkErator

Main kitchen sink: Farmhaus

Main kitchen faucet: KWC

Water filtration system: EverPure

Washer: Miele

Dryer: Miele

Main water heater: A.O. Smith

Hot water circulating pump: Grundfos

Fireplace insert: Regency

Powder room sink: Kohler

Powder room faucet: Ginger

Powder room toilet: Kohler

Podwer room vent/fan: Panasonic

Fan timers: Leviton

Tub: Hydro Systems

Tub faucet: Rohl

Master bathroom toilet: Toto

Hand shower: Rohl

Hall bathroom sink: Corian

Hall bathroom faucet: Grohe

Hall bathroom shower: Grohe

Hall bathroom toilet: Toto

The primary goals of the renovation were to increase the overall living space of the home and eliminate the faulty construction of previous refurbishments. Without the benefit of any original architectural drawings or historical photographs, Custom Kitchens carefully dissected the existing house to determine which features were authentic.

The company razed the 1970s T1-11 room addition in the back of the house with enthusiasm. The attachment had a flat roof and grooved plywood siding, which clashed with the shingles on the rest of the home, says Eric Jackson, a project manager and designer for Custom Kitchens.

“Nothing about it related to the house at all—it was floor space built as cheaply as possible,” he says.

Destroying the room made way for Custom Kitchens to remove the existing foundation, prop up the house, and excavate the earth for a full basement that would allow the firm to build a new two-story addition in the home’s rear. But the city of Alameda sits on an island, so the soil consisted of sand predominantly and the water table remained high in many areas.

“A lot of places in Alameda, you dig down 4 or 5 feet and you hit water,” says Andy Cheak, a project manager for Custom Kitchens.

The elevated water table and porous soil conditions challenged Cheak and his team, who had to make sure they kept the excavated walls in place without shoring them. Once supports were added, the crew could continue outfitting the new basement, which included an expansive recreation area and a full bath and kitchenette.

Two heavy steel beams were required to reinforce the two-story addition Custom Kitchens built above the basement in the back of the residence. The first floor of the new addition contained a spacious kitchen and family room. The kitchen featured mostly cherry wood cabinetry and a custom hood canopy with hand-applied wooden pegs. The hood and backsplashes incorporated tile inlays with natural, botanical relief designs reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts style of the era in which the home was built.

The dining room off to the right continued the open floor plan the Emersons sought and was defined by a coffered ceiling, paneled half-walls, and pyramid columns bracing the arches of the adjacent passageway. Extending from the front of the home, the new arched corridor on the first floor led past the dining room and into the commodious kitchen and family room.

This airy, inclusive space necessitated two steel posts rising from the basement floor through the first floor to support the new master suite on the second floor. These posts were fashioned as another pair of pyramid columns and anchored a large central island in the kitchen. The new open floor plan corrected the jangled array of small spaces and narrow passageways that led to cramped rooms with limited functions in the existing home.

Above the newly constructed family room and kitchen, the large master suite featured a his-and-her closet and dressing space, bedroom sitting area, and bathroom replete with a freestanding therapeutic bathtub and other aging-in-place considerations. A sloped-threshold entrance to an over-sized shower complete with sitting bench, separate handshower, and several well-placed grab bars optimized the accessibility of the bathroom suite.

All bathroom clearances and closet hallways were designed to meet ADA standards for wheelchair access. Just outside the master suite, Custom Kitchens installed an elevator with access to all three stories of the home to ensure the Emersons would not be hampered by age or issues of mobility over time. With the new two-story addition in the back of residence in order, Custom Kitchens could turn its attention to the front of the house.

Correcting bad design

The firm uncovered evidence suggesting the front steps and porch had been altered from the original shed roof design that had survived on other homes in the area. At some point, a mansard roof and outdoor deck off the second-floor master bedroom were erected above what remained of the existing front porch, which ran down the north side of the house. Later modifications covered the existing pyramid columns, which were common to the Arts and Crafts style, and added windows to render a poorly conceived vestibule. As a result, the front door faced west toward the street.

Custom Kitchens composed a brick terrace with pyramid columns off the front of the house and had planned on fabricating a shed roof overhead, but the city planning board nixed the idea in favor of an open pergola, says Jackson. He drew plans and then made full-scale mockups to ensure the proportions were correct, marking the first time Custom Kitchens used 3D-modeling software Google SketchUp for a job.

The company restored the front door to its original location facing north, with a covered porch leading to it from the front walkway; however, the living room at the front of the house remained relatively dark despite two windows facing west toward the street. Custom Kitchens replaced the windows with French doors to create a warm, welcoming effect and expand the living room out to the front terrace, which would also allow more range for guests.

In the living room, a massive, unsightly fireplace constructed of white cement blocks overwhelmed the space. Dale Emerson had been eager to start the renovation and began tearing out the built-in shelves that flanked the hearth surround and mantle. Removing the shelves revealed boarded-up windows on each side of the fireplace that were part of the original home.

Custom Kitchens re-designed the hearth surround and mantle and installed a new gas insert. Inglenook cabinets on each side featured wooden pegs and hammered, rustic copper hardware. The fireplace displayed botanical relief tile that replicated some of the original Batchelder tile designs of the Arts and Crafts era. The color palette also was a reflection of that design period, with a mix of woodsy greens, soft apricots, and sepia tans.

The Emersons submitted few change orders during construction, all of which were simple product substitutions, says Wilkins. Custom Kitchens completed the project 16 days ahead of schedule in April 2010 for a final cost of $2,436,166.

Worth the wait

The renovated Emerson residence blended seamlessly with the surrounding neighborhood. Once finished, many homeowners who had disputed the remodel in the project’s early stages came over to admire the home and admitted their opposition had been misplaced, says Wilkins.

Although the house needed major rehabilitation in the beginning, the original structure proved to be robust, says Cheak. “From a construction point of view, the home itself—the body, the bones—was very substantial and well built,” he says.

Custom Kitchens made a concerted effort to procure and reuse as much of the original building material as possible. The firm extracted numerous pieces of authentic fine-grain redwood, which were resurfaced and reinstalled in different areas—as corbels on the home’s exterior, for example. Even some of the old clinker brick the company recovered during deconstruction was repurposed in the new front terrace and walkway.

In many instances, however, modern upgrades were essential for energy efficiency. Custom Kitchens replaced all of the windows with dual-pane varieties while also taking great care to match the exterior trim details of the original windows. A new dual-zone HVAC system afforded separate upstairs and downstairs climate control. Custom Kitchens also rebuilt the chimney structure to current standards, and used an additive in the foundation’s concrete to make it waterproof and improve air circulation within the home.

The publicity the renovation received in the press because of its delayed onset and eventual success earned Custom Kitchens quite a few referrals, says Cheak. Dale Emerson estimated he spent $100,000 fighting city council and neighbors, adds Wilkins.

The difference of one vote changed the course of history or, in this case, restored it.

“If it wasn’t for the tenacity of the homeowners and the extra money they spent, this project would have never happened,” says Wilkins. PR

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