Creative Smallness: Thinking Big About Smaller Spaces

Tamara at KBIS/IBS
It’s January, and we at Myers Constructs are super excited about the year ahead. As we all reflect on the past decades and look to the new year, we are grateful for the many opportunities we have had to work on many really wonderful homes.

Of all the types and sizes of homes we work on, we have found that smaller houses often offer the greatest design and construction challenges. And, as is often the case, these challenges make it all the more rewarding when a project is complete!

I have drawn on these experiences to create universal principles that guide not only our design build/projects but also a new #TamTalk called Creative Smallness: Thinking Big About Smaller Spaces, which I presented this year as one of the Voices From the Industry at next week’s Design and Construction Week. Held at the Orlando Convention Center this year, this event is one of the largest gatherings of the trades in the world, combining KBIS – Kitchen and Bath International Show with IBS – International Builders Show. My presentation focused on some of the whys, whats, and hows for renovating small spaces — and looked at how many homeowners are choosing to downsize or live more simply. I reviewed principles, tools, products, and other resources, and I shared some great examples of successful living spaces that Myers Constructs has designed and built.

Traveling to Design and Construction Week each January offers me the opportunity to keep up to date on the fast-moving technology of the construction business, to exchange knowledge with other experts, and to see the latest and greatest products, designs, and technologies from major manufacturers. Stay tuned over the next few weeks to our website and social media feeds (see feeds at the bottom of our front page), as I post photos of these great products and new technologies.

As a real-life example of Thinking Big About Smaller Spaces, we will begin unveiling an exciting whole-home renovation for a lovely historic Trinity in Center City Philadelphia via our website and social media later this month. The Trinity Project is full of creative wonderfulness developed by utilizing my universal principles. I’m really proud of all the work we did on this historic renovation/rebuild, and I look forward to sharing it with you.

Why Project Management Is Not a DIY Job

Substantial home renovation projects come with equally substantial price tags — think new kitchens and bathrooms, updated energy and heating systems, whole home renovations, and the like. These are complex undertakings that involve big-ticket components and cut across many disciplines, including local permitting agencies, the EPA, engineers, a long list of contractors, vendors, suppliers, and specialists. Important details need to be coordinated, planned, and managed. Risks need to be anticipated and avoided. When problems arise, quick solutions need to be found so the project keeps moving along, avoiding time and cost overages.

So who is the right person to manage the details for a project of this scale? In some cases, contractors allow the carpenter or whichever sub is on site on any given day to try to manage your project between their daily tasks. In other cases, the homeowners attempt to handle the job themselves. In our opinion — based on decades of experience — project management needs to be handled by a dedicated project manager (PM) who has experience matching the type and scale of your project. As we’ve seen time and time again, a PM with little or no experience leads to frustration, headaches, or even project failure. Even those who might be experienced with new construction, commercial construction, or tract house construction are not suited to manage a residential renovation for an older home. These are all totally different disciplines with different project goals, complexity, design standards, and quality levels.

A professional and competent PM will handle all of the following vital jobs, and more:

  • Use proven processes and systems to create a tactical plan and construction schedule for building what is in your design drawings.
  • Ensure the subs are on site according to those plans, barring unforeseen events like weather, late decision-making, project scope changes, or illness.
  • Utilize intuition, experience, and knowledge to identify potential risks, pitfalls, and common issues that arise and get them fixed before they become big, costly problems. Generally speaking, the higher the price tag, the more complex the list of products and materials to be managed — and a mis-ordered or damaged item can take 6-12 weeks to replace!
  • Keep employees, subs, and even clients motivated.
  • Set the tone for the work site and direct everyone regarding safety, cleanliness, and orderliness.
  • Approve pay for subs when the work is correct, complete, and inspected (if required).
  • Keep stakeholders updated on progress, problems, and changes.
  • Proactively manage the many risks of a project so clients don’t have to.

When done properly, professional project management goes unnoticed by the homeowner because the project runs smoothly, stress levels are low, and everything feels easy. It’s when project management is absent or mishandled that it becomes a very obvious and vexing problem. Investing your money well in the services of a seasoned pro will pay dividends both now and throughout the life of your beautifully finished project.

Ouch!

Some of you perhaps recently saw that one of our company trucks was crushed by a tree in Wissahickon Park on Christmas day. We are happy to report that no one was injured. The passengers were walking in the park when it happened.

The truck, however, is done. It is something of a testament to the model — a 2008 Land Rover LR3 — that it was not completely flattened. It was a very large tree.

We wish everyone a healthy, safe and successful 2018!

Renovation Procrastination: Getting Ready to Be Ready to Begin

I sometimes tease when someone I know is obviously procrastinating. I say they are “getting ready to be ready to begin.” But teasing aside, many of us can use a little help getting started from time to time, especially when it comes to planning a big remodeling project.

We all know a big renovation will be painful in many ways: cost, time, displacement, noise, disruption, commitment, change, anxiety, and dust all come to mind. I know because I have renovated my own house, and I have felt the same pain my clients have felt. I too have put off making necessary improvements because I wanted to avoid the pains of renovating. What helps to minimize these inconveniences is to actually begin the “getting ready to be ready” part. The following is a list of some things you might do to begin your own “get ready to be ready” to renovate process. And you can feel better knowing that since you are reading this, you are one step closer to BEING ready!

1. Put Your Thoughts on Paper — Write a simple description of the look, feel, and type of renovation you’re hoping to achieve. Divide your list into “wishes” and “must haves.” This helps you organize your goals for the project, and tells us a tremendous amount of important information as we begin designing your solutions.

2. Get on the Same Page With Your Partner — Quite simply, we don’t want to be the arbitrator of conflicts related to your renovation. Make sure you both agree on all major choices ahead of time.

3. Get Packing — Clearing out the space to be renovated is one of the biggest hurdles some folks have. None of us believes we have a lot of stuff until we have to deal with packing it up. You can never start too soon — even before calling us.

4. Manage the Money — Let’s not sugarcoat it: Spending money is an emotional decision. Some remodelers call it “investing,” which is an attempt at making a spend feel like it doesn’t hurt. Yes, you are investing in your family’s quality of life, and yes, your house will gain some measure of value and hopefully be easier to sell down the road. But you have to spend money to make it happen. Establish a reasonable budget and determine how you will pay for the renovation. Are you going to do a HELOC? Use some savings, a bonus, or a dividend? Did your Aunt Sue leave you a large inheritance? You may want to talk to your accountant about how to get your money ready, or the bank or relative who is going to be giving it to you. It often helps to start this process early to take advantage of tax or interest benefits.

5. Manage Your Stress — Is your dog or cat the type who will escape if the door is open? If so, you will want to arrange for pet day care or get him/her crate trained. Most pets hate the sound of construction and constant intruders into their domain, and they will act out with destructive behavior, urinating in the house or worse. And while we can’t blame these animals who are only trying to protect their territory and families, we do need them out of the way so we can be productive and safe while we work in your home. The humans in the house will also be stressed out. Consider booking a vacation or some spa time during the worst parts.

6. Take a Leap of Faith — A big renovation will demand a big investment of your precious time, money, commitment, and attention. Once the design is completed, you will have the necessary trust in both the design and us to move into construction.

7. Move out — If you can, and in some cases you really must, move into temporary housing. This takes time. Explore your options early so you can make the move before construction begins.

The time you spend managing these steps will help you feel ready to get to work with us, even if you’re still a little nervous about the process. It’s OK. We understand because we do this all the time — and we can help every step of the way.


 


Image: Nicolas Huk

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation Across the Pond

This week, I ran across a wonderful Remodelista article featuring an older Danish home restoration that included a stunning thatched roof. It caught my eye because I had just returned from vacationing in Denmark and was lucky enough to spot a few beautiful thatched roofs in my travels there.

There’s nothing like being in a country that is centuries older than ours to notice the choices that are made for older buildings. Denmark has a culture that values building materials that are sustainable and long lasting, and most of the roofs I saw on both old and new homes were in it for the long haul.

Thatched roofs, when maintained, typically have a lifespan of about 70 years — far exceeding the better go-to roofing materials found in the United States. More common and equally as striking home roofing material is the Spanish or barrel tiles, which have a typical life of around 50 years. Usually the flashings fail first, so the tiles can be removed, the flashing and related materials renewed, and then the tile re-installed. These half-circle overlapping tiles create a beautiful textual pattern and work quite well in protecting the building from water. Traditionally, these were made from local materials, often terra cotta, which is why you will see different color roofs in different countries and regions. These days, there are long-life composite versions that include concrete and plastic. And looking to the next generation, Tesla team is bringing to market a new long-life solar roof tile that will include a warranty of the life of the home.

The practice of using sustainable materials is centuries old, and it’s great to visit other countries and cultures to be reminded of the beauty of older buildings and that building well from the beginning will serve the occupants well. Choosing materials and methods to last for generations is the norm — a philosophy that resonates with our company and our clients.

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.