Tick, Tock … Time to Tune Up Your House

Call the plumber!We all know our cars need regular maintenance to run efficiently and limit damage and wear — and most of us tend to similar seasonal maintenance items for our homes, like cleaning gutters, replacing caulk, servicing the furnace, and touching up exterior paint. These are items that can save tens of thousands of dollars in major repairs if done regularly. However, what most homeowners don’t often think about is conducting a more substantial “home tune up” every 5-10 years, with larger projects that provide much bigger payoffs in terms of preserving home value and increasing every day comfort.

Let’s take a look at the benefits of a home tune up from both a homeowner and home seller’s perspective:

If you plan to stay in your home for the foreseeable future, a tune up helps it continue being a wonderful place to live.
A tune up can refresh your home’s appearance and rebuild its enjoyability. We typically address items like fresh paint, color tweaks, new fabrics and wall coverings, updated furniture, replacing some exterior doors or windows, repairing or replacing a patio or deck, and refinishing or replacing select flooring. While you may feel comfortable “just living with” these items in their current state, we can lend a fresh set of eyes to update what you already have and make your daily quality of life so much better.

If you are selling your house in the near future, a tune up can help you sell it faster — possibly at a higher price.
We will walk though your home with you to help create a list of repair items that will undoubtedly come up later during the home inspection. These are things that typically cause nervousness and doubt in a potential home buyer, even though they might really be small or inconsequential issues in the big scheme of things. Together, we can weigh the costs and benefits of each item on the list, prioritizing the things that will increase your property’s “wow” factor without breaking your budget.

Things we typically address in a pre-sale tuneup:

  • Front entryway — This is the first thing anyone sees. How does it look? What does it project?
  • Exterior finish — Is your stone home missing some mortar? Does brick need repointing? Should we do the whole house or patch point?
  • Basement/garage — Are there strange odors, open junction boxes, or unsafe wiring? How can we make it a pleasant and useful space?
  • Water heater/heater/HVAC — Is the system at the end of its useful life? Should you replace or issue a buyer’s credit?
  • Doors — There may be a few that don’t close properly because the house has shifted or paint has built up. You may ignore this, but buyers find it annoying or worse. We can fix these easily!
  • Doors — There may be a few that don’t close properly because the house has shifted or paint has built up. You may ignore this, but buyers find it annoying or worse. We can fix these easily!
  • Knobs, pulls and locks — Do they not work or look clumsy? Again, an easy fix.
  • Paint colors and decor — Does your decorating scheme remind people of The Brady Bunch, Pizza Hut, or the pastel wonderland of The Golden Girls? Time to update!
  • Older wooden windows — Drafty or non-working windows need to be addressed. We can discuss a range of style-appropriate options.
  • Kitchens and bathrooms — These rooms literally make or break a home sale. We can update the existing spaces with some small changes, or replace them entirely with new showstoppers that don’t break the budget but do draw in excited buyers.
  • Gutters and spouts — Lower maintenance systems are available, and buyers want them. We can guide you.
  • Energy-efficient appliances and systems — These are always important to buyers. We can help you sort through a vast array of options.
  • Outside space/views — Landscaping upgrades, new decking, porches, and patios should all complement your indoor living spaces.

If you’re ready to get started or just want to learn more about a home tune up, call us today to schedule a consultation.

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.

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.