Tag Archives: design

the post everyone wants to read and i don’t want to write


House woes.

I haven’t written any house stories in awhile for lots of different reasons. Mostly frustration, but also a fair share of caution in being careful about just how much I share here that’s still floating up in the air, undecided.

When we started the process I warned that it would likely be a long one, but I didn’t anticipate it being quite this long. I thought that it would be fun to share the process, but it was also sort of exhausting to do it. I admire people that share these kind of renovation stories as they go. I also know that they do it as their job, and I have another full time job plus about a half dozen serious side gigs that keep be perpetually busy.

The biggest reason for my silence was disappointment. I wanted things to go smoothly. We worked our tails off to ensure that. If I were to add up the hours of time spent and the thousands of dollars spent on drawings and models and engineering and site work, etc. I would probably cry. I have cried. On two occasions, in epic fashion. The first was on my birthday last year, when we met with our first contractor to discuss the lack of subcontractor participation and skyrocketing construction costs and packed schedules. I didn’t actually cry in front of him, but I did later, when I let myself sit in that disappointment. I had glued myself to a chair and a laptop at our dining room table for nights and weekends too many to count, and it felt like an impossible project at that point.

Contractor #1 proposed a new idea – a collaboration with contractor #2, with more availability, less expensive overhead, and the opportunity for contractor #1 to do all the finish work that he’s exceptionally skilled at. Hope again, until that crashed and burned. Contractor #2 had less luck with sub bids, and the summer and early fall felt wasted to us before he got back to us and confessed that the project was out of his comfort zone. That was the second big cry.

In the meantime, we considered a few other houses in our zip code. Several of our favorite houses (from the outside) were listed over the past year and a half, and we’ve made appointments to see four of them on repeat occasions. Three moved to heavy consideration phase, and one recently moved beyond that stage before the owners changed their minds and decided not to sell. The entire time we remained conflicted about leaving our current house, a place that has quite literally been built on sweat and tears and love. The girls enjoy looking at other houses, but remain firmly in the current home / forever home camp. They want to build the addition and carriage house so badly, and that’s the hardest part of the whole thing. Time is flying by, and I worry that we’ve missed our window. I worry about that a lot.

We regrouped in the late fall and winter, and streamlined the entire set of drawings in order to reduce cost in three areas that seemed out of control. We re-engineered everything, and again I chained myself to the work most nights and weekends. Contractor #1 wanted another go at it, and had more time to devote to it this year. We handed our revised set over in early March, and then I got to relive my birthday disappointment  yet again this past April. Better, but not good enough.

In really basic terms, here is the issue. We have a tight, narrow lot, that makes everything more complicated.

See me here in the early 2000’s – hand digging out bricks to create this lovely blank slate for construction? If only I could just build the whole darn thing myself. (Joking.)

We’re drastically changing our house with this addition, but the overall footprint of the addition is not large. So the square foot cost of the work is really high. We have to work within a range of values dictated by the future value of the house post-construction. Our neighborhood has so many different housing types – apartments, two- and four-family flats, single family homes – it’s one of the things that I love about it. There’s a place for everyone. Other neighborhoods in our zip code (think Lafayette Square or Compton Heights) have a much higher ratio of single family (very large!) homes, where property values can soar to twice the highest value of single family homes in our neighborhood. The bank can consider comps in both of those neighborhoods when assessing the value of single family homes in our neighborhood, but there’s definitely a lower cap on values where we live that you don’t see in some of these adjoining neighborhoods. So we keep hitting this over-improvement ceiling on our house. It makes us nervous and cautious, and it turns the bank off completely.

Our single best asset in this whole thing is the ability to construct a separate living unit above the garage. I go into detail on why that’s a great thing (and a rare opportunity) in this post. So we have that going for us. BUT. We have to build it to see the future value of our house support the improvement costs. So we can’t just build the addition now and do the carriage house in a later phase. And we can’t build the carriage house first and do the addition later – we’d be completely landlocked at that point. So it’s all or nothing, and at the moment we’re still nothing.

We’re much closer than we were last April to that magic number, but we’re still not there. We met with contractor #1 in early July, and we’ve petitioned our lender again for some leniency, but to no avail. It’s frustrating to know how to do something and be able to afford to do something, and still be told that we can’t do something. We have another hybrid plan that we’re trying now, and I want to be optimistic again. But I’m guarded about it. I’m not up for that third ugly cry anytime soon.

This isn’t a great story. It involves a lot of disappointment and long stretches of sadness and regrouping. We’ve continued to knock off some of the interior projects on the existing house as we go, and those are good things that we enjoy. The fireplace might be at the top of that list. We’ve helped my sister on her new house, and that’s been exciting and also a little hard to watch. We’ve seen friends plan and implement their own renovations and we’ve wondered how we’ve managed to have a project that nobody wants to do when everyone else seems to be able to line up help and expertise with no sweat. It’s not a place of jealousy where I write this, just a place of sadness that we haven’t been able to complete this project with our girls. I want them to be a part of it because we’ve included them in the process so much already.

They love our home, and don’t want to leave. I’m with them.

Here’s tiny F next to giant scaffolding during our last major project phase. She’s nine now, and three times this size, so we’re overdue another overhaul. It’s good for the soul, a little dust up, I say. We’ll take all finger crossing you can manage our way.

bench thoughts

The bench in our bedroom at the foot of our bed is at least fifteen years old. It’s dark (fake) leather, tufted, with a deep storage well. It currently holds all the dress up clothes, castoffs from twenty halloween costumes, party favor hats and funny glasses, several versions of Harry Potter wands, and discarded recital-wear from dancing cousins. Most days it never gets opened, but its presence there is really important as a surface. It holds the extra pillows at night, plus the blanket and the discarded comforter. At some point each evening, one of us stacks the pillows there and folds the blue blanket up in a neat stack, and pulls the comforter onto the bench – clear signals that we’re both headed there soon, if not quite yet.

A few months ago the upholstery started to flake off, and now it’s in full fledged shedding mode. I find these dark brown flecks everywhere, and they annoy me. M thinks we could reupholster it, but I know that will likely be as costly – or even more costly – as a new bench, and I’m really not that keen on the design of this one so much that I want to sink a few hundred dollars into it. It sits really low to the ground, so it’s impossible to vacuum underneath it, but just high enough to host a lot of cobwebs. So I’ve been thinking about an eventual replacement bench, and here are a few I’ve considered:

george-nelson-wood-base-platform-bench-herman-miller-13

The Nelson Bench is a classic that I’d love to own one day. Alas, the price tag is pretty steep, and I can’t see myself finding the time to track down a vintage piece. (Although a quick search locates one in Chicago, so maybe I could call on some blog friends…) We’d lose the storage capacity, but honestly, we have a full height wall of built-in wardrobes right across from here, so storage isn’t really that big of a deal, we’d just need to shift things around a bit.

PD_1474_ENV2

I like the walnut finish, but the natural could be nice too. The room is mostly white and very simple. The walnut would nod a bit more to the chifferobe in the bathroom, but the natural finish is really simple and – at least to me – looks more like the classic piece I’ve loved for decades. One benefit of going with the walnut is that it would look great with the Eames Turned Stools that I keep hoping will magically appear on either side of our bed one morning. (I like the shape on the left the best.)

PD_237_ENV3

PD_237_MAIN

These are also very pricey, although they would increase in value over time, as would the bench, because they are classic pieces.

I ran over to the mall last Saturday to pick up a necktie that M had ordered, and I decided to pop into West Elm just a few stores down. They are currently running a 30% sale on some of their furniture, and I noticed this bench at the foot one of their beds in the showroom. It very closely matches the piece in the bathroom, which got me thinking more about tying the two rooms together.

428430096b010b27eacf0ff94fb27612--apartment-furniture-living-room-furniture

I like the idea of a lower shelf that could hold a few items like books, or an extra blanket, and it was helpful seeing the bench against a bed / bedding just like ours. I’m just not sure I want something too fussy there, so I’m not completely sold on this one.

We could also go really simple here, which could be a nice idea. My worry is going too rustic, although the lines of this Blu Dot bench below are nice. (It’s called the Amicable Split, which might not be the best name for a bench at the foot of our bed.)

modern-indoor-benches
And there’s always the option of doing an updated version of what we have now – something upholstered in a neutral fabric, with storage space and a comfortable, tufted top.

img2m

There are lots of options with or without storage with this kind of look. It looks comfortable and practical, and would certainly be a safe choice.

mid-century-bench-c

But in my predictable fashion, I need to mull things over a bit more. I feel like the last bench was a practical, safe choice for over fifteen years. As we’re moving through the house with an eye to finishing out, purging, buttoning up, and finessing our design choices, the classics are the most appealing to me – even if I have to wait them out a bit more or hunt them down.

I’ll post some photos of the room soon – we’re hoping to install historic replacement windows in there soon, and then will repaint and freshen things up.

project addition: carriage house elevations

I just realized I’m telling this series of “stories” in a backward fashion – the garage will be the last thing constructed, not the first. But I’ll continue on in some sort of systematic fashion despite that. There’s no economy of scale anywhere in this project – we can’t pour all the foundations, lay all the bricks, spray in all the insulation – in one fell swoop. The addition will come first, because after the garage goes in there won’t be any access for large equipment into the yard.

I have moments when I really start to sweat at the complexity of it all. Nothing about this project is simple, nothing will be routine. There is no typical wall section here – everything has to be thought all the way through before pulling the trigger because we literally have no room for adjustments. But we build more complicated things all the time, so I take a deep breath and try to push on.

Elevations – elevations are a funny thing to look at if you aren’t used to looking at them. They aren’t a great representation of reality because everything about a three-dimensional building is reduced to a two-dimensional one. There are little cues that can help you “read” one, but they’re more important for the construction document side than for explaining how a building will look in real life. I thought I’d share them anyway, and hopefully they explain in further detail what the building will look like.

west-elev

Three sides of the carriage house aren’t really that exciting – guess what? It’s a big, brick box! We can’t install windows on walls that are on the property line, and I discussed yesterday that we had decided not to put any on the alley side either. M actually thought that big brick expanse on the alley side might make a good spot to install some sort of art installation down the road, something to brighten up the alley a little. Might be a fun project.

south-elev

But the courtyard side of the building is the one that we really like.

north-elev

You’ll see in the lower left hand corner, the drawing cuts through the areaway stair down to the garage door. This door opens onto the stair landing. You can go straight up the stairs to the apartment, or you can turn to your right, open the door, and step down into the garage. Also at the garage level, you can see the two operable awning windows – the dashed lines represent the direction the windows open, so these hinge at the top and open outward. We love awning windows – you get a nice breeze through them, but they can also stay open in a gentle rain because the opening is somewhat protected by the window “awning”.

You can see in this elevation that the height of the courtyard is much higher than the garage floor below, so this side of the building will look the shortest in elevation.

The apartment floor cantilevers out over the garage below – this does a couple of functional and aesthetic things.

It provides us a change to break up the expanse of brick on this elevation – the one we’re going to look at the most. We aren’t 100% sure on the cladding material and finish on this piece, but it will be wood siding of some sort – either opaque stained to match the brick color, or possibly a tropical hardwood or stained wood of some kind. Either way, it helps to define that living space as a special one, and (as you’ll see when I get to the house addition posts), it mirrors the look of the rear of the addition.

Having that “frame” cantilever beyond the garage does a few other things – it provides some protection over the garage door below it, which is always welcome at an entry door. And while it won’t fully cover the landing at the bottom of the stairs there,  there’s always some protection that comes from standing next to a tall wall – so this will just extend that protection a little more. It gives us a place to install a recessed light fixture to illuminate that stair too, a nice, clean detail.

The frame also provides a bit of privacy from either side. You can see that the top and one side slope in towards the windows, while the other side and the bottom are straight. Of course this won’t provide total privacy at this giant wall of glass, but it does shelter the windows somewhat, and I think it will also provide a nice, focused view from the interior of the apartment. We’ll still have large roller shades to provide privacy when needed.

And if you’re into that higher level of detail, you can see the wall sections through that cantilevered frame at the windows in the right two sections. In the left one, you get a sense for how tall the windows are in the space, and also how the exposed roof structure will look.

160423_2106victor_dd-set_mmoomey

That’s a fairly comprehensive overview of one half of this project. Next weekend I’ll write the posts on the addition portion of the project, and hopefully have some good news to report from Thursday’s hearing. Thanks for all the notes of encouragement!