Urban Renewal

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Downtown Des Moines has seen a resurgence in recent years as residents move back to the riverfront that anchors Iowa's capital city. The new homeowners are looking for historic ambience combined with the modern conveniences of central city living. This three-story brick walk-up was saved from demolition more than 10 years ago by the local neighborhood association, which converted th...

December 01, 2006

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Not the usual project
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The central living area of the condominium was intended to be the social core, designed around the dual fireplace.  After photos by Chaden Halfhill

Downtown Des Moines has seen a resurgence in recent years as residents move back to the riverfront that anchors Iowa's capital city. The new homeowners are looking for historic ambience combined with the modern conveniences of central city living.

This three-story brick walk-up was saved from demolition more than 10 years ago by the local neighborhood association, which converted the empty shell to a low-income rental property. Now, after years of neglect by renters, the building again needed rescuing. This time, the association decided to partner with local remodelers to restore the building as part of the Symphony Designer Showcase, a home tour that acts as a fundraiser for the local symphony alliance.

The top floor, where two apartments were converted into a single condominium, was the most ambitious part of the project.

"The idea was that this would draw people up to the top floor, to the pinnacle of the show," says Chaden Halfhill, president of Silent Rivers, the Urbandale-Iowa based firm that handled the remodeling of the top floor.

The lower two floors had less challenging goals, but the owners planned to gut the top floor to the studs. Besides some molding and casing off of the windows, very little was saved of the existing apartments. Old walls were removed and new walls were built to create the new space.

Before 

To guide the company in its renovation, the association gave Silent Rivers a fictitious resident for the new condominium, Suzanne, a middle-aged designer who was moving back to the Midwest to spend more time with her grandchildren but who also wanted to continue her design practice. The condominium needed to combine a comfortable living space with a creative working space for this multi-talented, person with a passion for historic homes mixed with contemporary styling.

"It was designed conceptually for a creative person," Halfhill says. "There's an axis that runs from the bedroom, where she dreams, to the studio, the working zone, where the dreams come to life."

The company designed the condo to make the most of the limited space and encourage creative flow, Halfhill says. The master suite is positioned to benefit from the early eastern sun, so Suzanne can sit and think about her designs in the morning before moving to the working studio in the western wing. The two fireplaces, originally designed to be centered in the room, anchor the central living space. Venting requirements made that impossible, so instead the fireplaces were offset, which opened the views between the rooms.

Halfhill designed the master suite with stepped walls to divide the space, but still maintain the openness equated with a contemporary loft.

Silent Rivers also extensively used glass throughout the unit as another way to open up the space. "It takes advantage of all the different light sources, both natural and artificial," Halfhill says.

The kitchen uses four stained glass panels to take advantage of the southern light and create warmth; limestone countertops; and dual wood (oak and maple) cabinets designed to mimic the salvaged trim from the original building and contribute to the traditional feel.

The entryway has an abstract relief, designed by a local artist, mounted about a foot from the ceiling. The design of the frieze was carried into the main living space, which helped incorporate the entryway into the rest of the unit and separate it from the other staircase and other common areas.

Although experienced with residential remodeling, Silent Rivers had never tackled a project quite like this before.

"A condo has a lot more commercial aspects to it that we're not used to," Halfhill says. "It took a lot more planning and consideration of different issues."

Crews removed the casing from the original windows by hand so it could be used again in the removation.

Features such as sprinklers, shared walls and centralized mechanicals all made the project different than the company's typical work. Halfhill and his team also had to carefully consider how changes they made would impact the companies remodeling the other two floors and the exterior of the building. For example, the company was not able to implement its original design for the bathroom because the other floorplans kept the same footprint. What began as a larger, formal room had to be redesigned as a smaller asymmetrical space that incorporated a salvaged pocket door to hide the washer and dryer.

In the end, most of these changes ended up being positive, because it forced the team to be more creative in their design, Halfhill says: "We ended up with something that reflected what people are looking for now, but still references the architecture of the period."

 

Remodeler: Silent Rivers
Project Location: Des Moines, Iowa
Age of home: 96 years
Scope of work: Gutting two existing apartments to create an artist's home and studio


Not the usual project

Besides the many technical challenges of remodeling the nearly 100-year-old space, a unique ownership structure also made the project unusual.

Because it was a charity project, Silent Rivers was expected to donate many of its normal fees. Company president Chaden Halfhill estimates about $67,000 would have been billed to a normal client but was not collected in this case. To recoup some of those costs, Silent Rivers bought the condominium on option with a contract that calls for the company to pay the neighborhood association when the property sells. So far, the condominium, completed in 2004, is still on the market.

"Honestly, I think it's a little before its time," Halfhill says. "It'll sell eventually, but we're not going to get what we put into it. But that wasn't the point of the project either."

Products List

Appliances: Jenn-Air. Cabinets: Omega. Ceramic tile: Florida Tile, Walker Zanger. Doors: Woodharbor, Porte Blindate. Faucets: Kohler. Fireplaces: Travis Industries. Paints & Stains: Benjamin Moore. Sinks: Kohler. Windows: Eagle.

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