|Sunshine pours through a skylight onto the stairs that lead from an underground, 2,500-square-foot addition to a Colonial-era Boston house. Photo: Kevin Foley|
Few remodelers are likely to adhere to the cliche "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." After all, remodeling is essentially improving something that is usually already functional.
Another phrase at which top-notch remodelers balk is "It can't be done." Their attitude is that the "impossible" simply takes a little more thought and time. These projects are all the more gratifying to the remodelers and their clients because of the obstacles overcome.
Winners of the 2001 Chrysalis Awards are prime examples of this kind of creativity and plain old "stick-to-it-tiveness." The eighth year of the awards program, 2001 marked the second time the contest, sponsored by Lowe's and Professional Remodeler, has been open to remodelers nationwide. Judges Louis Joyner, a writer for Southern Living magazine; Dan Gregory, senior editor of Sunset magazine; and Mark Englund, president of HomeStyles Publishing and Marketing, examined the entries for overall project design, creative use of space and materials, and the degree to which the remodel enhances the original structure.
From window well to patio
Look at Tom Owens, CR, owner of Creative Remodeling in Centennial, Colo., and his frequent collaborator, architect Doug Walter, AIA, CGRA, winners of the Western Region award for finished basements over $30,000. The clients owned a 5-year-old Denver home with a 1,500-square-foot, unfinished basement that they wanted to convert into usable living space. The good news was that the basement already had higher-than-usual ceilings and larger-than-average windows. The bad news was that those oversize windows looked out on to equally oversize corrugated-steel window wells filled with leaves, dirt and insects.
|The lush garden outside the windows in this Colorado basement is a far cry from the corrugated-steel window wells that were the previous view. Photo: Philip Kantor|
The solution? Get rid of those ugly window-well buckets and excavate the area where they had been to create a 3025-foot patio with a terraced garden. Owens and Walter turned an eyesore into one of the most distinctive and attractive features of the house.
The windows — three 525-foot units — run along the east wall of the basement. Walter and a contractor who specializes in retaining walls designed what Walter calls "a great big window well." The well, now large enough for a small table and a couple of chairs, is defined by the windows on one side and landscaped terraces built with 828-inch landscape timbers on the others. It also has stairs leading to the yard at grade level. The effects are a private outdoor room that is intimate without being oppressive and, more important, visually opens the basement adjacent to it.
Another problem was moving the existing plumbing lines from under a window to the back section of the basement, where Walter planned to tuck the new bathroom against one of the stairwell's 45-degree angles. His design incorporated the plumbing lines with the work for the stairwell, which was repositioned in the basement's center for a more open look. The overall design is circular, with the stairway at the hub. The living area, kitchen and home office are positioned to take advantage of the light from the windows, while the bathroom and media room are on the "dark side" of the space.
The invisible addition
When Rod Gilbert, principal of Sid Kumins Inc. in Brookline, Mass., took on a 2,500-square-foot addition to a 1796 house in Boston, he had to deal with the strict regulations of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, which Gilbert calls "the strongest board you'll ever see anywhere in this country." To preserve the neighborhood's historical character, the society's rules dictated that none of the completed changes could be seen from the street.
Fortunately, Gilbert was already familiar with the restrictions; Sid Kumins had worked on eight buildings on Beacon Hill. Gilbert had worked on this home, originally a farmhouse, for the previous owners, who referred the new residents to him for any future remodeling or renovation needs.
|Skylights in the ceiling of the Sid Kumins addition illuminate the rooms below ground. Since the project was completed, the skylights have become part of the back yard landscape design. Photos: Kevin Foley|
Gilbert couldn't build up or out into the yard, so he decided to build under the yard. His design earned Sid Kumins a Northeast Region Chrysalis Award in the category of historic renovations over $250,000.
The project involved excavating soil to a depth of 15 feet behind the house and removing the entire garden except for a 200-year-old beech tree and an equally ancient brick well, which was discovered during the digging. Then the Kumins crew put in a drainage system around the addition and built a cement "bunker": a cement floor, four cement sides topped by steel beams and a cement "lid." The addition comprises a foyer, a laundry room, a bathroom, an office, a wine-storage room and a 20240-foot work/play area with 8-foot-high ceilings. Seven skylights were installed in the "lid" to allow as much natural light into the rooms as possible.
Once construction was finished, Kumins replaced as much soil as necessary to re-establish the garden, which now features brick patio areas incorporating the skylights as part of their design. The Kumins crew also created a grate-covered pit to house the air-conditioning compressor, which had been in a corner of the garden.
"This was one of the most interesting projects we've ever done," says Gilbert, who has 32 years of remodeling experience. He compares the project with the massive highway construction project under way in downtown Boston: "Our project was a miniature Big Dig. I don't think we'll see another one like it. The most difficult part was getting the dirt out of the space. After that, everything was secondary."
E pluribus unum
Gene Pindzia of Riverside Custom Design (Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.) faced the challenge of converting three rooms built almost 80 years ago into one kitchen suitable for today. The house, built for the owner of the Hudson Motorcar Co., was typical of homes of the well-to-do in that era: Its kitchen was laid out for a staff of servants rather than the active family now living there. Pindzia's solution won the Midwest Region award for kitchens over $75,000.
|The open finished kitchen belies Riverside Custom Design’s challenge: removing solid-brick walls and then creating load-bearing support. The kitchen design is consistent with the age of the house, which has been designated of local historic interest. Photo: Beth Singer|
Knocking down walls is run-of-the-mill stuff for remodelers, but these walls were different: solid brick with no studs. Pindzia consulted a structural engineer for ideas about supporting the ceiling once the walls were knocked down. At the engineer's recommendation, Pindzia installed a 16-inch, laminated beam to bear the weight load. Studs had to be added to the insides of the exterior walls — also solid brick — to permit installation of cabinets and wallboard.
The homeowners were specific about some of the details they wanted, such as the decorative, oversize wooden legs that appear to support the cooktop and the imported farmhouse sink. The owners also wanted the 40-inch-wide island to include an elevated, 16-inch bar that provides a surface for casual meals. Pindzia worked with manufacturer Quality Custom Cabinets of New Holland, Pa., to get the legs and the island. Unfor-tunately for the finish carpenter on the job, the sophisticated design for the island meant it arrived on the job site in many pieces.
"He took one look at all this lumber tied together and said, 'What did you do?'" Pindzia says. "But we sat down and figured out how it all fit together."
Pindzia emphasizes that working with a truly custom cabinet company is essential for successful projects of this scope.
|Luxury meets necessity in this California shower, part of a Marin Kitchen Works overall bathroom design, intended to meet the physical needs of the homeowners as well as their sense of aesthetics. Multiple shower heads, grab bars and a comfortable seat, as well as a curbless design, provide an excellent example of form meeting function. Photo: Blake Davis|
"The cabinet company has to be willing to help you," he says. "I know what I want, but I don't always know how to achieve it. Good cabinet people can figure it out. It's so frustrating to work with a company that calls itself custom but really just hands you a book and tells you to pick what you want out of it."
The reluctant customer
Betty Sundborg of Marin Kitchen Works (Novato, Calif.) won a Western Region Chrysalis Award for accessible remodel, a type of project that more remodelers are finding these days. Over a period of several years, a longtime friend named Barbara had been working with Marin Kitchen Works to remodel her home. Having reached the master suite, Barbara now needed Sundborg's help in adapting the suite's bathroom to the needs of her 76-year-old husband, Herc, whose knees were deteriorating. Herc, however, saw no need to make changes: Not only did he not want to admit his physical weakness, but he had built the house himself in the '60s, before he met Barbara.
The bathroom was large but poorly organized. It was separated by a wall into two areas, one of which held the kind of hot tub intended for outdoor use. Sundborg removed the dividing wall and the hot tub, and then created a separate area for the toilet and bidet with plenty of grab bars and a vanity area for Barbara near a window.
"It's nice for people to have a personal area in a large bathroom like that," Sundborg says.
|The ceilings in the living and dining rooms and the kitchen of this Wahington, D.C.-area home now accommodate the owner’s 12-foot-tall doors (far left), artifacts picked up during her travels. The dining room is casual enough for family suppers but easily provides space for 18 diners on holidays. Photo: Omar Salinas|
The fun part of the project was the oversize, curbless, ceramic tile shower area designed for the possibility of eventual wheelchair use. Sundborg installed more grab bars, a personal shower head as well as a standard one, and a built-in seat so that Herc could sit in the shower. She also added a bathtub to improve the home's resale value, even though neither Herc nor Barbara planned to use it.
East to west
The client for Peggy Fisher's prize-winning project was a single mother of two who was living in Asia but preparing to move back to Washington, D.C. She wanted a casual atmosphere but also wanted to add enough space for sit-down dinners for 18. She liked the Craftsman style of architecture. Among her eclectic collection of furnishings was a pair of Moroccan doors she wanted to display prominently. Simple enough, except the ceilings of her house were 8 feet and the doors were 12 feet tall.
Fisher, CR, of The Fisher Group (Annandale, Va.), knew that the project — which won a Southern Region award for whole-house remodel $250,000-$500,000 — would involve raising the ceiling of the one-story living room to accommodate those doors without creating a hump in the roof. "We didn't want the house to look like a camel," she says. "We didn't want it to look like we'd planned the whole house around the doors."
To avoid that "camel" appearance, Fisher, with an architect's help, designed a stepped roof that rises from the living room to a new second floor. The second "step" is a clerestory, which allows additional light into the living room and raised the ceiling enough for the Moroccan doors.
Both the doors, which hang in the living room, and the fireplace, in the middle of the open living area, serve as focal points. Fisher's design converted back-to-back fireplaces with a shared chimney into a see-through fireplace faced with stone that adds a textural dimension to the room. Fisher calls the redone fireplace multifunctional: It also carries two load-bearing beams and forms a visual screen between the family area and the living room.
"I think of this project as Craftsman Lite," Fisher says. "It's not dark and heavy, but it has that solid feeling about it. We try to plan for how the house is going to 'live.'"