Rebuilding an 1870s Shack

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The new owners of this ramshackle rental cottage in Columbus, Ohio, intended either to fix up the house or to raze and replicate it, then sell. During four years of permit battles, design brainstorms and evolving building plans, the owners became so attached they moved into the redone cottage themselves.

February 01, 2006

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Rundown and riddled with code violations, a ramshackle rental cottage in Columbus, Ohio, seemed like a dump to the former owner. The occupant had stopped paying utilities as well as rent, forcing him to pick up the tab. To unload this headache property quickly, he put the 650-square-foot house on the market for just $45,000 in 2000.

Before

Rob Wagner, also a rental-property owner, drove by for a look and recognized a sleeper of a deal in the sorry-looking shack. The house was on a double lot, rare in the old, close-in neighborhood. It dated from the 1870s, possessing historical appeal, and was a block from the site of a planned 400-acre subdivision of pricey vintage-look homes.

Wagner snapped up the property, intending either to fix up the house or to raze and replicate it, then add a two-story rear addition. He and partner Scott Klein figured they'd build a duplex on the remaining land and then sell all the buildings.

Ketron Custom Builders demolished the original shack and rebuilt it with look-alike materials, custom milled trim pieces and a period color scheme. 
After photos by Eclipse Studios

During four years of permit battles, design brainstorms and evolving building plans, the owners became so attached they moved into the redone cottage themselves. Its classic, good-as-new exterior hides 2,200 square feet of living space (1,100 square feet per floor), including a one-story addition and a new full basement.

Salvage or scrap

Wagner and Klein hired Urban Order, a Columbus architectural firm with experience working in historic districts, to design the project. Urban Order partner Steve Hurtt says it was clear that the old house was "very derelict" and that remodeling was not a practical option. He knew, however, that the owners would have to prove the structure was unsound and unsafe before the Italian Village Commission would approve a tear-down.

In spring 2003 the architects suggested three contractors with whom they work regularly that could both do a structural evaluation and build the project.

Granite counters, stainless steel appliances, a high-arch faucet and stepped, clear-finish mahogany cabinets make a luxury statement in the kitchen.

Travis Ketron of Ketron Custom Builders came out to the site and immediately distinguished himself. "He was a young go-getter; we were impressed," says Klein.

Ketron's approach plus his attention to detail and computer-generated documents — "some of the other estimates were hand-written on scratch paper," Ketron says — earned him the job.

Ketron did not mince words about the house. "It was bad," he says. "On the first walk-through I remember thinking, 'It's going to be hard to get drywall to look flat on these walls.'"

Some of the 2×4s were split almost in half. Termite damage was rampant. The floor had large holes and bounced because the main beams were weak. The roofing had decomposed, and snow and rain flooded in through the holes.

Ketron enlisted the help of an engineer, who determined that there was no real foundation. "A couple of large stones above the frost line — that was about it," says Ketron. "From a safety and structural standpoint, there was not much you could keep."

White walls, glass finishes, a vessel sink and a steam shower give the master bath a contemporary ambiance.

Nevertheless, the commission pushed for preservation of the cottage, asking Wagner and Klein to move the shack off the footprint, fix the foundation, then move the shack back. Eventually the group agreed to let the owners tear it down, on one condition: They had to replicate the 19th-century exterior, reusing as much of the board and batten siding and other original materials as could be restored. The board also allowed a 450-square-foot addition at the rear of the building, but it had to retain the character of the original house.

Ketron took a half day to rack-brace the exterior before demolition in order to ensure the safety of his crew as they salvaged siding and trim pieces. So much original fabric was in bad condition that little was left. Restoring even that portion was questionable.

After another round of commission approvals, during which Ketron explained that patching in the remnant old materials with the new would look "off," the team got the go-ahead to use all new materials on the exterior — but the exterior still had to look true to the original.

By this time, Wagner and Klein had decided to live in the house rather than rent or resell it right away. Instead of a two-story rear addition and adjacent duplex, they decided on a modest addition to retain the cozy character of the cottage. Since the house had to be "scraped off" the foundation, they'd gain extra living space by adding a full basement. Instead of a duplex, they would build a small carriage house with garage/entertaining space below and guest quarters above.

 

Look-alike exterior

The 14-month cottage reconstruction began in April 2003. Step number one was to excavate for the basement. During the dig, Ketron encountered two old cisterns filled with bricks and trash. Removing them took a full day.

To be on the safe side before moving on, "I met with a geo-tech guy," says Ketron, "to verify that we had reached stable ground and to determine the correct type of fill to replace the void left by the cisterns."

To recreate a Victorian Italianate cottage exterior, Urban Order and Ketron looked for design clues in the cottage itself and in period architectural pattern books. When Ketron removed the asphalt siding, old paint borderlines revealed original board and batten size and spacing, profiles of old porch pieces and fascia, and the shape of the window trim.

Working from these clues, Ketron milled reproduction components. Instead of pine siding, he chose equally flat but more durable medium density overlay plywood in 4×10 sheets. The primed cedar he picked for battens, soffit and fascia mimics the originals but adds weather- and insect-resistance.

The tongue-and-groove flooring of the new side porch is a hardy composite that looks and feels old. The asphalt roofing looks like slate. Each of the four wood exterior doors displays a different vintage pattern, progressing from the formal, half-light front door to the more relaxed, full-light patio door in the rear. The simulated divided-light windows also reflect Victorian Italianate styling. Ketron built brick porch piers and installed 6-inch half-round copper gutters, both in the 19th-century tradition.

"You probably couldn't tell it's not original, except that it is so clean," Ketron says.

Ground-breaking interior

Step inside, and you are propelled from vintage to avant-garde, from cottage to castle. The main floor has been transformed into a modern space with vaulted ceilings and deluxe features. The new basement doubles the size of the house.

"We got carried away," admits Wagner, "but we ended up with a spectacularly beautiful home."

The interior of the house grew grander as construction progressed. Urban Order signed off on product choices to ensure "cohesiveness," says Hurtt, but Ketron took over as hands-on manager of the design process. "I'd meet with the clients for six or eight hours on many Saturdays" to look at samples and toss around ideas "and we'd just go to town," he says. One creative inspiration led to another, until the cost-plus project amassed $150,000 in changes.

The homeowners retained the long, narrow living-dining room that had shaped the front of the tiny, one-story house. Departing from early plans, Ketron enlarged the kitchen, and integrated it with a four-season sunroom. A two-sided fireplace and custom art glass doors separate the living and dining rooms. Most of the other doors and floors on this level are elegant Brazilian cherry.

The lush, high-tech basement features a black granite bar with soda fountain and stamped, tinted concrete floor; a state-of-the-art theater room; and a European-style bath and shower room wrapped in tumbled marble. An integrated media system can project different music, movies, radio and television programs at each of seven total flat-screen and audio centers stationed upstairs and downstairs. Radiant heat is piped to both floors and powers a snow melt system under the exterior walkways. Ketron completed the main house in June 2004.

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The Financials

Most Ketron Custom Builders projects, including the Wagner/Klein one, are billed on a cost-plus basis "so when a project like this incurs $150,000 in change orders nobody gets too excited," Ketron says. He uses a 30 percent markup, which yields a 23 percent gross profit.

Ketron says he bills as much labor as possible to individual jobs, reducing his overhead. His cost to produce includes a line item for billable labor with a separate markup.

"To protect the customer as well as ourselves in the land of the unknown," says Ketron, his line-item estimate always includes a reserve to cover unexpected expenses. The $20,000 reserve on this job was enough to pay for the extra hauling and excavation needed to remove two cisterns found while digging the foundation. But it did not cover all of the time Ketron put into the project. "I bet I spent 60 to 80 hours meeting with the clients" planning all the upgrades, says Ketron. That time, plus hours Ketron spent overseeing installation of the custom upgrades, trimmed back his gross profit a bit.

Ketron doesn't regret the time spent. "This project was very custom, very detailed and a lot of work," he says, "but well worth the experience." He does almost no advertising, relying heavily on referrals. "The product has to work and you have to have a satisfied customer" to get those referrals, he says.

Budget History
Initial estimate $500,000
Final estimate $500,000
Change orders $150,000
Final price of job $650,000
Cost to produce $500,000
Gross profit $150,000
Budgeted gross profit 25%
Actual gross profit 23%


Snapshot

Travis Ketron
Ketron Custom Builders
Location: Granville, Ohio
Type of company: custom remodeler and builder
Staff model: 2 office, 4 field
Years in business: 7

Sales history
(75% remodeling, 25% new construction)
2002: $400,500
2003: $800,000
2004: $500,000
2005: $725,000

Annual jobs: 4
Workweek: 40 hours
Software: Intuit Master Builder, SoftPlan
Contact: 740/587-4442, travis@ketroncustombuilders.com


Products List

Bath fixtures, fittings: Kohler. Dishwasher drawers: Fisher & Paykel. Doors: Marvin. Glass tile: Walker Zanger. Kitchen faucet: Dornbracht. Porch: Tendura.Radiant floor heat: Watts. Range: Jenn-Air. Refrigerator: Sub-Zero. Roofing: GAF Slateline. Shower fittings: Grohe. Windows: Marvin.

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