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The New American Remodel


The New American Remodel

This inspiring modernization of an 80-year-old historical structure holds lessons any remodeler can put to work

By By Charlie Wardell January 5, 2018
This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Pro Remodeler.

Show homes are over the top by design. They push the limits of what most builders or remodelers will undertake because the home needs to be big and bold enough to offer something to every visitor.

That’s certainly true for the 2018 New American Remodel. Professional Remodeler and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) cosponsored the project, which transformed a tired 1937 Orlando, Fla., home into a showcase of design, technology, and energy efficiency tailored to 21st century lifestyles. 

This article discusses lessons from the home’s architecture, interior design, and engineering. Follow-up feature articles in February and March will detail exterior and interior products.

Work with the lot

In this project, Orlando remodeler Farina & Sons removed some poorly done additions from the 80-year-old Mediterranean Renaissance-style structure, while retaining its two-story historical core. They also built expansive new additions: a big sunroom, or gallery, that spans the back of the original home, connecting it to a luxurious master suite with an office on one side and an open-plan family room/kitchen on the other. The family room adjoins an attached garage (25 percent larger than pre-renovation) and a backyard living area with a screened pavilion, pool, and outdoor kitchen. 

The home’s historical faҫade was enhanced by new brickwork and restored ironwork, and also by new windows, including floor-to-ceiling windows at the front that had been part of the original home but had been replaced at some point. The new additions to the right and the left have matching architecture and were kept low to prevent them from overwhelming the core structure. Photo courtesty Jeffrey A. Davis, Davis Photography

Of course, big additions can easily overwhelm both a home and a lot; since this project would add roughly 2,000 more square feet of under-roof area, maintaining proportion was a priority. To do so, architect Mark Nasrallah, AIA, owner of Nasrallah Architectural Group, in Orlando, and Farina & Sons president and owner Victor Farina settled on “an estate feel,” in which the home sprawls across the property, breaking up the visual presentation with bump-outs and varied rooflines. 

The lot has a 6-foot elevation difference from one end to the other. The garage is at the low end, and the floor plan steps down to it, allowing the home to hug the landscape and eliminating the need for a steep driveway. The only second-story addition—a bonus room over the garage—was also located at the low end, where its roofline wouldn’t compete with the core structure. “We didn’t want the additions to look too tall,” Farina says. 

Terracing the front yard also helps the home fit into the landscape. Before the remodel, the front yard had sloped up to the house from a single retaining wall. Farina and landscape architect Scott Redmon, principal and lead designer at Orlando-based Redmon Design Co., replaced that with concrete and stone walls that step up and down the lot in increments. 

Know what to keep

Another problem was how to modernize the older section of the home without sacrificing its original charm. Part of the answer lay in keeping a few signature elements of the core structure. These included the iron posts and railings at the front of the house, the low interior ceilings, and the original fireplace surround. “It feels like a 1930s house when you walk in the front door,” Nasrallah says. 

The team removed the pool outside the new master suite and replaced it with a fire pit; a new pool and hot tub were built at the garage end of the house. This divided the property into active and quiet zones separated by an outdoor pavilion with motorized screens. Photo courtesty Jeffrey A. Davis, Davis Photography

The exterior ironwork almost didn’t survive, because repairing the rust would have cost more than installing new posts and rails. But current codes wouldn’t have allowed an authentic-looking replacement. “The homeowners wanted to replace the ironwork, but I fought to keep it,” Nasrallah recalls. In the end, the ironwork is the home’s defining visual.

Another signature element was structural. The original home was built with solid masonry blocks—popular in Central Florida during the ’30s but rare today because of cost. Despite the added expense, the architect, contractor, and homeowner all agreed to use them on the additions’ gables to create a period feel. 

Blend carefully

The design of the new additions is transitional—a blend of traditional and modern that’s neither too formal nor too stark. Interior designer Grant Gribble, FASID, president of Gribble Interior Group, in Orlando, lavished attention on details that would unify the additions’ rooms with one another and with the original home.

The wood trim is elegant but emphasizes clean lines. “Rather than fancy crown with dentils, we opted for simple crown,” Gribble says. The moldings look at home in the 1930s structure but also fit with the more modern additions.

The new kitchen is divided into three zones: a built-in freezer, wine cooler, and refrigerator (left foreground); an oven, a large commercial range, sink, and dishwasher (background); and a food storage area, including a large pantry (to the right, but not visible). The island bar stools are located out of the main party traffic area, but also give guests direct access to the cook. Photo courtesty Jeffrey A. Davis, Davis Photography

The color palette also balances traditional and modern. It includes a blue-green hue in the master bath, an off-white glaze with gray undertones on some of the kitchen cabinets, and a gray-green moss color for the two kitchen islands. “Although the rooms are all unique in their own way,” Gribble says, “we put a lot of thought into how to unify them with paint and stain.” 

Floor materials play a unifying role, as well. “Grant did an amazing job designing interesting floors and ceilings that link adjacent spaces,” says Caron Farina, who heads advertising and marketing for Farina & Sons. In the gallery, for instance, craftsmen skillfully wove together the reclaimed hardwood from the existing home and master suite with the tile used in the kitchen and family room.

Look up

Although ceilings can easily be an afterthought, a carefully conceived ceiling can define a room. In fact, the ceilings in this project got as much attention as the rest of the house, especially in the common areas.

For instance, there was a lot of discussion about the original home’s low ceilings. “We considered raising them, but that would have been a structural nightmare,” Nasrallah says. In the end, he decided that keeping them would create separation between the old and new wings. “Walking through the low-ceiling [areas] in the old part of the house accentuates the drama of the gallery’s high ceilings,” he notes.

The family room offers immediate access to the home’s other common spaces: the gallery, the original core, the kitchen, the garage, and the outdoor living area. Note that while the vaulted ceiling matches that of the outdoor pavilion, it has been lowered to make the room feel more intimate. This created a space between the ceiling and trusses, which serves as a chase for getting mechanicals from one side of the family room to the other. Photo courtesty Jeffrey A. Davis, Davis Photography

In the gallery, the cross-pattern faux ceiling beams directly mirror the floor’s woven tile-and-wood pattern. And a common vaulted ceiling design in the family room and pavilion create a visual flow between indoor and outdoor areas.

Gribble cautions against making vaulted ceilings too high and insisted on making the family room ceiling lower than the trusses in order to make the room feel more comfortable. 

Repeat creatively

Floors and ceilings aren’t the only unifying elements. Nasrallah and Gribble repeated form and shape throughout. For example:

  • The circular molding patterns in the old dining room ceiling and chandelier echo the moldings on the front door and the circular front windows.
  • Visual elements in the master bedroom’s custom-made stained-glass window match those of the light fixtures.
  • The master bath’s ceiling recess repeats the octagonal pattern in the plumbing fixture base plates.
  • The steel French doors on the pantry match those in the gallery.
  • Recesses in the outdoor pavilion’s brick columns continue a theme used on the rest of the home’s brickwork.

The effect of these touches is subconscious. Most don’t attract attention, but they all help to subtly knit the home’s disparate spaces into a coherent whole.

Guide the eye

Sight lines through the home’s public areas reinforce the sense of flow between them, with a view down the length of the gallery and through a mudroom to the garage intersecting another one through the family room/kitchen to the outdoor pavilion. “The long views highlight symmetry between spaces,” Gribble says. 

The space once occupied by a cramped kitchen and dining room in the original home was opened up into a large, formal dining room. Here we see an example of how the interior designer used repetition as a unifying theme, with a circular design that’s repeated on the ceiling trim, the chandeliers, the front door, and the adjacent archway. The decorative iron stair rail, which was part of the original home, was fully restored. Photo courtesty Jeffrey A. Davis, Davis Photography

To maintain a focus for these public spaces, the designers created focal points at the fireplace in the old living room and with an accent wall in the dining room. In the gallery, the floor and ceiling patterns are obvious focal points, while the view between the kitchen and the pavilion ends in a large exterior fireplace at one end; at the other is a hammered zinc cover for the range hood against a travertine feature wall. 

Outside, a view along the back of the house also ends in strong visuals. Workers replaced an old pool on one end of the property with a fire pit and built a new pool and hot tub with a “green wall” at the other end. Although the outdoor pavilion separates the two zones, a straight line of sight runs from the pool through the pavilion to the fire pit. 

Quantify energy goals

The efficiency goal chosen for this project was ambitious: qualify for the highest Emerald rating from the National Green Building Standard (NGBS). 

NGBS ratings are based on the Residential Energy Services Network’s Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index, which compares actual energy use to a hypothetical reference home of equal size and shape built to current energy code. HERS is a point scheme, with every point denoting a 1 percent rise or fall in energy use. The lower the score, the better: A home that uses the same amount of energy as the reference earns a rating of 100, while a home that scores zero generates as much energy as it consumes, typically via solar electric panels.

To provide symmetry, the original door to the office, located next to the living room fireplace, was matched by a second door on the other side. The remodeler preserved the original ceiling height, adding only carefully detailed soffits to accommodate HVAC ducts that are designed not to detract from the home’s historical character. Resilient channel and sound-deadening drywall on the ceiling solved a problem with sound transmission from upstairs. Photo courtesty Jeffrey A. Davis, Davis Photography

Drew Smith, president and COO of Parrish, Fla.-based Two Trails, the project’s sustainability consultant, says that the pre-renovation home was one of the most inefficient he had ever tested, with a score of 125, or 25 percent less efficient than the reference home. The renovation aims to lower that score to 43, a two-thirds reduction in energy use. (The test hadn’t been completed by press time, so we will report on the results
next month.)

Hitting the target wasn’t easy. For instance, Smith modeled various ways to insulate the existing structure’s solid brick walls, eventually settling on a layer of unfaced ¾-inch extruded polystyrene (XPS), followed by ¾-inch furring strips and a reflective foil insulation. Air trapped in the cavity between the foil and the insulation board added the additional R-4 needed by HERS. Farina also replaced the old, leaky windows with new low-E models and used energy-saving LED lights throughout.

With humidity an issue in Florida, Smith chose to insulate the first floor joist cavities with closed-cell foam to prevent crawlspace moisture from migrating into the house. Unfortunately, the crawlspace was just 18 inches high. “We had to do some digging to make room for workers and their equipment,” he recalls. While they were in there, the crew also laid a plastic vapor barrier over the soil. 

To further guarantee an efficient, dry interior, the house has two high-SEER air conditioning units that positively pressurize the home. And the walls will not include a vapor barrier (hence the unfaced XPS). “We want moisture to be able to dry to the outside,” Smith says.

Build bandwidth

As more young people enter the remodeling market, demand for electronic home technologies will only grow, so one project goal was to show remodelers what’s possible. The home is completely automated: The security system, lights, door locks, window blinds, and HVAC system can all be controlled from in-house touch screens or with a smartphone or tablet app. 

The homeowners like to entertain, and the gallery is both a place for serving tables and a “connector” space. Looking through the gallery from the kitchen/family room area, one sees openings to the dining room, hallway, and living room to the right, and the door to the office and master suite straight ahead. From an aesthetic standpoint, this may be the home’s most creative space, with floor and ceiling designs that mirror each other. The floor weaves in the hardwood used in the older home and master suite with the new floor tile used in the kitchen and family room. Photo courtesty Jeffrey A. Davis, Davis Photography

The home also includes distributed audio and video fed from a central rack in the mudroom closet. The audio system supports a host of streaming players (Pandora, Sirius, etc.) and will also stream music from an Android device or iPhone. Built-in speakers throughout the home are wired in two zones, each of which can play a different stream. The video system can accommodate up to eight inputs (cable box, Apple TV, DirecTV, etc.) and feed the outputs to up to eight televisions.

Despite the ubiquity of wireless devices, Tracy Adcock, owner of Orlando-based HSS Custom AV, the electronics integrator, says that a large home like this absolutely needs data wiring. One reason is so that TVs can better handle those bandwidth-hungry video services. Another is that the home is simply too big for one router, so wiring must carry the signal to wireless access points that boost the Wi-Fi signal in various parts of the house. 

Another thing that hasn’t changed is that data wiring must be installed in home runs from each of these points back to the rack. Daisy chaining isn’t allowed, as each connection lowers the cable’s bandwidth capacity.

Manage for success

Remodeling is a collaborative undertaking, and it’s not news to anyone that having a team that can work together is a big advantage. However, it’s particularly crucial for a big, complex project like this. That’s why Farina, like all successful remodelers, creates long-term relationships with great subs. “You’re only as good as you hire,” Farina notes, adding that most of his subs have been with him for years, if not decades. “I’ve known the roofer since the mid-’80s. The electrician and plumber went to school with me. After a while, they’re like family.”

The laundry room is next to the mudroom and adjacent to the garage and pool area, making it easy to bring in wet towels and dirty sports uniforms before entering the main living area. (Inset, above) The office includes a partner’s desk as well as a herringbone-motif floor and a coffered ceiling. This room, which had once been a porch with a flat roof, also had some termite problems below the slab. The remodeler completely rebuilt the exterior walls and created a new roof structure with a raised, coffered ceiling. Photo courtesty Jeffrey A. Davis, Davis Photography

This kind of stability gives the remodeler confidence in knowing what he can and can’t delegate, and to whom. For instance, Farina trusts most interior design decisions to Gribble, but insists on being involved in any structural issues. And, of course, all discussions about cost must go through Farina. “I like a lot of control when it comes to the budget,” he says. 

Having a dedicated team really pays off when the project encounters an unexpected road block, as did the New American Remodel when Hurricane Irma blew through Orlando on September 11. Fortunately, the project sustained no hurricane-related damage, thanks in part to crews working extra hours before the storm, clearing the site of items that could be blown about by the wind, boarding up large openings, and moving stacks of wood trim inside. 

Heavy rain during the previous weeks had already put the exterior brick and stucco behind schedule. While those crews were able to get back to work as soon as power came on, things were tougher for other players. 

The Orlando building department was overwhelmed in the weeks after the storm, which meant longer-than-usual waits for inspections. Some material shipments were also held up. The landscaper had ordered plants from a supplier in South Florida that was hit pretty hard by the storm, so there was a delay in getting the landscaping done. 

In the end, however, everyone chipped in by working overtime for weeks to make sure the home was ready for the International Builders’ Show in January. 

The result of all this effort and coordination is a home bursting with practical design ideas and cutting-edge products that will benefit any remodeler. If you’re at the show, it’s worth checking it out. 

written by

Charlie Wardell

Charlie Wardell is a freelance writer and former remodeler in Tisbury, Mass.

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