The “Spend Once” Approach: Quality Condo Solutions That Last

Over the years, we’ve worked on many Philadelphia condos in older historic buildings — and we find that many of our clients are drawn to them because they offer nice city views and simple spaces to live in. There isn’t any yard work, and the overall building is taken care of by a building manager.

However, over the years, we’ve seen many developers that have created these units as cheaply as possible to maximize their profits. The buildings often once served as apartments or offices that were then renovated into living spaces, and they typically have some great architectural elements that were original to the building, including molding, big windows, patios, views, steel beams, concrete, beautiful wood floors, and more. But when the buildings were converted, many builder-grade solutions were used, like pre-finished cheap flooring, inexpensive tile, common low-end counters, cabinets and doors, the cheapest lighting possible. None of these things has much character, and they don’t convey the owner’s personality or sense of style or taste. Each unit looks just like the other, and they end up feeling like mid-range hotel rooms. After a short time, the products and finishes look out of date, worn, or worse.

When we approach these renovations, our motto is “spend once.” In other words, when clients are willing to invest in a well planned and executed space, they will enjoy great style that lasts a long time, wears well, and can be used for decades to come with an occasional simple refresh to the paint, perhaps a new article of furniture, pillows, or artwork.

Quality solutions like these come from listening to clients during our meetings, from designing great spaces, and from selecting great quality products and finishes. While projects like these aren’t for everyone, we love them and look forward to meeting new clients who feel the same.

In Praise of the Frankfurt Kitchen

I came across a recent article about a kitchen exhibit at MoMA in NYC that reminded me how much I have always appreciated the efficiency and clarity of the Frankfurt Kitchen. It’s sanitary, attractive, and makes good design sense. What’s not to like?

This room’s design marked the start of modernized 20th century kitchens, with piped-in water, gas, and electricity, lots of easy-to-clean surfaces, and compact use of space. A huge departure from prior kitchen designs, the Frankfurt Kitchen was centered around easing the burden on housewives, who were now doing the cooking instead of household servants — which mirrored the changes in social structures taking form at the time.

The workflow designs for these tiny spaces, created by trailblazing Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, were based on intricate time-motion studies and personal interviews conducted with housewives and women’s groups. They were then standardized and mass reproduced across nearly 10,000 new construction homes in Frankfurt, Germany.

When it comes to modern design and construction, we can still learn a lot from the Frankfurt Kitchen. Understandably, homeowners want to see their kitchens as one-of-a-kind personal expressions of who they are, but ultimately the elements of that expression are combinations of standardized parts like cabinets and appliances and standardized codes for building, wiring, and plumbing.

At our company, creating rooms that are customized to the personalities and needs of each individual client using the industry standards, we work to create optimal efficiency — a challenge we embrace. As members of NKBA, Tam and I both constantly study all kinds of kitchens and living spaces, applying what we learn to better help our clients in their endeavor to create personalized expressions of their homes.

“Big Picture” Renovations: Pulling Together the Pieces to Make a Grander Whole

Sometimes, we take on project homes where the individual main rooms are in good — or even great — condition, but the house needs an overall upgrade. That was the case for this 1980s-era stucco single English manor-style house in Chestnut Hill.

While it’s an attractive structure that includes a two-car garage and a lovely gated backyard with lots of mature plantings, the home had been a rental for a while, and was a bit worn and somewhat outdated when our clients bought it in order to downsize. It had a lot of builder-grade trims and doors, as well as plain drywall throughout much of the lower level. In addition, the house, which is rather sizable at 3,000 sf, felt rather choppy and not at all as grand as it could be. Our job was to give the house character and definition, particularly throughout the first floor.

Here are the solutions we implemented on the lower level:

  • Created and applied an appealing trim, door, and panel program that created a cohesive look and feel that added interest to the walls.
  • Reorganized and upgraded the kitchen range and hood to modernize the appliances and provide better functional space. (Proportions rule! When you have the right proportions, everything feels right.)
  • We will also replace a dated brown glass tile backsplash with new simple running bond tile that has a handmade feel.
  • Installed a new vanity sink, counter, and toilet in the powder room.
  • Installed new oak flooring throughout the kitchen and powder room to blend with the existing flooring, and stained all of the floors in the house a medium-dark brown.
  • Upgraded the lighting fixtures, switches, and outlets. This includes the removal of a Gothic chandelier hanging over the kitchen island and a builder-grade “Italianate” tray ceiling with lighting, which left the whole ceiling simpler and cleaner.
  • Helped select colors and finishes that tie the various rooms together and complement the homeowners’ furnishings, including a mix of new items and things moved from their previous home.

And on the second floor:

  • Created new “his-and-hers” walk-in closets in the master bedroom. We drew up the floorplan of the room with the furniture our clients wanted to use, and then identified the logical placement of the closets. We also moved and upgraded the lighting outlets and switches so they made more sense. By adding inches to the width, a foot to the length, and installing pocket doors, we freed up floor and furnishing space, and netted our clients a walk-in closet more appropriate to a master bedroom. The previous closets, while somewhat large, were not originally laid out for the sizes needed to get the maximum hanging and storage space.
  • Helped refit the clients’ existing custom office furniture into their new office space. Again, we drew a floorpan to determine where their belongings would best fit.
  • Assisted with selecting colors, lighting fixtures, and accessories.

In the end, we didn’t move any walls (except for the master closets), and we didn’t do full renovations of the kitchen or bathrooms, but we did make this house feel a lot grander. Now, when these clients entertain or return home from their work travels, they can feel their house wrap around them with solid comfort and long-lasting style.

In the Works: Condo in the Sky Project Design

condo in the skyFor the past couple of weeks, we’ve been deep into the project design phase for our Fairmount penthouse condo project. As you may recall, our clients are downsizing into this 1960s-era condo from a handsome historic brownstone on St. James Place in Center City. They called us to manage the project and get them into their new location as quickly as possible while making good design decisions for their new home.

As with most downsizing project designs, our clients are bringing some great pieces and ideas from their prior home with them. We find that people who have owned a home and renovated in the past know a lot about what makes a house feel like home for them, so we certainly welcome those ideas. But in a case like this one, where the two homes are so very different, and the clients are in a new stage of their lives, we try to help them consider some new options, too. On our Pinterest board, you can see some fun selections we came up with after we saw the condo, along with some things we know these clients will bring with them, including a lovely collection of Russian tea services.

The condo has some very high ceilings, and the electrical runs for lighting these areas are very limited and controlled by the building rules. So we selected some lighting options with these issues in mind. Possibilities include runs of delicate pin spots of track lighting, awesome chandeliers, surface-mounted Italian fixtures, or combinations of all of these options. Designs by Parzinger came to mind, with their combinations of brass, white, and black with chrome. Some fixtures will be features, and some will be invisible, with only their effect on display.

We’re also presenting options for the following:

  • Textured tile and counters that either look like or are stone — white, black, crisp, and natural
  • Chic, new pre-finished wood floors in a warm walnut finish
  • Railings or screens for the mezzanine

During this brainstorming phase of a project design, ideas flow and move quickly. We bring samples on site and take the clients to suppliers to see materials. The “decided” list grows, and soon everything will be selected and placed into the drawings, specifications sheet, and, most importantly, the budget.

Stay tuned for updates on this project, as we hope to move to the construction phase soon.

Condo Reno: Meeting the Unique Challenges of City Projects

Condo Renovation - Unique ChallengesWe just started a new project for a repeat client, for whom we previously renovated a kitchen, dining room, and added a finished family room with full bath in the basement in a lovely 1860s Victorian rowhome on St. James Place in Philadelphia. While that location — like most city projects — presented some logistics and access challenges, we were able to work around them by parking on the street to unload equipment and materials and then moving to paid parking for the duration of the day. Because we have spent decades working on city projects, issues like these are all in a day’s work for us.

The clients’ new project home is a lovely modern Art Museum penthouse condominium featuring a stunning array of windows with spectacular views of the city. We are eager to dig our hands into this comprehensive whole-home renovation, but it does require some additional considerations in terms of planning and execution.

Clearances — We met and worked with the management team, the dock manager, and the building’s physical plant manager to gain clearances, review plans and schedules, and get the green light to begin work.

Protection — During demo, we protect the carpet in the public hallway, covering the path from the unit to the service elevator with a special plastic that protects from dirt and damage. This plastic must go down every morning and come up every afternoon — a process that takes about an hour within the allotted work hours of 8 am-4:30 pm.

Sub Considerations — The demo phase requires our electricians and plumbers to disconnect various system elements. Plumbing is especially important since any pipe broken during demolition could flood the many floors below us. Being an older building, the plumbing system requires us to shut off a whole section of the building to work on our condo’s pipes, and this is restricted to limited time periods during the day. Planning and permissions for these temporary water shut downs are quite involved and can take 2-4 weeks to execute.

Elevator Usage — In order to begin demolition, we had to secure time on the service elevator in advance, with residents moving in or out of the building getting first dibs ahead of us. The service elevators in this building are larger than some, but are small by construction materials standards at 4x5x10’. As is common in many older buildings, the elevators can go down temporarily or even stop for the day, in which case we have to use the elevator on the other side of the building and travel through more hallways.

All of this goes to say that we have to be even more organized and do more preparation than we typically do for our other city projects. The good news is it’s already paying off in how well the job site is set up for the demolition crew, as well as how neatly the debris is staged for removal. Our work space looks tidy while we wait for the elevators to become available again, then continue to remove these items to a dumpster waiting at the loading dock.

Stay tuned for photos as we make headway on this challenging project!

Appliances: Which Package Is Right for You?

Appliances: Which Package Is Right for You?Choosing an appliance package is always a complex decision for a homeowner. Interestingly, a single appliance purchase can often provide the “tipping point” for an entire kitchen renovation. In fact, we routinely get calls from people who have put off redoing their kitchen for 20+ years, but suddenly their stove, refrigerator, or dishwasher breaks, and they jump into addressing the overall problem of the poorly designed or worn out space they have put up with for decades.

When we help clients make appliance selections, we first help them determine their overall kitchen renovation budget — this tells us what price point they should be at for both appliances and cabinets. And while the available selections run the gamut from the most basic to the very posh, here are some important things to keep in mind when making your selections.

Entry-level packages: There are many affordable, attractive, and serviceable stainless steel appliance packages from KitchenAid, GE, Frigidaire, and other manufacturers that include the four main elements that most homeowners need: a microwave/hood, refrigerator, dishwasher, and range. If you prefer a hood separate from the microwave, keep in mind that will add to the cost of the package, as will the extra wiring and ducting it requires. The biggest drawback at this price point is that the appliances sometimes have fewer bells and whistles and flimsier construction, such as feet that are prone to bending and breaking, and they can sometimes be harder to level and install.

Mid-range packages: This price point is appropriate for homeowners who are more serious about cooking and appreciate the finer elements of a well-appointed kitchen. Manufacturers targeting this range include Bosch, Viking, and JennAir — but before you invest in a mid-range package, it’s important to determine whether the items are in fact made and branded by the same company. When it comes to resale, future prospective homebuyers will appreciate that you have invested well in your kitchen.

High-end packages: You are likely looking at Sub-Zero, Wolf, Miele, Thermador, Gaggenau, or La Cornue appliances at this level. High-end appliance packages include highly sought after items like state-of-the-art, oversized, professional-grade refrigerators and dual-fuel ranges, double ovens, dual-drawer dishwashers, and other high-tech gadgets like warming trays and steamers. The upside of these appliances is they last many decades, provide exceptional performance, and have superior and impressive brand name recognition if and when you sell your house. The downside? Higher end appliances are super heavy and unwieldy to deliver and install. At one recent project, the fridge was so large it did not fit through the front door and had to come through a window. This was no small feat! Higher performance ranges will require the use of commercial-grade gas lines. And locating the electrical, water, and gas lines properly during planning and rough-in phases is crucial to the appliances fitting in their spaces later.

No matter what level appliance package you choose, it is important to understand that this purchase presents substantial logistical challenges. Aside from careful kitchen planning and design, someone has to deliver the items in perfect condition, install them, and ensure that the proper wiring and plumbing and ducting is all in the right place so everything fits and works as it should. What’s more, all of this must be done without damaging the project house or the surrounding cabinets and floors. For these reasons and more, we tend to use factory-certified installers on high-end packages. While it costs a bit more, these subs know the units, they get their work done efficiently, and the homeowners receive a better warranty in the process.

As with so many things in life, when it comes to appliances, you truly get what you pay for.

Planning the Ideal Kitchen Renovation

Planning the Ideal Kitchen RenovationThe kitchen. Everyone has their personal take on what this space means to them. For some, it serves mainly as a source of food and comfort, a gathering space for family and friends, or a central place to begin and end each day. For others, kitchens are show places, aspirational spaces, power rooms! Whatever the case may be, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the kitchen is easily the most important room in any house — and it’s our job to help our clients achieve their goals for this vital room in their homes.

We appreciate kitchens that are efficient, well planned, and designed with consideration to serve specific purposes. We have cooked in very small boat galleys, on camp stoves, in fireplaces, on wood stoves, and in lots of commercial and residential kitchens of many vintages and price levels; and we find that all of them can be great kitchen work spaces as long as they reflect the needs of the person using them. For that reason, when approaching a new kitchen renovation, we spend considerable time learning about how the homeowners like to use the space to cook, work, and live. For example, if a client bakes a lot, we plan for a great convection or wood-fired oven. If they hunt or fish and prepare game, we incorporate the special equipment and space needed for that. And if they need a lot of refrigerator, freezer, or dishwasher space, or two fridges to keep kosher, we work that in, too. We can even customize a kitchen for very short people, very tall people, or people who require wheelchair or walker accessibility.

No matter what your specific needs are, here are some of the most important considerations when planning the ideal kitchen renovation:

Cabinetry — We have a true appreciation for cabinetry that is designed specifically for the purposes it is needed to serve. For that reason, we tend to steer clients toward styles and long-lasting cabinet solutions that fit their style, optimize the flow of the room, and provide enough storage in the right places for all of the tools in the homeowner’s cooking and serving collection. We also focus on issues related to long-term maintenance and upkeep. For example, for clients who do a lot of sautéing or frying, we strategically configure cabinets in relation to the cook top area to minimize the buildup of grease and simplify cleaning over time.

Countertops — While standard counters are 36”, they can be customized to be hip height for the homeowner or main cook in the house — ideal for getting the best action from a knife or a rolling pin while you cook. If you bake, you may also want a lower and deeper stainless or marble counter so you can use your back and shoulders to roll out your dough. These non-standard heights and depths can be achieved with custom cabinetry and sometimes even with expertly planned stock units.

BacksplashPantry — We don’t know how people function without one! You can fill them with specialty items you use for seasonal baking, dry goods you found on sale, baking chocolates, liquors, herbs, spices, even oversized countertop appliances. We can create anything from a dedicated cabinet pantry to a large walk-in butler’s pantry.

Lighting — Careful consideration of ample lighting is essential. You’ll want to include general, task, and feature or decorative lighting that is sized to the space being lit, and geared towards the needs and age of the user. Keep in mind that most lighting types can multi-task for different uses. For example, under-cabinet fixtures on a dimmer provide nice mood lighting on a winter or dreary day, a soft night light for the evening, or task lighting while working. In fact, installing dimmers on all kitchen lights is a great way to get more uses and subtlety from your fixtures.

Ventilation — We find that the best hoods for proper ventilation are slightly bigger than your cook top with dishwasher-safe filters and an external motor that keeps noise in the kitchen to a minimum.

Windows — So important, not only for natural light — which makes any room nicer — but also for creating a connection with nature while you work in the kitchen. You can check on your children, the weather, or the neighbors, and then get back to the business at hand. A well-designed kitchen will include either existing or new windows in its overall design and plan.

Planning a new kitchen in 2017? Visit our Houzz page for inspiration, and then reach out to us for help!

Best,

Of Kitchens and Memory-Making

Enamel Kitchen SinkWhat makes a great kitchen? It’s a question we answer often in our line of work. To me, kitchens are work places, first and foremost. That goes back to my second job, when I was 17 and working in a commercial kitchen at a surf and turf restaurant in South Jersey. It was there that I came to view kitchens as efficient workspaces where the important business of cooking truly good food gets done. I took many commercial kitchen jobs from then on throughout college at some pretty good restaurants. I typically worked the line, usually as a second or a first line cook. Later, I also did early morning baking on the weekends, which left time for me to go to school and work in an art studio during the week.

But kitchens are also places where families do a lot of living and making memories, too. My favorite memories are of my neighbor’s kitchen when I was about 3 years old. I called her Grandmom Beterrelli. On Sundays, I would walk next door to her house and help her prepare the big Italian after-church meal she would serve her family. She’d make game birds, rabbits, sausage, chickens, tomato sauce, homemade pasta, salads, bread, and cakes. Her kitchen was the kind with the enameled steel cabinets, just a few. She had a Hoosier dry goods cabinet, too, I remember. And a large porcelain sink with a built-in drain board and no dishwasher. In her unheated shed pantry, she kept the enameled table she rolled her pasta out on. Here was the door I walked through to her kitchen from our yard next door. Sometimes, there would be a pheasant hanging there blinking at me. In her yard behind this kitchen shed, she tended many rows of onions, garlic, fresh greens, pickle cucumbers, tomatoes, and a fig tree. She was Neapolitan and spoke Italian to me. I thought her dog’s name was “Scoocha Mia.” LOL…

That kitchen was full of life, warmth, good smells, tastes, and touch — but most of all, it was where she prepared her gift of food for her family and neighbors. To us at Myers Constructs, all of these things coming together is what makes a great kitchen.

Wishing you a holiday filled with many special memories of friends and family gathered around your kitchen.

In the Works: Center City Trinity Gets Underway

img_4446This week, we are in the framing and rough-in phases for our Center City trinity project. Because of this home’s small, tight spaces, we are approaching the renovations a bit differently than we normally do. Typically, we like to fully complete framing before asking our subcontractors to come in to work in a particular order. However, because of the complexity of the spaces being fitted on this project, the carpenter will do some of the framing, then the plumber and electrician must fit some elements, and then the carpenter has to do more framing before the other two come back through to do yet more rough-in work. The same process will go for the HVAC work.

The image shown here illustrates some of the original character-filled waves, sags, and bumps of this historic house. Some of these will remain, while others have to be squared up and made flat, mostly due to the mechanicals and finishes that will be installed later. This customized approach is very unique to how Myers Constructs works, and, in part, it’s what makes our projects look different from the work of other remodelers — and especially different from new construction. Our projects never consist of giant drywall “boxes” inserted into old houses. We always follow the rules of proportion already in place in every old house, and we work to enhance the existing character wherever possible. We believe this approach results in making both impactful design statements and happy homeowners.

New Homeowners: Thinking About Renovating? Don’t Miss These 6 Vital Tips

painterAs design-build general contractors, we get a lot of calls from folks who are either house shopping or have recently closed on a “new-to-them” older home that needs renovating. Most of them are new to the process and do not know the order of things that will happen during the home-buying/renovation process. Below is the ideal sequence of events, from our perspective after many decades in the business.

Before You Buy…

Practice Patience — Try to stay clear-eyed during the home shopping process. Most people are very excited about finding the “home of their dreams” or they want to tackle all of the renovations the old house needs at once, especially the “eye candy.” The truth is, most of the time, it’s better to wait, live with the new space, and see what really needs changing in order to live well in it.

Schedule Home Inspections — Be sure you have any prospective home inspected by a certified home inspector and pest pro, as well as any other suggested inspectors specified in your Agreement of Sale. Your real estate agent will help you set this up these appointments to identify items that must be corrected or repaired and the associated costs. The costliest fixes are systems like wiring, HV/AC, roofing, siding, windows, and plumbing. Do not scrimp on your home inspection because it generates a legal document you can go back to the sellers with during price negotiations and even after the sale, should serious problems with the house arise after you own it.

Set Up a General Contractor Site Visit — A good GC will bill you to do an initial site visit in order to help you decide whether or not you want to buy a particular house. Those visits typically deal with issues the home inspector finds, in addition to the projects on your wish list. A reputable GC will also be very familiar with the housing stock in the area where they work. With many of these calls we get into our office, we can give the caller pretty solid information about costs over the phone because we know the local houses so well.

After You Buy…

Schedule the Necessary Early Jobs — You will need to own the property before you are able to hire a GC to do any work on it. Most of the time, a seller will not even agree to allow you multiple planning visits to the house before they move out because they are busy with the moving process.

Find Temporary Living Space and Storage, If Required — Some of your desired projects may need to take place before you actually move in. Whether it’s a whole house makeover, such as our current pied-à-terre project, or cosmetic stuff like paint, floor refinishing, window replacement, rewiring, or addressing other issues uncovered by the home inspection. If your GC says you should wait to move in, it’s because that’s what is required — either by OSHA, the EPA, or the GC who needs the whole house space to do the job you hired them to do. As a result, you may need to arrange to stay in your prior residence or a temporary rental, and your belongings may need to be stored elsewhere for the duration of the project.

Enjoy Your New Space — Buying a house in need of construction and repairs can make for a long and sometimes stressful period. Once the “must have” projects are complete and you are cleared to move in, kick back and congratulate yourself and your team for making it all happen.

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