Tuesday, March 31, 2015

We Fired our Architect....or the Oh So Painful Design Process

We have worked with architects in the past and were familiar with the process.  You talk about what you want to do with the house, how you live, draw lots of sketches and finally come up with a design to move forward with.

Our goals?  Pretty much what we started with when we were house hunting.  1)  Take advantage of the water views - in fact we had seen our neighbours roof top deck and had moved that to the top of our 'must have' list.  We also wanted 2) an open concept first floor and 3) 3 bedrooms for us and our future houseguests.

But it was a big challenge with this house.  Because we were trying to keep the original post-and-beam structure as much as possible, we were constrained by the footprint of the existing house.  The existing house was L shaped and the only change we wanted was to fill in the rest of the L with a small 11' x 11' addition.

On the exterior, we wanted to keep a very traditional facade, in keeping with the neighborhood.  Simple clapboard siding and traditional windows were important to the design.

We kept looking at design options, and because of the design-build approach with our architect and builder, we could look at estimates as well.  After a few iterations (and many months), we came up with this.
We really loved the gambrel roofline and the multiple decks, that take advantage of the view.  But the bedrooms were awkward.  And when we got the final estimate from the builder, we were flabbergasted at the cost proposal.  His recommendation to reduce costs? Get rid of the decks - particularly the 3rd floor one with the great views.  Oh, and tear down the house.

Tear down the house?  Eliminate the decks?  Well that made us a bit crazy, since the multi story decks were such a huge design requirement.  And we had talked about saving the house from day 1!  After looking at their drawings and estimates, we realized this was a non-starter.  So, with $12,000 invested in design fees, we fired them both and went back to the drawing board.  

Lessons learned - do a lot more of your legwork up front and don't lock yourself in with a design-build contract.  We now had a design that we didn't like a whole lot, but we also couldn't take it anywhere else to work on it.

So...... I downloaded a CAD program and started designing (I'm a mechanical engineer - so this isn't quite as crazy as it might seem!).  And for the first time, we started thinking about tearing down the house.  It was painful, but after so many rounds with different contractors, we were starting to realize it wasn't feasible to keep it.  At least not at a cost that made logical sense.   It had seen so much damage over the years, it would cost far too much to save it.  But we were devastated at the prospect.
The only bright spot?  With this new approach, we had a lot more flexibility on the design.  And we quickly came up with some great new ideas. 

Once we locked down the design that we liked, we worked with our local building supply company - Hammond Lumber.  For $400 they will draw up your design, including all the structural elements and will give you a price for all their components.  (sorry for the quality of the drawings - these are blueprints that have gotten a bit dog eared from lots of use!).  I'm not sure other lumber companies will do the same, but this has worked beautifully for us on multiple projects!

And we were pretty excited about the new design.  It takes the idea of Open Concept to the extreme, with just one large room on the first floor.  We do lots of entertaining and this is perfect for a big party!
We also added a deck on each level, to take advantage of the water views.  The design includes 3 bedrooms - not large, but certainly big enough.  The master bedroom has a half bath and there are two other full baths in the house.  

And we have a full staircase going up to the 3rd floor deck.  The original design showed this as a storage area - but we were already trying to decide if that could be a nice spot for a home office!  
Now that we had a new design in hand, we found a new builder.  Our new contractor - let's call him Joe - was a very nice young man.  He'd done lots of work in the area and was highly recommended.  He'd never built a full house before, but was confident he could handle it (his father was a contractor, so he grew up learning the trade).  So we signed the contract and got started!

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Can This House Be Saved?

The story we heard about our house is that it was built in Cape Elizabeth (the town next door) in the late 1800's and was barged up the bay.  How it was then rolled up to the top of the hill is a mystery, but that's the story.

The beams in the basement were logs, that had been flattened on one side.  The other framing members that were visible don't seem to be that old (you can tell by the type of saw marks on the wood), so we're still not quite sure about the true age of the house.  It has a stone (aka rubble) foundation, with about 3 feet of brick added to the top of it.

So with this interesting history, we were determined to keep the house and renovate it.  We've renovated many houses over the years and have never torn one down.  We didn't want this to be the first time.

But it wasn't easy.  It wasn't exactly plumb and true - in fact it was obviously leaning in some areas.  But we knew that could all be fixed.  However, we had multiple builders come take a look and they all left shaking their head, with the advice to take it down.

And we had to admit, it was in tough shape.  It hadn't been painted in many, many years and the siding had all shrunk and cracked, allowing water penetration,   Remember photos I've posted about water and wood?  That's not a good combination.  The water will destroy the wood in short order.

In some places, the siding had simply rotted away.  In fact, when we had the place appraised for a home improvement loan (so we could pay for the renovations), Richard was frantically trying to put some of the pieces back up......but the best he could do was glue them in place, because the slimey wood wouldn't take a nail!

The window sills were rotted and that also allowed a lot of water penetration.

Leaks around the roofing trim had created the same issue - and caulk wasn't enough of a fix!

There were big cracks and mystery chunks missing from the 'new' foundation under the kitchen addition.

This place was in bad shape.

But still we kept trying.  After the first flurry of departing contractors, we called a builder that had done some work on our previous house and he agreed to give it a try.  Hooray!  He wanted to use a 'Design - Build' approach for the house.  This means you sign a contract that says you'll work with the builder and the architect.  The concept: it saves you money in the long run, because the builder and the architect are working together to come up with a build-able plan.  All too often, the architect and builder end up arguing with each other throughout the project.  So this was a logical approach.  The only drawback?  When the design is done, you can't take it to anyone else for a bid.  You have to use that builder and that design.  But that seemed like a risk worth taking.

So we signed the contract and starting designing a major renovation.  Fun......or so we thought!

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Encaustic Tile

I recently posted this photo on Facebook - I took at a fast food restaurant.  It shows some of the most brightly colored encaustic tile I've ever seen.  And actually, I'm starting to see a lot of encaustic tile around.  But the response to my post was interesting - people seemed to love it or hate it.  There wasn't much middle of the road!

This isn't a new trend.  It goes back to medieval times - it was very fashionable during the reign of Henry the VIII.  And again during the Victorian period.  The design on the top of the tile isn't stamped on, it's actually the top layer of the tile, so it can't be worn away.

These new, modern designs are made with concrete, creating a very durable surface.  But they mimic the ancient styles.

And it's seeing a resurgence in the 21st century.  I'm starting to see them in lots of places, including the big box stores.  And if you go online, there are a myriad of choices.  This one from Granda Tile, gives you the ability to pick your design, color combination and then view it in a room!  And there are lots of style and colors to choose from.

Apartment Therapy recently shared this beautiful, rustic kitchen with an encaustic tile floor.  Isn't it a beauty?  The floor really sets the stage for the rest of the room.
Photo:  Jessica Helgerson

And what do you think of this bathroom floor?  The simple grey and white pattern really makes a statement.  And it seems contemporary and a bit traditional at the same time.

Photo Houzz

Or, if you really want something with a pop, what about this one from Houzz?   (and I really want that tub!)
So love it or hate it, it's pretty versatile and I think it's a style we'll start to see more of!  In fact, I'm tempted to use it in the bathroom of our next project.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Our SoPo Cottage - The Before Photos

While the cottage was homely on the outside, it was pretty cute inside.  And we decided to live in it, as-is for a year or so.  In fact, we followed advice that I've always given:  live in your house for awhile before you make any changes.  See how you use the space.  Discover how the sunlight comes through the windows during the course of the day and the seasons.  Learn how much time you spend in different rooms.  After 6-12 months, you'll have a much better idea of what kind of changes you'll want to make.

So we moved in.  We painted and decorated, but didn't make any major changes - and really started to enjoy our cottage.

The floor plan was simple - although a bit awkward.  There were two bedrooms upstairs.  And a centrally located bathroom and staircase  - that presented all kinds of challenges for our future plans.

When you entered the front door, you stared at a blank wall (the staircase was hidden behind it).  To the right of the front door, we had a nice sized living room and adjoining kitchen.  The kitchen was a later addition - with a very low ceiling (tough for tall people!).  But we had nice southeast facing windows for the sun to come streaming through.

The bathroom (only one in the house) opened off of the living room and also had a washer and dryer.  It was big, but divided the house in half and made an open concept floor plan impossible.

The dining room was to the left of the front door.  It was a long room, with space for a desk at one end and a table on the other side with a french door out to the deck. BTW - are you starting to recognise some of the things I use for staging houses???

A big design flaw?  The staircase.  It's hard to show how steep it was in these photos.  Let's just say that 'ladder' is a word that comes to mind when you're going up and down!  A typical staircase has a 'rise' (the height of each stair) of approximately 7".  These were closer to 9"!  And the treads were very narrow.

Upstairs, the staircase landed in the middle of the first bedroom (you can see the newel post in the bottom of the photo).  It was a decent sized room, but also served as a hallway to the other bedroom (awkward when you have guests - just ask our daughter's boyfriend when he came to visit!!!).  And see the closet?  It was the only full height closet in the house, but it was so shallow, you had to put hangers on an angle.

The ceilings were very low - and we are tall.  The only place we could stand straight up was along the centre ridge and in part of the dormers.  Richard said I looked like I was from Land of the Giants when I stood near the windows, where the ceiling height was the lowest.  To look out the windows, we had to crouch down to see the water view we were so excited about.

See bedroom 1 through the doorway?  No hallways and very little privacy up here!

And with no bathroom upstairs, you had to navigate the scary staircase if you needed the facilities in the middle of the night.  Another design challenge for us!

But it was a fun, cozy little house to start off with - and gave us time to start planning the renovation.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Downsizing - Trying to Find the Perfect House

Like many people, once our kids left home, we suddenly realized we didn't need a big house anymore.  In fact, heating/cooling and cleaning a big house was starting to seem a bit crazy.

Photo:  City of South Portland
So we started to think about downsizing.  But what did that really mean?  And what did we want?  We'd recently had several friends visiting and during the course of the weekend, I was constantly shooing them out of the kitchen and our tiny family room - while our large, formal living room sat empty.   And in reality, the formal living room almost always sat empty.  But the kitchen - as everyone knows - the kitchen was the hub of activity!  So suddenly, the idea of an open concept floor plan seemed like a brilliant idea.  We knew most old houses don't have that, but we wanted a layout that could be renovated to achieve it.

Petey running on Willard Beach
Next criteria - water views.  We live right by Casco Bay, with lots of islands, boat traffic and sparkling blue water.  We loved the idea of waking up every morning and having that beautiful view.  But we didn't want to be right on the water.  Price was certainly a factor - but so were taxes, flood insurance and the constant beating those houses take from the elements.  A little bit back from the water seemed like a smart idea.  And with the steep hills we have, you can have views from a block away - as well as right on the beach.
Fisherman's Point - beautiful even in the winter!

A walkable neighborhood was also high on our list.  We hate having to get in the car to go places all the time.  We wanted to walk to restaurants, shops and the beach.  Luckily, our little SoPo neighborhood already had all that!  Plus there is a great bus system that goes right through the area.

Small yard.  I love the idea of a big garden with lots of vegetables that I can put up for the winter.  But I think it's just the idea I like - I can't imagine actually doing it!  So as long as we have a small, sunny place for a few tomato plants and some herbs, we don't need a big yard (and its associated maintenance).

3 Bedrooms and 2 bathrooms.   We needed a couple of guest bedrooms.  And I know lots of people like big bedrooms.  But we didn't need a giant master suite to get away from the teenagers in our house.  They've already moved out!  We just needed a place for us (and guests - you get a lot of houseguests when you live in Maine!) to sleep.

So the house hunt began.  With our 5 criteria, we started to look around.  This was during the start of the recession and homes were incredibly hard to find.  People either didn't realize their house had dropped in value - so they were overpriced.  Or they decided to just stay in their house and wait for prices to improve.

And we started to realize that water views were really hard to find!  So suddenly that went to the top of our list and everything else became much less important.

Water views!!
Then we got a call from our realtor telling us about a little cottage that had been under contract - but the deal fell through.  We went to look at it.  It wasn't a thing of beauty (actually far from it), but it was at the top of the hill and as we crouched down to look through the bedroom windows (very low ceilings), we got a glimpse of water!

As far as the house was concerned, we weren't too worried about the shape it was in, after all, we love to renovate houses.  So we quickly made an offer and in a few short weeks, we were homeowners of a cottage by the water!

Little did we know what we were in for :-)

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Hiatus

Funny, just as we hit our 3 year anniversary, we also finished our 7th house (since it was a duplex, it felt more like 7 & 8!!).  We have already bought a house for our next project, but the seller wants to stay in it for awhile and rent.  So this seems like a great time to kick back for a little.

But I can't see myself taking it too easy!  So I wondered if there was any interest in sharing the story of our own SoPo Cottage?  It certainly has some interesting twists and one of the worst contractor horror stories we've ever experienced.  I have lots of photos from the project and would be happy to share them.

And as you can see - it was ready for some updating!

So let me know.  Any interest in hearing about our first SoPo Cottage adventure?

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