Talk about a renewed lease on life.
This year’s New American Remodel in Winter Park, Fla. is a case study in what can be accomplished by a creative design-build company, working largely within an existing structural footprint.
The project was a classic gut remodel, but the crew at Phil Kean Design Group kept the bones of the old home. The team retained most of the exterior structure and some of the interior walls, but stripped it down to the studs, reconfigured the interior spaces, and gave the exterior a needed facelift. The completed home bears little resemblance to the original.
When asked about that original design, the first word out of Kean’s mouth is “funky.” It included some Tuscan-like elements, but was really a mishmash of styles that didn’t work well together.
“The old house had been largely hidden by trees,” says Kean. “Once those trees were removed, you could really see how bad it was.”
Inside, the floor plan consisted of small rooms separated by walls with arched doorways and inconvenient level changes that forced people to step up or down when moving from room to room.
And thanks to a lack of windows, the interior was dark and isolated from the outside. Although the property backs up to a lake, the house had so little glass that the lake could have evaporated without the homeowners noticing.
Kean was contacted by the new residents—a husband, wife, and three teenagers—who would be relocating from Chicago. Although they loved the location, the structure wasn’t what they had envisioned for their new home in The Sunshine State. Instead, they wanted a modern, transitional style with bright interiors and great views to the lake.
Kean’s job included making the home more visually attractive, pleasant to live in, convenient to use, and focused on the outdoors.
When speaking with Kean about this project, the term that came up again and again was “flow.” He says it’s a good way to think about how to improve an older home. Flow has two main elements: “Flow has to do with how one moves through a space both physically and visually,” says Kean.
Physical flow is straightforward. In this case, the cramped rooms, small doorways, and unneeded steps impeded the movement of people through the house the same way that a clogged pipe slows the movement of water. Unclogging those spaces meant removing walls and reframing floors to remove level changes.
Structural work like the removal of walls is standard fare when upgrading an older home, but remodelers who really want to “wow” their clients need to go a step further by thinking how people’s vision will move through the space and what they will see and experience from each vantage point. That’s visual flow, and it’s more artistic.
For instance, the front entry of the old home had opened to a small foyer with a stairway and a couple of door openings, one of which was a short hallway leading to the kitchen. It was a closed space that provided little or no sense of the home’s other rooms.
Kean’s crew moved the front entry and the foyer to a more central position, and designed it so that one could see how all the rooms relate to one another and to the backyard. The new foyer is open to the great room, which includes a living room, kitchen, and vaulted ceiling. A second-floor loft now overlooks the living room.
The exterior wall of the new great room—which is two stories tall and faces the backyard and lake—is filled with glass. The first level has 30 feet of sliding doors that open to a large lanai and outdoor kitchen. Motorized screens have been embedded in the roof structure above the lanai and outdoor kitchen; when the screens are lowered, the glass doors can be opened to make those spaces a seamless extension of the great room.
The upper section of that back wall consists of five fixed windows that let people in the loft enjoy the view to the lake. The first-floor primary suite and two second-story bedrooms also have windows and sliders facing the back of the house.
Of course, all that glass created challenges when it came to energy use, but Kean worked closely with Drew Smith of energy consulting firm Two Trails to minimize that. The windows and doors have high-performance glazing, and the home has a more efficient HVAC system and better insulation. Kean expects it to earn at least a Gold rating from the National Green Building Standard.
The ability to add glass while also lowering the home’s energy use is what made it possible for the team to achieve the biggest design goal, which was “a desire to have great views of the lake from as many rooms as we could,” says Kean. It was a priority that drove every decision.
He says that the clients have commented that the lake views are what they love most about their newly remodeled home.
In fact, the home feels like it has been added to, even though it hasn’t. The living room is about the same size as pre-remodel, but the high ceiling, the open floor plan and the glass doors create visual elbow room by “tricking the mind into thinking the space is bigger.”
Kean calls this “borrowing space,” and he says that learning how to borrow space opens up lots of design possibilities.
For instance, a simple technique like angling the corner of a wall can make the brain experience a room as being larger than it is. Even small details can have an impact. “I worked with an interior designer who did what he called a clipped corner,” explains Kean. It was an eye-level niche carved into a wall corner with a vase on it.
He says it was surprisingly successful at visually expanding the space. “People’s eyes naturally went through it to the room beyond.”
Of course, visual tricks like these work best when they lead the eyes to something interesting.
In this case, the focal point was the backyard, but the homeowners wanted more than a view: they wanted an outdoor space they could actually use. That required a transformation of the landscape that would account for 5-10% of the project budget.
The work included a new in-ground pool and fire pit that one steps down to from the lanai, as well as a large green space with a putting green between the house and the lake.
Pre-remodel, much of the approximate 500-foot distance between the house and the lake had been inaccessible. It consisted of what Tal Shuford, construction manager, calls “muck”—a thick layer of dead and decaying vegetation. A lot of work went into removing the muck and replacing it with dirt and sod.
Every remodeler knows that it can be a challenge to work with remote clients, even with modern design and visualization technology. Fortunately, the new owners were happy to fly down from Chicago regularly to inspect the project and provide feedback to the design and construction team.
However, they couldn’t be in Florida all the time, so some things, such as product selections, were done remotely. “They were able to go to a Kohler showroom in Chicago to choose their fixtures and to the Sherwin-Williams store up there to choose paint colors,” says Kean. “That made it very easy for them, and for us.”
He also says that these clients were very hands-on, and that they were more particular than most about designs and finishes. While this level of involvement can be stressful for the remodeler, the fact that the clients knew what they wanted, were educated on the remodeling process, and were committed to the energy efficiency goals, ended up being a positive.
In the end, the combination of educated clients and a skilled design-build team made for a successful result. “I think we really hit it out of the park with this project,” says Kean. “It was a home run.”