Overcoming Urban Remodeling Challenges

Strobel Design Build remodels bare space in an old, historic commercial building to become a standout center-city home

January 31, 2009
The financials

Round concrete columns, brought up in pieces, encase steel I-beams in the living room. The contemporary, unadorned space features trimless window frames, track lights recessed into the ceiling and handscraped walnut flooring that fits closely around the columns.  After photos by Franke Bapti

St. Petersburg, Fla., is humming with activity thanks to major revitalization, and longtime residents Dar Webb and Clint Page wanted to move downtown. They found just the spot: a historic 1928-vintage Snell Arcade. The Mediterranean rococo building had a lot to offer — central location, historical character and unfinished condo space that Webb and Page could build out to suit their sophisticated, minimalist vision. For Strobel Design Build in St. Petersburg, those assets presented both opportunities and challenges.

Design evolution

Webb and Page first purchased space in a new downtown building and hired local architect Tim Clemmons to design a condo. Their concept: a living area and master bedroom section and another section for the office and guest suite. Meanwhile, the developer who'd bought the nine-story Snell Arcade, planning to convert the upper floors to residential condos, commissioned Clemmons to design a model unit. On a whim he e-mailed the plan to Webb and Page, who bought a 2,839-square-foot space on the second floor.

It was another two years before construction started on the condo. Changing the building from commercial to mixed-use accounted for much of the delay.


The hall running from the entry to the living area functions as a library, with a 26-foot-long, floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookcase.

While the team waited for the building to be brought up to code, they redesigned the unit every few months. The open, main area smoothly blends kitchen, dining and living space. A four-sided divider incorporating the powder room, the laundry and a bench for the dressing area separates the main living space from the master suite. The large, two-person office and a guest suite occupy the other end of the condo. The long entry hall doubles as a library for Page's extensive book collection. A terrace offers outdoor access. Environmentally friendly components and smart house controls meet the clients' preference for green, high-tech living.

Webb and Page wanted Strobel to build the project. But in some ways the project represented uncharted territory for Strobel. “We do very little work on tall buildings,” he says, and “working in an urban environment is unusual for us.” Nevertheless, the project appealed to him. A rapport among him, the client and the architect helped. “We all felt we were jumping into this with our eyes open.”

Jumping in

It was clear that building access would be limited. The Snell Arcade is downtown by a post office. The team couldn't park in the alley because they would block the mail trucks. The best they could do was squeeze a Dumpster into the alley.

All nearby parking spaces are metered. To avoid tickets, project manager Andy Reitwiesner, CLC, CKBR, bought weekly parking permits for the crew.

Reitwiesner introduced himself to residents before the job started, and during production, he'd put a note on the elevator before materials were coming in, letting tenants know when the elevator would be in use. He'd clear out the elevator for a tenant when needed.

Not everything fit in the elevator. The tall bookcases rode on top of the elevator cab. Cranes hoisted the kitchen island, hardwood flooring, decking material and the clients' piano to the roof of the adjacent two-story wing.

As compact, efficient and sleek as a boat, the kitchen includes a curved island, appliance drawers, cabinets with pop-up doors, and frosted glass clerestory windows that admit light without absorbing storage space.

Though most of the old building is solid concrete, the clients' unit occupies a wood and steel section. “During construction we unearthed termite problems that were worse than we expected,” says Strobel. Crews replaced the termite-damaged framing, re-planed the ceiling to level uneven sections, and repaired several roof leaks. None of this work was a total surprise. Strobel says he was shocked, though, to discover that a roof leak over the nearly completed master bathroom was caused by termites. “They had eaten up through a layer of modified bitumen under the roof. The team had to tear out the whole ceiling and redo it.

Strobel installed double walls for soundproofing in the mixed-use building. Double layers of plywood plus tight seals keep odors from the pizza restaurant below from drifting into the condo.

Because the Snell building is designated as historic, exterior changes need to be approved by the local historic preservation review board. Webb and Page considered replacing the 1970s front windows but opted to postpone the change. “It would have established a standard that we'd have to negotiate for the whole building,” says Clemmons.

They did install new windows in the rear. The hurricane-resistant units are standard products that nicely match 1920s windows. Reitwiesner cut through the building's 18-inch-thick walls to fit the openings to the windows.

Pushing the envelope

To prepare the low adjacent roof to support a terrace, Strobel had to reinforce it with a steel superstructure. The demanding job required crawling through rotten roof timber to find the original steel beams and posts, then place the new beams over those posts. To bring in the new beams, the crew had to cut into the roof of the restaurant below, hoist up the beams, then rebuild the roof.

Though squeezed into a tight site surrounded by unsightly mechanical equipment, the ipe terrace — with movable sun shades and lush planters — is a tranquil oasis.

The finished terrace, resting on a new platform welded above the old roof, features ipe decking and fencing. A stucco wall blocks views and much of the sound of a cooling tower. Bamboo plants form a green privacy wall.

The clients' preference for unadorned lines enabled Strobel's team and the cabinetmaker to demonstrate their skills. Reit-wiesner installed the flooring without shoe mold and the doors and windows without casings. The drywall contractor perfected exposed wall edges. Cabinet maker Michael Bright of Bright Wood Works designed and made the 26-foot-long mahogany bookcase, engineering it to support a heavy load with as few structural components as possible and using no moldings to conceal edges.

With flush cabinetry and Bright's custom designed island, the kitchen looks sleek and simple but is fully equipped with storage, appliance drawers and a computer. Composite paper countertops; low-VOC, medium-density fiberboard cabinets; and low-VOC paints add style and a green element. In the office, a server rack consolidates controls for the condo's high-tech equipment.

Reitwiesner placed ¾-inch, fire-treated plywood panels behind walls as backing for Webb to hang her art collection. Prominently displayed on the wall as art pieces are the well-used tops of two of Reitwiesner's sawhorses. Reclaimed from a season of hard work, they look as proud and beautiful as the condo itself. 

Project Timeline

2006 Stage of Project
Sept. 1 Initial meeting with clients and architect
Oct. 15 Begin construction
Dec. 16 Begin installing HVAC system
2007 Stage of Project
Mar. 15 Rough-in inspections
Mar. 24 Begin drywall
May 6 Plywood subfloor completed
June 6 Crane lifts steel for terrace deck
June 26 Crane lifts kitchen cabinets, ipe decking; walnut flooring installed
July 5 Granite counters and tile installed in bathrooms
July 25 Kitchen cabinets installed
Aug. 9 Smarthouse equipment installed
Aug. 30 Terrace irrigation and planting completed
Oct. 30 Painting completed
Nov. 27 Final inspections completed
Dec. 3 Substantial completion
Payment Schedule
Biweekly time and materials payments


The financials

Don Stobel typically uses fixed-price contracts but did the Webb/Page project on a cost/plus basis. “We reserve cost/plus for large, difficult jobs, work on historic buildings, and jobs that are not completely scoped,” he says.

He applied a 25 percent markup to the cost of materials and trade contractors and billed for in-house labor at a fixed, burdened rate. “Our trades worked on bids,” he adds.

In select instances Strobel did not charge the clients for the crew's labor. That reduced gross profit to 23.7 percent.

Every two weeks, the clients received a report showing supplier and contractor bills plus Strobel labor hours and markup. “The frequency of billing is important to us for cash flow on a big job,” says Strobel. It helps the clients too, he says, because “they are able to keep up” without having invoices mount.

Budget History can be viewed in the February issue of Professional Remodeler


Strobel Design Build
Owner: Don Strobel, CR, GCP, CKBR
Location: St. Petersburg, Florida
2008 volume: $1.6 million
Projected 2009 volume: $1.5 million
Web site: www.strobeldesignbuild.com 
Biggest challenge: Building a terrace over a 1920s roof.

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