Rx for an Old House

Remodeler turns a historic Doctor's office space into an open, finely crafted kitchen-family area

April 30, 2008
Products List
Company Snapshot
The Financials
Project Timeline

An airy, two-cook kitchen with an island replaces the dark, dated and cramped 1950s kitchen.
After photos by Dick Shelton Photography

For decades, when residents of North Andover, Mass., were pregnant or sick they went to the town doctor at his home office on Main Street. Both the doctor and his stately turn-of-the-century house were beloved local treasures. Amy Mabley fondly recalls playing in the doctor's yard with his grandchildren when she was growing up. So in 1999, when the late doctor's family told her they planned to sell the place, she and her husband, Eric, snapped it up before it could even be listed.

For several years, the couple lived in the three-story, 4,000-square-foot house with their small daughter, savoring its assets — such as the large, high-ceiling living spaces, fine built-in cabinetry and handsome decorative trim — and becoming increasingly dissatisfied with its flaws. Particularly frustrating were the dark, sorely dated kitchen; the unheated mudroom; and the useless warren of tiny rooms that once constituted the doctor's office. The Mableys wanted to cure all those ills without scarring the house's historical spirit. After getting opinions from several remodeling contractors who, Eric says, "were not as open to retaining the character of the house," they called Howell Design & Build.

In September 2005, Steve Howell, owner of the Lawrence, Mass., company, met the Mableys at the house for an initial walk-through. He returned soon after, bringing Tom Peterman of McManus Peterman Architects, Concord, Mass., whose space planning skill, structural knowledge, and experience with historic house remodeling made him a good fit to design the Mabley project as a subcontractor. The Mableys were impressed with both men's "willingness to listen to us and work with us" to design a bright, open, functional new space that respected the house's vintage character, Eric says. That can-do attitude, plus visits to past and current Howell clients, sealed the deal.

Old House Woes


The dark kitchen — a 1950s "improvement" — was virtually nonfunctional.
It had one small window, an oven that didn't work, "a refrigerator that burned electricity, and two lights, if you count the refrigerator light," says Eric. Adjacent storage and laundry rooms took too much space. As for the bare, unheated mudroom, it was so cold that snow often collected on the floor.

Peterman solved all those problems with a design that involved removing several walls — two of them load-bearing — to make way for an open, skylighted kitchen with bump-out breakfast bay; a small but efficient laundry room; a walk-through pantry; and a larger, heated mudroom. A deck gives the Mableys space to cook outdoors.

In place of bearing walls that supported second floor and roof loads, Peterman's open plan called for the beams to be buried in the ceiling cavity. Project manager Lawrence Howell (Steve's brother) knew it would be tricky to install 16-foot-long engineered steel beams flush with the ceiling within the confines of the existing walls. What he didn't know was that a horsehair-plaster dropped ceiling over the kitchen hid fire-scorched framing. Demolition revealed the original ceiling was a foot above the newer one. The structure uncovered was not only scorched but "very under-framed," says Lawrence. Plumbing, wiring and radiator heat pipes snaked through the poor framing, weakening it further. And the ceiling heights over the old medical suite varied from room to room.

Lead carpenter Brad Powers propped up the second floor, managing to reinforce the framing; move and replace pipes and insert the beams without disturbing the bedroom and tiled bath overhead. "A lot of lumber went into that ceiling," he says. Howell Design & Build's engineer detailed all the steel beam-to-beam and beam-to-post connections.

The baseboard trim profile continues across the built-in bench in the mudroom for a traditional look.

The basement presented additional old-house issues. The new steel posts carry through the floor framing to the existing stone foundation or new footings poured in the basement. Digging the footings meant chopping through a wildly uneven concrete floor. "The old floor was poured over rocks," explains Lawrence. "It ranged from 2 inches to 10 inches thick." One footing had to be wedged in at the end of the basement stairs without destroying existing closet space. The firm dug under the closet without disturbing the closet wall finishes and installed the post tight to the wall. Elsewhere in the basement, the firm discovered an old beam that had split and sagged 2 inches; Powers added concrete footings and a support post to jack it up.

Remaking History

North Andover established the Main Street area as a historic district soon after the Mabley project was complete. "We just squeaked in" before remodeling restrictions went into effect but the project would have met the requirements anyway, says Lawrence. "We kept the character of the house." From the front, the house looks unchanged. The new breakfast bay extends only 18 inches into the side yard and echoes the geometry of the clip-cornered dining and living rooms.

Off the kitchen in back, the new deck repeats those angles. Howell's mill shop machined the posts of the deck rail to match those on the front porch. A senior carpenter used a template of the house's decorative eave brackets to fashion matching rafter tails for the deck pergola. When it came to the deck size, the house's age was a benefit; grandfather clauses in the zoning setback regulations allowed Howell to bump out the deck 15 feet into the yard.

New details inside the remodeled space also blend with the old. Custom cherry cabinetry with glass doors resembles the house's built-in dining room china cabinet. Featuring economical adhesive "leading" that resembles the leading in the old cabinet, a sliding transom window in the mudroom wall brings traditional patina as well as light to the breakfast room. Custom fabricated molding in the new space matches the house's elegant turn-of-the-century trim. Even the built-in bench that the mill shop crafted for the mudroom sports baseboard trim across the drawers to continue the traditional styling.

For interior doors, Howell found crystal doorknobs that replicate those on the front door. And Eric Mabley, a skilled amateur woodworker, made the rail, balusters and newel for the newly opened staircase in the same profile as those upstairs.

Behind that traditional appearance are some very contemporary conveniences. Radiant heating warms the floor throughout the remodeled space. Icynene insulation and traditional-look windows meet modern energy efficiency standards. One kitchen cabinet houses a recycling drawer that slides open in the mudroom for easy trash disposal. A built-in hutch in the breakfast nook conceals hanging file drawers plus plugs and wires for cell phones and other modern-day electronics. "We're very pleased with that," Eric says. As pleased as they are with the bright, two-cook kitchen. And the toasty mudroom. And the storage-rich laundry room. And the corridor-style pantry. And the deck. This remodel is just what the doctor ordered.


Designed to blend with the house's original built-ins, the pantry cabinetry lines a corridor that connects the kitchen, laundry room and den. Dave Beaulieu of Beaulieu Cabinetry designed the layout of the kitchen cabinetry, customized it and installed it.

Products List

Basement windows: Harvey Boiler: Buderus Cabinets: Beaulieu Cabinetry Cooktop, microwave and oven: GE Appliances Custom molding: Anderson & McQuaid Dishwasher: Kenmore Kitchen faucets: Rohl Laundry counter: Wilsonart Laundry faucet and sink: Kohler Oil burner: Riello Paint: Sherwin-Williams Pendant lighting: Murray Feiss Radiant heat: Staedler Climate Panels and Tubing Refrigerator: KitchenAid Spray-in insulation: Icynene Under-cabinet, hutch and deck lighting: Kichler Windows: Marvin

Company Snapshot

Howell Design & Build 
Owners: Stephen and Susan Howell
Location: Lawrence, Mass.
2007 volume: $4.9 million
Projected 2008 volume: $4 million
Web site: www.howelldesignbuild.com 
Biggest challenge: Replacing the first-floor doctor's suite with an open kitchen-family area without disturbing the living spaces overhead

The Financials

Steve Howell avoids bidding on jobs: "The levels of service can be completely different," he explains, "and that's not reflected in a numbers comparison." So, like most Howell Design & Build clients, the Mableys simply signed a design agreement that paid the firm to develop both a design and a highly detailed estimate. "I think it builds trust" with clients, Steve says, and the architect and homeowners can use it to guide the project to budget.

The line item estimate is open book, showing all raw costs including contractor discounts and a 22 percent gross profit broken out as 12 percent overhead and 10 percent profit. "An open book process is so much easier to work with in the budgeting phase," says Howell. "We're not trying to hide anything."

But is he concerned about revealing the numbers to other contractors? No. "I don't imagine that our competitors know our numbers," Steve explains, and even if they did "everybody calculates profit and overhead differently."

The actual cost on the Mabley project came in a few thousand dollars under budget, yielding a gross profit 1 percent better than projected. Generally, "our projects are within 2 percent of the estimate," Steve says. "Averaged together, our last 40 projects came out right on estimate."

See the May issue of Professional Remodeler for Budget History

Project Timeline

2005 Stage of Project
Sept. 8 Initial meeting
Nov. 18 Design agreement signed
Dec. 2005–Jan. 2006 Schematic design

2006 Stage of Project
Feb. 21 Initial preliminary estimate
March–May Design development and estimating
May 31 Preliminary estimate and design approved
June–July Construction drawings, detailed estimates
Aug. 1 Detailed estimate and design approved
Aug. 23 Construction contract signed
Sept. 1 Begin demolition
Sept. 22 Demolition and site work complete
Oct. 17 Interior framing complete
Oct. 31 Rough mechanicals complete
Nov. 30 Wall insulation, plasterwork, deck framing, exterior painting complete

2007 Stage of Project
Jan. 8 Hardwood floors installed
Feb. 5 Exterior painting complete, cabinets installed
Feb. 17 Kitchen backsplash installed
Feb. 20 Wood floor finish coats applied
Feb. 21 Substantial completion
March 2 Final painting, punch list completed

2006 2007
Sept. 6 Jan. 8
Sept. 22 Jan. 24
Oct. 17 Feb. 5
Oct. 31 Feb. 22
Nov. 16 March 22
Nov. 30
Dec. 14

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