The 1937 Cape Cod house in Arlington, Va., had definite pluses and minuses. Pluses: Charisma, coziness, and old-house character. Minuses: No elbow room, no energy efficiency, and no client within 3,600 miles.
Michael Winn, CR, CGP, CGR, owner of the suburban Washington, D.C., company Winn Design & Remodeling, says the prospect of working with an absentee client “would have raised a big red flag ordinarily.” But a July 2010 phone conversation about remodeling goals with Lori and Mike Brown, who were living in London but planned to return to their Arlington home in the near future, convinced him to accept the job.
Over the next 15 months Winn updated the Browns’ house, delivering a remodel that met the Browns’ challenging design requirements, while also adding green features that garnered an award, and raising the bar on Winn’s systems for communication with clients — whether abroad or around the corner.
“We picked Winn based on a recommendation from a neighbor” in Arlington, says Lori Brown. Tenants renting the house planned to move out soon, Brown adds; “we wanted to take advantage of that time to get the ball rolling” on the remodel.
The small house looked tidy and compact from the street, and the Browns wanted to keep it that way. “We didn’t want a McMansion,” says Brown. “We wanted to improve the living space and update the exterior but keep the traditional look and feel, and match the neighboring houses in old Arlington.”
That was a tall order. Little had been done to modernize the old house over the years. Its 1,400-square-foot living space squeezed boxy rooms into the first floor. A claustrophobic loft contained a tiny bedroom under a sloped ceiling. The 792-square-foot basement was unfinished.
Winn’s challenge was to upgrade and expand the weary structure without changing the footprint or overwhelming the façade. The Browns wanted to create an open plan living area on the first floor, modernize the kitchen and baths, add a master suite, and convert the basement to a family-friendly finished space.
Working with clients who lived far away and wanted to put their project on a fast track represented two big changes for Winn. First, he had to design the project without ever meeting the clients across a table.
“People who design talk with their hands” to express their ideas, he says, “but our clients were not there” to see much of that. Instead, through phone meetings and teleconferences, he and Sean Ganey, the architect Winn contracted for the design-build project, “met” with the Browns to develop the design. Winn used Web-based cloud project management software called Basecamp to store all plans, files, summaries of conversations, and other project records for centralized access. He has since switched to Co-construct, another cloud project management software product that is industry specific and incorporates a project calendar for clients to view.
“It’s part of our value-added proposition — a reason to choose our company,” he says.
The second big change was that Winn had to stray from his practice of completing project designs before starting construction. Because the Browns wanted to jumpstart the remodel, Winn broke the project into two phases under separate financial agreements. He focused first on the floor plan reorganization and the master suite addition. Fixed price change orders added midstream in production greatly expanded the scope of the project, including the kitchen, bathroom, and basement remodels; new moldings and trim; and other upgrades.
Judicious additions and updates dramatically improve the livability of the house. Ganey designed a first-floor extension that is tucked behind the house. The expanded first floor encompasses an open dining-family-kitchen area and triples the size of the kitchen, from 80 to 240 square feet.
Ganey also designed a pop up that doubled the size of the second floor, introducing height and breadth for a master suite featuring a roomy bedroom, luxurious twin-lav bath, walk-in closet, and sitting room with private balcony. Though he raised the roofline and added a front dormer to accommodate the new space, they harmonize with the existing lines and scale. The dormer matches the entry pediment, lending harmony and a sense of completeness.
The finished basement converts a dingy, 768-square-foot cavity into a multi-use family retreat containing recreation room, exercise room, bathroom, den, storage and laundry. Retrofitting the basement for occupancy turned out to be complicated.
“We lacked the proper head clearance required by code and thought we were going to have to tear out the slab, excavate, underpin the foundation and pour a new slab,” says Winn. “This would have been a very costly endeavor. But, while excavating for a spot footing required to support part of the second floor, we discovered our slab had a thin coat of cement over it,presumably poured in an effort to level the original floor. We had to chisel out the entire floor and add a much thinner floor leveling compound.”
The basement had moisture problems from hydrostatic pressure around the walls. “We had to waterproof the interior masonry,” says Winn, “install a sump pump and drainage system,” and place a French drain at the basement entry door.
Winn encountered another surprise when he turned to the kitchen remodel. A kitchen and bath designer had specified all products and materials for the room — but she became seriously ill with mononucleosis before ordering them. She was unreachable. In the thick of construction, piecing together all the specs for the kitchen fell on Winn’s shoulders.
“I didn’t even know where she had found the tile” and other products, he says. “She’d assumed we would customize stock products,” he adds, such as building drawers into the cabinet toe kick. “This is not cost effective. Normally you’d upgrade to a product that included the drawers.” Instead, Winn’s carpenters built the drawers from scratch.
“You can plan for everything, then life happens. Fortunately our clients were very understanding,” Winn says.
The Browns regarded their home improvement as “a comfort move,” says Lori Brown. It was Winn who suggested going green.
“He told us we could vastly improve the energy efficiency of the house,” she recalls. Winn says his company always recommends “being sensibly green” — not necessarily going to extremes, but “incorporating things that make sense” to conserve resources, provide a healthy environment, and make a house a better energy performer. For the Browns, this meant tightening the envelope, installing high-efficiency HVAC equipment, saving water, and salvaging materials by taking them to a recycling center or reusing them in the house.
“Keeping as much of the existing home as possible is the greenest thing you can do,” Winn says, because it wastes less. Ganey was all for it, not only because it reduced the need for new materials but also because it helped maintain the character and integrity of the house. Winn employed some original framing members in the addition, and reused bricks from enlarged window openings to assure a match when extending the entry. He retained much of the framing for the side porch; refinished the front door and a cast-iron bathtub; reworked an existing fireplace surround; and tightened some windows rather than replacing them.
Winn conducted an energy audit of the house, using the results to map where to air seal, add supplemental cellulose insulation, and spray in foam insulation.
“We insulated above and beyond our building code requirements,” he says. He replaced most of the windows in the house with insulated units. He chose recycled, low-maintenance products, such as composite fiber cement siding and lumber-look decking and rails made from recycled trash bags.
Paints, sealants, and other building products are low-VOC or VOC-free. Lighting is LED for low energy consumption. All the toilets are dual flush models that conserve water. Appliances are Energy Star-rated. New roofing insulation in the pop-up radically improves temperature control in the second floor space. Ceiling fans there and throughout the house also enhance energy efficiency.
“Everything that came into the house was energy efficient,” says Brown. Most of the green features added little cost to the project. The exceptions are the heating and air conditioning equipment, water heater and LED lighting. But the high efficiency system will return savings in utility bills. “We’ve already noticed an energy improvement,” says Brown.
The house won an Arlington Green Home Choice Program Silver Award. It has won high marks from the Browns as well. “I feel a lot better personally” about updating and enlarging the house, says Brown, because it is so green and energy efficient. That’s icing on the cake for a remodel that improves the living space in so many other ways.