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 After a short time, the products and finishes look out of date, worn, or worse.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.

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!

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.

Center City Trinity: Small Space Expert Design Solutions

pied-a-terre_small spacesWith the advent of the tiny house and sustainability movements, and the popularity of books like Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” and Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big series, many folks are looking to reduce their footprint and renovate smaller spaces. Here in Philadelphia, we have lots of modestly sized older homes and among them is no greater example than the original “trinity” — a small townhouse built in the 1700s or early 1800s with one room on each of three floors, typically configured with a first-floor kitchen/family room, a second-floor bedroom/bath, and a small third-floor living space. Sometimes referred to as a “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost house,” these modest but charming homes usually feature a fireplace with a pocket staircase tucked behind the chimney and overall square footage of well under 1,000 sq ft. Many of the city’s original trinities, especially those found in neighborhoods like Washington Square and Society Hill, have been modernized, expanded and sometimes combined into larger dwellings that accommodate families with larger kitchens, bathrooms, and additional bedrooms on upper levels. However, you can still find many authentic trinities in the city, commonly as rental properties in areas like Fishtown, Chinatown, and Northern Liberties.

We have been working with our clients on a genuine trinity in the historic Pine Street section of town, on what used to be Antiques Row. For our trinity, we have been asked to develop creative and efficient small-space solutions to make it comfortable by modern standards without expanding its footprint, because it’s bound on three sides by other houses. This takes strong design skills, discipline, and experience. While many features have to be specified to perform double- and triple-duty functions, any built-ins and furnishings must be scaled appropriately for the proportions of the home. But one needs to be careful to not treat the house as a miniature, as the finished space needs to serve real-sized humans! Each system needs to be specified to bring efficiency while only occupying a small piece of the overall footprint, and understanding how to use some of the options that were popularized by the sustainability movement, such as on-demand hot water heaters, has served us well. Looking for multi-function solutions can bring great value and sometimes, contrary to what some might think, we sometimes specify larger fixtures that offer multiple functions, which can net a higher functioning space.

In the end, the best design is always design that you don’t notice, but this is especially true when working with very small spaces.

With demolition starting this week, we’ll keep you in the loop on updates to this project!

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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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Sneak Peek: Center City Pied-à-Terre Project in Pictures

Here, we share just a few images of the exciting progress being made on our Lombard Street project.

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The Myers Made™ custom cabinetry delivery is in place, ready for installation. These are custom cabinets sized to fit this small house to a “T.”

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Our design team and the clients wanted to make the most of the exposed brick in the kitchen. Instead of hiding this wall with cabinets and drywall, the team came up with a clever method for hanging a custom honed granite backsplash and shelf on this cooker wall. The custom black iron brackets will be hidden behind and below the black honed stone once it’s installed.

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A pretty and updated Eastern mosaic tile in the master bath. The vanity is wall mounted, so it feels lighter in the small room than a standard model that sits on the floor. You can see the vanity goes from one wall to the other but doesn’t interrupt the window. That good design gives the room a nice, well fitted feeling. We will use a trough sink with two faucets and two drains to get the same function as two sinks, which would have required much more space.

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This is a shot of the custom mosaic tile for the first-floor powder room wall. Each color was placed on this sheet of plywood so the “random” pattern could be installed. I joke about how much planning random patterns actually require. Inevitably, handmade random tiles illicit nervous reactions from clients who choose them. Clients often worry that the result will look different than they imagined, or that the handmade quality will be too evident or might need to be adjusted to be “more random,” but they end up loving the final result.

Stay tuned for progress reports on this project.

One Great Project Ends; Another Begins

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Over the next couple of weeks, we will be winding down an extended multi-phase whole-house renovation in a historic twin home in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood. While the last of the subcontractors are scheduling their trim outs, the painters just finished up inside. We expect the exterior paint, gutters, and roof details to happen soon now that the temperature has warmed up. The deck is complete (see Facebook for photos ) and ready for the homeowners to put plants in the beautiful custom planters. We have our punch list items to complete and are ticking off our list. Meanwhile, the homeowners have scheduled their cleaners and movers and are thrilled to be able to move into their newly renovated historic home.

As that project comes to a close, a new whole-home renovation at a pied-à-terre across town is picking up steam!

Before the demolition phase, we applied for and were granted street space for our dumpsters. This is pricey, but very necessary in the city, where most houses don’t have driveways. While some contractors avoid city projects due to challenges with historic agencies, neighborhoods, L&I, and other agencies, we embrace it.

Demolition is now already underway on the first floor, and the rest of the house will be cleared out later this week. Long-lead items like cabinets have been ordered, and the various subs are scheduled. Stay tuned to our website and FB page for more updates as this project progresses!

Sustainable Choices: Critical to Our Collective Futures

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Part I in a Series on Adaptive Reuse, the basis of an upcoming presentation by Tamara Myers at the 2016 Las Vegas NKBA Kitchen and Bath Industry Show and NAHB International Builders’ Show.

Earlier today, I stopped by one of our job sites to admire this stack of reclaimed lumber peacefully acclimating itself to its new home, waiting to be installed as our new finish flooring. How exciting that this lumber is gaining a new life and that we can bring an older material into the renovation of this older home. Great choices that will give both the material and space a new, long life.

Many of you already know about our passion for reuse and sustainable choices. We have built our business on bringing our brain trust of collective creativity and years of experience and relationships to make solutions that really create a difference in our clients’ lives. Woven into our our approach to renovation is the belief that sustainability issues are vital to our collective futures. It’s exciting stuff! The opportunity to transform our clients’ spaces continually shows us that renovation is a great choice, whether it’s on an older or newer home or a building that was originally built for another purpose. Long-lasting design and material choices are critical to our approach, which nets designs and spaces that our clients retain and enjoy for many years to come.

We can look at the sustainability issue on many levels. I often talk about the larger view of how it is critical to renovate and maintain existing buildings to support our blocks, our neighborhoods, and our communities. We all have seen urban blocks that have what we call a “missing tooth,” that blank space within a block where a building has been torn down. Once torn down, the missing building tooth affects the fabric of the whole block and greater neighborhood, and it typically takes much longer to bring that block back up to wholeness. Paying attention earlier and supporting ongoing renovation can help retain strong communities.

On a smaller scale, we can look at the individual components that make up a building. Essentially, we examine a material’s life from beginning to end, including what it takes to create and transform it into useable form. Analysis of life cycle starts by looking at what resources are needed in order to mine, mill, smelt, or use other processes to turn raw materials into a form that can then be used for manufacturing. Then, you add the manufacturing typically on multiple levels, and between all of these steps, you add in the impact of transporting and final installation of these materials. At the end of its use, we can choose to reuse a material or send it off to the landfill. Ideally, we look to extend the life cycle whenever possible.

There are lots of resources out there showing the impact of keeping an existing building vs. building new, and one of my favorites provides a good blend of research presented in both text and graphics compiled by the Preservation Green Lab and National Trust for Historic Preservation with some other partners. Within the report is a study that compares an existing building to a new building that is 30% more efficient, and it found that it takes between 10 to 80 years for a new construction building to catch up and meet that 30% more efficient metric and counteract the negative climate change impact created by erecting the new building. The 10- to 80-year spread came from the wide range of areas and building types. Specific case studies show that a single family residence in Chicago will take 38 years, and one in Portland will take 50 years to reach the equalizing point. A pretty important picture for us all to keep in mind.

Happy New Year,

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What’s Old Is New Again — and Better Than Ever

We have spent decades becoming experts at breathing new life into old structures throughout the Greater Philadelphia region. And now Tamara is busy preparing a presentation on this topic — adaptive reuse — that she will make at The 2016 Kitchen & Bath Industry Show (KBIS) at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 21. While this presentation is geared towards industry insiders who will earn continuing education credits for their participation, we are eager to share with you our insights on some exciting and effective approaches to sustainable adaptive reuse that can be applied not only to adaptive reuse projects but also to renovations in your own home. In the coming weeks, we’ll cover the following topics:

  • Why the choice to renovate existing structures is vital to a sustainable future;
  • Examples of buildings and spaces already integrated into our community that illustrate adaptive re-use and what makes some of these successful and others not;
  • Key principles for successful adaptive reuse of buildings, such as former sacred spaces, barns, lofts, warehouses — even gas stations — and how those principles should be applied universally to our renovation projects.

In the Works: Closing Walls and Opening the Window to 2016

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Last week, we received approval from our inspectors to close up the walls in Phase II of our Fairmount whole-home renovation project (see the finished kitchen here and the restored cupola here). In this phase we are renovating all of the 3rd floor with a new walls, a new rear dormer that is adding a high ceiling and a door to a future rear deck. This Phase II work includes not only the 3rd floor renovation but also roofing the main roofs, new gutters & downspouts, a new HVAC system, some finishing trim and hardware work in other areas of the house.

Here, you see the exterior walls and ceiling have been sprayed with closed cell sprayfoam insulation – our go-to insulation. It is more effective than fiberglass batts and we are able to meet and exceed the energy requirements within a shallower thickness of wall and this keeps more floor space for our clients while making their older homes more comfortable. After spray foam, the drywall and mud team follow and really bring the newly reframed space into form. Seeing the walls, the doors, and closets take shape will be really exciting and allow us to set up for the next stages of finish work that include the finish floors, trim, doors, window, and all the fun finishes.

With the holidays just around the corner, we’re starting to book our large 2016 spring projects. Call us today for help with creating a new life for any space in your home.