Thursday, January 20, 2022

Split Level Renovation Plan

The real meaning of 'split-level' is apparent when you look at a cross section of the house

The homeowners have wanted to update this house for years.
  Their goal?  A Beach Cottage with 3 bedrooms, two baths and a functional garage.
  They tried to make a major update several years ago, but it required a variance to make the changes and the city Planning Board denied them.
We can only build/make changes inside the yellow setback lines
Several years went by and they decided they still wanted to move forward with updates.  When we first spoke, we agreed our approach was to ensure the updates were totally to code.  We didn’t want any building code variances.  And that led to some interesting design constraints and challenges.  You see, most houses in this area were built before there were building codes.  That means that many homes are like this one, they don't comply to modern codes.  So we need to be extra creative to figure out how to make changes, while meeting code!

I have heard from MANY of you that you don't like split levels.  Some of the quotes were priceless 😂😂: "I can't think of anything that would help that style home except a bulldozer".  "If you add a generous foyer, it makes it okay.  But otherwise torch it!".  "Aesthetically, the worst style ever!" "Too many stairs!". Whether it's because of poor construction or the stairs or whatever, the majority of you didn't like them.  So I feel extra challenged to try and help you learn to love a split level.  Of course that might be a tall order, especially when you consider the building lot constraints!!   

Here are our challenges:


Challenge 1 - We can’t make any changes in the setback zone.  So that means for 20 feet from the front of the lot, the house must stay the same.  No elevation changes are allowed, so we can't increase the roofline in that area.


Challenge 2 – We can build out on the sides and the back a bit – but because of all the granite ledge, it’s not practical to extend the back of the house.  When you walk out the back door now, there isn't much space before the granite ledge hill starts.  You need space to be able to walk around the house!


What can we do?  Well, we can build out on the sides a few feet, particularly in the main living area.  We can also build up (inside the setback lines of course), which would give us space for bedrooms. 

So I started playing with some concepts and the folks from Hammond Lumber drew them up for me.  After several iterations, here’s what we came up with.  We will build up on the attic level (although it will be setback to accommodate the building code line).  We will expand to the right the 5 feet we are allowed with the setback lines.  That makes the living space bigger and allows the new level to accommodate two bedrooms and a bath.

And we want to make it look less split-level like and more cottage like.  So we played with some elevation changes, to change its appearance from the street.  Can you tell it's a split level?

 There is a lot going on here.  The new front door will lead you directly into the living area - which will be a big open space with taller ceilings than the original house.  

The owners will probably enter through the garage and go directly to the kitchen with their groceries.  The open living space will have a large kitchen and a gas fireplace will create a cozy living room.  Because the wall of ledge comes up so tightly to the back of the house, the door to the yard will be on the side, so they can easily step onto level ground.

A few steps farther up with be the primary suite.  This replaces what was originally 2 bedrooms and a bath.  It will feature cathedral ceilings, a big area with wardrobes and a large bathroom.  We've also included a small half bath that guests can use when they visit.

One of the biggest changes is Level 5.  This was originally an attic, but by bumping up the ceiling level a few feet, suddenly we created room for 2 bedrooms, a bathroom and a laundry room.  

The garage will finally be large enough for a car to be stored in it.  And the basement will provide nice, dry storage space as well as a spot for some exercise equipment.  

So what do you think?  Are you ready to love a split level?  Sure, it still has stairs to get from one level to another - but unless you live in a ranch, isn't that always the case?  This will provide a nice open living space with some separation from the private bedroom space.  And there is still a good sized basement to store all of their stuff and a few pieces of exercise equipment!  This is going to be an amazing project!

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Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Split Level: Before Photos

Built in 1949, this split level house is ready for some updates!  It probably worked well when it was built, but for today’s lifestyle it’s a bit cramped.   And from an energy efficiency standpoint, it desperately needs to be improved.

So here's the tour:

Let's start with the split layout.  The house has multiple levels, so this diagram might help explain how they all fit together.  

There are 5 levels!  And most of them have pretty low ceilings.

Front door leads to tight foyer with staircase to living level

You enter the home at the garage level (level 2 in the diagram above).  It’s tight and dark – straight ahead is the laundry and basement stairs, the staircase to the living level is next to the front door.  There's a closet for coats, but this foyer doesn't exactly shout 'welcome' to guests.

And the staircases in this house?  Well, they weren’t designed for tall people!!  We’ve all bumped our heads a few times already!

Basement stairwell - yikes!

Stairway to Living Room has a bit more headroom

The basement is dark and damp.  One of the challenges of having a house built at the bottom of a hill comprised of rocky ledge - there is always some water down here.  That’s going to be one of the first areas we fix.


The main level has a surprisingly open floor plan for the 1940's.  The center fireplace is charming, but takes up an absurd amount of floor space for a small home.  And the ceilings are low – 7’ 4”, which makes the whole space feel smaller.


It’s a tight kitchen, but provides a good bit of cabinet and counter space. 

The owners don’t do a lot of sit-down dinner parties, so the dining space had a pellet stove installed, which does an amazing job of heating the house!

Go up to the next level and there are two small bedrooms.  See the front bedroom light fixture?  It must be original - and I kinda love it! 

Front Bedroom

Back Bedroom

and a bath is conveniently located between the two bedrooms. 
Bathroom is centered between the two bedrooms

The top level is an attic – which is dominated by the giant chimney.

It's possible to stand at the very center of the attic, but there isn't a lot of headroom anywhere else.

The total house has 732 square feet of living space, so it's a small house.  Our challenge is to increase the living space, while updating the systems and energy efficiency.  Now the planning begins!


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Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Something Different - Introducing the Split Level

This might sound odd, but I’ve always wanted to renovate a split-level home.  Weird, right? After all, the lowly split level has been the least desirable home style for decades.  Ask any realtor, they often hear ‘show me anything but a split level’. 

Introducing our new project - a split level built in 1949

Once incredibly popular, the style somehow fell out of favor….. but I’m not sure why.  It does a great job of separating public areas of the house from private areas (aka bedrooms).  And it seems like everything is just a few steps away.  So why don’t people want them?   I’d love to hear your thoughts!  Do you love or hate split-levels?


There are several styles of split levels.  Side split, back split, standard split and stacked split.  These all are based on where the entry door is located and how many levels the house has.  There is also the split foyer home, which is often considered a split level – but is characterized by an entry that leads directly to a landing, taking you either upstairs or downstairs. 


Split levels were wildly popular in the 50’s and 60’s.  They were economical to build and provided lots of living space for a limited budget.  

Our new project house was built in 1949 – so it was a bit ahead of its time.  It would be considered a Stacked Split, with a door next to the garage at the ground level.  It's stacked, because there are 4 different levels, one atop the other (and the 5th level is the walkup attic).  

One of the key benefits of a split level is the ability to build on a challenging lot.  And this lot fits the bill!   See how much it slopes up on the right side?

Like much of the rugged Maine coast, this lot is tucked into a wall of ‘ledge’ – the granite rock that’s part of our landscape.  The 20 foot tall wall of ledge cascades right to the back of the house and even extends into part of the basement.  Creating two different levels of foundation for this split level was probably a huge plus for the original builder - because you have to blast granite, you can't simply dig it out.  And it certainly makes for an interesting backyard!  

But the real reason I’ve always wanted to renovate a split level?  They’re known to be a challenge and that just made it seem like something interesting to try. The homeowners (that’s the other thing that’s different, this isn’t my usual flip, this is a project for clients) want it to look more like a beach cottage.  So we need to add some charm!


Can we do it?  Well it won’t be easy – but that’s part of the fun!  Stay tuned for lots of before photos and go forward plans.  

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Thursday, December 16, 2021

Before and After: Basic Bungalow No More!!

We nicknamed this project the 'Basic Bungalow', because even though it was almost 100 years just didn't have any vintage charm.  It saw some updates in the 80's, which apparently removed some of the antique features, and just looked pretty sad forty years later.  We set out to change all that and increase it from its starting point of 900 sq ft to a comfortable 1500 sq ft with the addition of a 2nd floor bedroom suite.  And our overriding goal was to enhance the antique elements (and maybe add a couple!).

We made a video of the Before & After - you can click below to view.  Or keep scrolling to see the whole story!

Our starting point was pretty bland and boring.  The front porch was an unfinished space with insulation hanging out of the walls and footprints on the ceiling. But we changed all that!  New door, custom stained glass house numbers, stone mosaic floor, and bead board paneling.  

In some ways, this tiny porch is my favorite space, because it was a spot you'd want to pass through as quickly as possible when we started - and now you want to sit for a bit and enjoy the sunlight streaming through. (click here for the porch renovation). 

The living room got quite an update!!  

What was originally an odd closet (but looked like a staircase entrance) became a storage cabinet with shelving above.  I staged it as a dry bar, but the new owners can use it any way they want.

The main wall of the living room was a blank slate and needed some character.  I found pieces of an antique mantle at The Old House Parts Co and thanks to the artistry of Oak & Laurel Workshop, the missing pieces were carved to match the original.


I stained and finished to blend old and new.  And then it was installed around an electric fireplace.  This gave the room so much character!!  What a difference! (for the full fireplace project, click here)

Can you guess which sections are new?  The left leg, both plinth blocks and the top mantlepiece

The dining room changed as well.  The biggest change was opening up the wall to the kitchen and the stairwell - which made it feel huge!!  I had the newel posts custom turned and then stained and finished them and the matching handrail.

We saved the original antique cabinet - just repainted it and cleaned up the glass pulls.

And last, but not least, we installed plate-rail height wainscoting in the dining room.  It's a historically correct detail for a bungalow and it just adds so much interest.  Above the wainscoting I installed a very subtle wallpaper that reflects a vintage style, without stealing the show!

One of the rooms that saw the biggest change was the kitchen.  It's only 7 1/2' wide, so it's still a galley kitchen, but by capturing some space from a back porch, we were able to enlarge it and make it so much more useful!
See the difference opening up the wall around the stairway made?  It's not a big kitchen, but it feels big because it's connected to the rest of the living space!

And the mudroom space is pretty sweet too, with lots of places to store the winter essentials we need in Maine. (kitchen story is here).

DIY Hint - buy the baskets first and then design the shelving to fit!

I spent a ridiculous amount of time planning and installing the vintage style bathroom. 

Vintage Style tile - before grouting

This bathroom is so much more practical with the tub moved to the corner!

And while the two downstairs bedrooms didn't change a lot, they still have a lot of charm and functionality (particularly the front bedroom that now has a big end-to-end closet!)

I staged the back bedroom as a kids room with this antique school map we bought while living in the Netherlands.  

But as big as some of these changes might seem, the real work was done on the 2nd floor!  The unfinished attic turned into a dramatic bedroom en suite by adding two large dormers.  It took a lot of structural work and we hid the massive beams with reclaimed lumber.

Everything about this space is designed to create a calm, restful spot - away from the rest of the house.  And with the giant triple window, it gets a huge amount of sunlight shining through.

Are those drawers original?  Nope!  An IKEA hack!

The original front gable turned into an office area.

And the 2nd new dormer because a relaxing bath, complete with funky angled ceilings and reclaimed wood beam.  Oh - and an amazing marble mosaic floor!

When we started, I anticipated the project would take 4-5 months.  Instead it took 8, thanks to COVID challenges and supply chain issues.  But the finished product was totally worth it, don't you think?
This new deck provides wonderful outdoor living space!

Stay tuned to our next project - or follow along on Instagram or Facebook!

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