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.

Smaller Spaces

Tamara Myers measures a spaceAs a design to build remodeling company, our job is to transform our clients’ space to improve their life — and that transformation can go in a variety of different directions. Some clients have moved into larger space as their family grows, while others stay in their current home with a plan to expand or upgrade. More and more, we are seeing folks moving into smaller spaces to simplify their lives. With goals like reducing upkeep responsibilities and minimizing carbon footprint, downsizing can be very appealing. That’s exciting for us because it is an area in which we have lots of experience and love to work.

Less Can Be More: Designing for Downsizing

The shift to a smaller space requires us to create balance through understanding the homeowners’ primary needs and weaving in some specialness. We’ve had a chance to work on a number of recent downsizing projects in which we brought a fresh look, upgraded the functions, and tweaked the space planning. Below are a few examples from among the many ideas and signature design principles we bring to each project.

Old City Condo — Myers Constructs’ Small Space Design Principle #1: Know When to Go Bigger

A complete refresh with all new flooring, lighting, painting, and updated bathrooms. Like most condo owners, our clients had no control over the choice of windows, but we were able to provide solutions that increase energy efficiency and sound dampening by adding solar shades and interior storm windows. In this case, after studying the space and laying it out to scale with furnishings, we recommended a slight increase in the kitchen footprint while working with the fixed locations for the plumbing. These changes added a significant amount of overall storage and counter space, and opened up the living space overall. Here, knowing when to go bigger even in a smaller space was critical.

Small Center City Row Home — Myers Constructs’ Small Space Design Principle #2: Be generous With Alternate Storage Solutions

A whole-house upgrade with a fresh new aesthetic that honored what the clients loved about the house, along with essential fixes and additions. We added a first-floor powder room and utilized a number of design tools to make the room feel more spacious. Even though it may seem that using a vanity to the floor would provide more storage here, we used a floating counter top with a valance leaving the visual space underneath the vanity that will make the bathroom feel another foot or so deeper. We found opportunities for storage in some custom built-in wall shelving and tall broom closet tucked in a corner, and added a floating toilet, keeping the floor more open.

Small Trinity Renovation — Myers Constructs’ Small Space Design Principle #3: Our Clients Are Full-Size Humans; Don’t Give Them Miniature Solutions

Another whole-house upgrade featuring a new overall look, fresh finishes, and a bathroom. Included utility upgrades, including a new smaller on-demand water heater, electrical service, and correction of a newer HVAC system. We also created a small but robust fully functional kitchen in the basement with all principal functions and storage below the counter! Using a downdraft system for the range allowed us to avoid having an overhead hood, and pulling out the counter to add extra depth allowed for increased work space. We used no wall cabinets, allowing the client to enjoy a more curated look with shelving above the counter. The addition of a wet bar in an adjacent room provided adequate room for cool and frozen storage.

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Water Damage Woes & A Pro Tip On How to Avoid Them

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I got a call this week from a man whose home was flooded by a pipe that burst while he was away on a family trip. The water totally destroyed the first-floor finished flooring, as well as the walls in the kitchen, paneling in the halls, and all of the partition walls and ceilings in the basement. I have a feeling we may also have to add HVAC and electrical damage to the list. Once water gets into electrical fixtures, they need to be replaced.

The culprit in this case was the water line to a first-floor powder room toilet. That’s only a 3/8-inch pipe, but it caused hundreds of gallons of water to pump through the first floor into the basement and probably out the basement walls as the system continually kept flowing to refill itself.

This is the second call like this I have taken recently. In the other case, the homeowner was out of town at her winter home in Florida, and the cat sitter came in to a flooded house. The culprit there was a fairly new 1/2-inch line from the sink to the faucet in a second-floor bathroom. While the upper floor suffered some minor damage, the water completely gutted the lower levels, including the basement, the mechanicals, and the personal belongings they had stored there.

In both cases, the homeowners had to go through the misery of dealing with their insurance company to get the damages paid for.

As we head into prime vacation season, here is a simple tip from my plumber: shut off the water main before you leave the house if you’ll be away for an extended period of time. Even if a pipe bursts, you will minimize the impact and only suffer damage from the water that is in the line until it drains out. I do this now every time I leave home for a trip.

While I’ll get fewer calls for restoration projects sharing this advice, I’ll feel good knowing I was able to help prevent the problem in the first place.

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Image: prana@neoprana.net

Adaptive Reuse and the Legacy of Zaha Hadid

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It was with great sadness that we learned last week of the passing of Dame Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect and the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel of the architectural community. Her elegant work and uncompromising spirit inspired so many in the art, design, architecture, engineering, and creative spheres, and she served as a fine example of overcoming the glass ceiling for women in architecture and design. The underlining parabolic curved design that Hadid came to be known for was innovative and groundbreaking, and her legacy includes new approaches to the world of the built environment. Hadid’s groundbreaking work was introduced to many outside of the architectural community with her curvilinear Aquatic Centre built for the recent London Olympics.

While visiting London in 2013, I had the chance to visit one of the smaller but important projects that her firm did — the renovation and addition for the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in Kensington Gardens — and took the picture above. In my presentations on adaptive reuse, I always use this building as an example of a wonderful blend of the old and the new. For an adaptive reuse project to be successful, both the old and the new elements need to serve the overall program. In this case, the older building was built in 1805 to be used for gunpowder storage. Zaha Hadid Architects restored the original building with the utmost respect, and the brick vaulted spaces are now perfectly suited to their new function of displaying art. The connected but distinct new building houses a cafe in the woods, feeling like a contemporary tent with its tensile curved roof and full visibility with floor-to-roof glass, creating the feeling of being in a ground-level tree house. This addition is perfectly sited to create a protected view of the gardens. How wonderful to provide the opportunity to honor an old building, see a wonderful exhibition, and have time to contemplate art and the garden over a meal at the Magazine Cafe.

I celebrate this wonderful example of honoring the past and the future and the new life Serpentine Sackler Gallery has been given. And I thank Zaha Hadid for her unwavering vision for architecture and design and her role as a visionary for us all.

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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!

New Projects Spring Into Action: Center City Pied-à-Terre

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This week, we began an exciting new whole-house makeover for a lovely pied-à-terre in Center City Philadelphia. This charming 2-story, 2-BR, 2-BA house was recently purchased by a couple who is downsizing from their prior home on the Main Line, where we did renovations with a large addition over 10 years ago.

The home was previously renovated sometime in the 1990s by its owner-occupant, an architect, who did a lot to enhance its good bones. Now, our clients want to really bring out the charm and style of this small house and make it one they can enjoy for decades to come.

The project involves adding a half-bath just off the new kitchen space on the first floor, so the homeowners’ aging parents can visit without having to climb stairs. We’ll also renovate the existing bathroom on the second floor, reconfigure the bedroom with a walk-in closet, and transform the TV-viewing area into an occasional guest room, music and relaxation space. And we’ll also redesign the kitchen so our customers, who love to cook, can do so enjoyably with family and friends. The new kitchen will feature a custom booth with storage, custom table, a sous chef station in the kitchen and, of course, our high-quality Myers Made™ custom cabinetry.

Throughout the project, we will be replacing leaky windows and doors with new, high-quality historically sympathetic units and building in many custom furniture items — including TV and eating areas, storage cabinets, shelves, and walk-in closets — so they fit this space in the most efficient manner possible. Our work scope includes options for furnishings as well as color and fabric selections that will bring the project together.

We always bring thoughtfulness and care to our projects. When we have a small-sized house like this one, everything has to be what we call “boaty.” Just like in the cabin of a fine boat, everything serves double or triple duty, it’s built in, and it’s beautiful.

Be sure to check in on our Facebook page and sign up for our newsletters to receive updates on what promises to be a charming and fun Spring/Summer project.