So, you may recall that last time we discussed Olivebridge Cottage, we had a plan to kinda-sorta rebuild the house and it looked more or less like this:
This period was the closest this job probably ever came to feeling manageable: we had the town and the engineers on our side, the homeowners were happy with the direction, and the tasks ahead were difficult but not that difficult. It’s a little one-story house—a few more months and we’d be out.
Then the homeowners threw a second floor master suite into the mix. Which they wanted me to design. In approximately 5 minutes. Two weeks before we were set to start construction on a plan that had remained unchanged for a few months.
At the time, the logic went like this: after spending so much time and so much money on this house, reselling the house at a price that bore any resemblance to the amount invested would be somewhat impossible if the finished product didn’t really differ materially from the original house. Adding a whole bedroom and bathroom would turn the house from a 2 bed/1 bath to a 3 bed/2 bath, essentially shifting it into a different bracket of real estate. Obviously the upfront building cost would be higher, but the homeowners felt that it was the right move.
And so, the second floor. Maybe it sounds easy to you. It did not sound easy to me. It didn’t even necessarily sound fun to me, because I think I’m more of a renovator at heart. I like working within the constraints of an existing structure. Pulling a design out of thin air…that’s a whole different thing.
And you can’t just plop a second floor onto a house and call it a day! You have to rethink everything. For starters, stairs! Stairs take up a lot of space. You also have to think about using that new space efficiently. You have to think about plumbing paths and electrical requirements and septic systems and all the codes. And you have to think about what that new house is going to actually look like! And, in my case, without really any experience to lean on, I had to do it in a really short amount of time and have it approved by two homeowners, a team of engineers, and the fine folks at the local building and zoning department. And then I had to be able to build it.
All that being said, it’s not like I could just propose/build whatever. Every design job has constraints, and often those constraints guide the design much more restrictively than your imagination does. As somebody with some educational background in architecture, and certainly a personal interest, my mind immediately went to all kinds of things I’ve seen or read about. The Eames Case Study House, constructed from factory components in a matter of days. The stark geometry of the Bauhaus. The undulating concrete forms of Saarinen and Niemeyer. Those incredible walls of glass and rich wood finishes and the indoor-outdoor dialogue they create that Neutra did so well. It’s easy to get caught up.
And then you come back down to reality, because these were my constraints:
- Experience: at this stage, we didn’t even have a builder. Obviously I can’t literally, single-handedly construct a house, so I knew I’d be working in conjunction with a contractor, but we didn’t know which contractor. New construction is somewhat uncommon around these parts, so there really just wasn’t room to gamble on some complicated or experimental design. This house needed to be simple and straightforward to construct.
- Cost: I had to be able to build it inexpensively. New construction is never cheap, but there’s a big difference between a simple, traditional stick-frame structure and a complicated one that requires steel supports or tons of custom components or hard-to-source materials. Time is money when working with contractors, going back to the ease-of-building point. Cost is also part of what eliminated prefab as an option: everything I found was priced much higher than we hoped to be on a cost-per-square-foot basis, not to mention really tiny!
- Footprint: partially because we were working with most of an existing structure, and largely due to zoning regulations and setback requirements, we essentially had to maintain the footprint of the existing house. More on that in a second!
- Site: this site was somewhat challenging. You have the beautiful wooded areas in the back and off to the side with big mature trees and boulders and the wonders of nature, but then across the street and next door you have houses. Two of the three are currently in states of disrepair (and even fixed up, it’s not like you want to highlight neighboring houses when you have nature as an alternative!), so I had to try to maximize the appealing views and minimize exposure to the less desirable ones.
- Practicality: even with the additional floor, the house still isn’t particularly large. You can dream all day about the architecture of a space, but ultimately you still have to have a functioning kitchen, three bedrooms, storage, wall space for art and small storage and display, two bathrooms that meet code, utility space, and laundry. The house has to work.
- Codes: There are codes for almost everything. Heights, spans, clearances, distances between supports, the rise and run of each stair tread, the R-value of insulation, the placement of electrical receptacles, forms of egress, the type of glass required on a given window, fire safety, vapor barriers, grades of lumber for interior walls vs. exterior ones, the space around the toilet bowl. To say the learning curve for me was steep is an understatement.
- Engineering: Regardless of what would have actually been possible, the engineers had some restrictions that my hands were somewhat tied to follow—the most consequential being the pitch of the roof. You hear a lot about snow loads being greater than they used to be, and our engineers said emphatically that our roofs had to be 6/12 at a minimum. This refers to the rise and run—for every 12″ of run, the roof must rise 6″, which is fairly steep. That’s kind of fine for a regular gabled roof, but wouldn’t allow us to build, say, a shed-style roof without the angles just looking insane.
- Time: there just wasn’t enough of it! I had to design it quickly, primarily because all of this came about in mid-September, and we had to get a foundation in the ground before winter hit! And we had to build it quickly. Had is a strong word—the homeowners wanted it done quickly. They wanted it done yesterday. There was quite a bit of time spent on this project trying to explain why various things were so time-consuming, and why we probabbblllyyyy couldn’t build and finish (and furnish!) an entire house in 3-4 months.
- Homeowners: as much as the homeowners and I really did get along and were on the same page about so many things, remember that I’m designing this house for them, not me! It’s easy to forget now, but during this period there was SO much anxiety and frustration that, for the homeowners, it started to feel essential that the house had mass appeal. OH DEAR. To me this house was always aspiring to be more modern, not less, but Adriana started showing me examples of these very traditional, kind of generic but well-executed new construction projects that just felt so at odds with the actual house, or what they even wanted to live in! I think it was really just panic about the future prospect of resale, which I understand. Not only did this feel really…uninspiring, it also seemed like an efficient way to increase construction costs: with modernism you can get away with simplicity and utilitarianism, but it’s hard to do that with more traditional styles without everything just looking cheap and flat. As a small example, we were aiming to reuse certain things like windows that were still in fine shape, but large single-lite vinyl casement windows were not going to look right on a house that’s supposed to have 6-over-6 divided lite double-hungs. Nonetheless, this period of not wanting to go “too daring” with the design was happening in the background of this and felt like a big complicating factor, even though they eventually got over it. Ha!
SO! The first thing was figuring out the space I had to work with. Our original footprint was this, with the top facing the street:
Since we asked real nice and applied for a zoning variance, the town allowed us to bump out the living room wall 6 feet, giving us an addition 120 square feet of space to play with. Like so–shaded section is new:
One of the challenges I see in designing a structure vs. renovating one is that with renovations, you tend to be thinking mostly about the interior or mostly about the exterior. Exterior work is often cosmetic—re-siding, re-painting, re-roofing, landscaping…ya know. But you have a structure: you have window locations, doorways, ceiling heights, the direction the roof pitches. But designing a building, you have to consider the how the interior looks and functions and how the exterior looks, and the two don’t always play well together! You might think a certain window would be nice inside the house, but then outside it just looks totally dumb. Or vice-versa! Or you want really high ceilings inside, but that makes the structure really tall and proportionately unappealing. There are so many things like this. In this case, it felt imperative to maximize light and views on the elevations of the house that face nature, but ALSO create a street-facing facade that looked welcoming and attractive, but didn’t highlight the undesirable views available to that side of the house from inside. Tricky!
In super simple terms: green is where we have good views, red is where we have bad views.
So, at THIS point, the back portion of the house (now the “guest wing,” since the master bedroom is moving upstairs!) was supposed to remain fairrrrly unchanged, although I wrote in the last post about some of the stuff we were required to do with it.
The kitchen and dining room plans were also more or less set, at least in their locations. That footprint wasn’t changing, and since we were hoping to keep some framing and the foundation under the kitchen/dining space, which would not allow us to put a second floor over that part of the house without redoing the foundation as well. Weight and stuff. So our second floor master suite is confined to the area where the whole foundation would be new—directly over the living room.
So basically we have this enlarged living room, which is also the only artery to get to the kitchen/dining spaces, the guest wing, up the stairs that don’t exist, and into the house at all unless you’re just going in the front door and into that long skinny guest room. It’s a ton of space, but once you add in all of those factors it gets a little tricky to create a room that doesn’t just feel like a massive pass-through.
It dawned on me that nobody was especially tied to the front door location, and that maybe it ought to be facing the street. Incidentally that’s where the front door was before the previous owners bought and wreckovated the house.
It also occurred to me that it’s not like you spend a lot of time in a stairwell, and you can get sort of creative with window placement in a stairwell, and that the stairwell should probably go against the street-facing wall, too. That way, we concentrate the views from the living room out into the woods, not onto the street and neighboring houses.
That’s how I got to some earlier version of this. You’ll notice that a couple of walls have shifted around in the guest wing with the elimination of the old entry, but those changes weren’t planned for until after we started building! A number of major things changed on the fly once construction got underway.
ANYWAY—if memory serves, all of this took place in a couple of days, and then it was time for another meeting with the engineers and Adriana the homeowner. In the background of all of this was the fact that I was no longer under contract at this point—we had to scrap and re-write my contract for the job completely, which was underway but not complete. This sounds inconsequential, but typically I wouldn’t be designing or sharing drawings and renderings (not to mention running around town to building departments and engineering firms) until after I have an executed contract and a deposit check in hand—a little freelancer safeguard against doing a bunch of work and never getting compensated for it if a client decides to be a jerk. Unfortunately it’s happened so I’m leery of it, even when I work for people that I know and trust!
The point is, we walked into this hour-long meeting with the engineer, and I didn’t really know what we were doing there. Adriana had called the meeting but without a design in place, it seemed premature and potentially like a waste of everyone’s time.
As it happened, Adriana had been corresponding with the engineer and had submitted a sketch of what she thought the second floor layout should be. I think she’ll be OK with me pointing out now that it was…a mess. Haha! Problem number one was that it wasn’t at all to scale and showed the staircase coming up in a location that made no sense for the first floor. The allocation of space was choppy and complicated and gave the toilet the best corner in the whole house! There was an enormous amount of space given over to closets, not enough room to actually use the washer and dryer in the plan…and I was just sitting there like…oh shit.
Again. I am not hired. I am not being paid. I am watching the engineer set these plans in stone in CAD, and feeling like if the meeting continued on this way, we’d have a terrible plan that I could then be possibly tasked with executing, and a client who might not understand the need to start over with a different plan since why did we have that meeting in the first place where we designed the house in an hour?!
So, I stepped in. And drew up a little sketch of what had been tumbling around in my brain. Then we dropped it into CAD. And then we moved a couple things. Then we rotated the roof 90 degrees to have a street-facing gable. Then…the basic strokes of the design were all there. We had a shape. We had walls. We had rooms.
Then some more decisions. How tall are the first floor ceilings? I say 10 feet. Adriana wants 12. How tall are the second floor ceilings? I say 8. Adriana insists on 10. All of a sudden the house gets four feet taller. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but things like that had a bigger impact on everything—costs and time, for instance—than any of us appreciated at the time. That’s longer lumber, more insulation, more of all the finishing materials…whoopsie!
With those plans and decisions in hand, and shortly thereafter my contract executed, it was time to take our basic shape and basic layout and flesh it out into something resembling a house!
Because budget was such a concern, it was always the plan to reuse as much of the original house as we could in the rebuild! That’s right up my alley, of course, but it’s tricky—you don’t want to be so tied to the idea of reuse that the end result suffers because you were just trying to make too much stuff work together. This started with the windows, so I made a simple visual of all the windows that could potentially be relocated and the rough openings required to install them:
Pretty exciting stuff.
Then I set about placing them, and quickly realized that we’d need more windows, and the sizes we had were mostly really strange and difficult to work elegantly into a design. I tried, though! In order to keep costs down, I recommended that new window purchases be readily-available stock sizes.
Here was the first proposed design—oof! I hated that entryway when I proposed it, and I hate it now. Haha! Since the front elevation is where we wanted to minimize views, I kind of liked the idea of doing it up really fortress-like with just a couple little windows on the front. Those windows come from the list of windows with potential for reuse, but the sizes felt arbitrary and not so great.
The clients thought it looked uninviting and scary. I get that. Moving on…
Idea #2! In both of the first two designs, I sort of liked the concept of doing a shed roof over the kitchen/dining spaces, but the required 6/12 pitch was kindaaaaaa too much. I also turned the entryway inside-out, thinking a little recessed covered exterior mudroom kind of thing might be totally cool? Especially clad in a cedar tongue-and-groove or something? Given that we already bumped the front of the house out closer to the road than the existing zoning allows, it seemed like an interesting way to avoid pushing our luck with the building department by also asking for some kind of porch/portico/something that would bring anything structural even closer to the road.
The clients did not like the outdoor mudroom concept. Still not feeling the facade. Next!
I liked this plan! I think I still kinda like this plan! The mismatched window sizes on the second floor window are an error on the rendering, so ignore that. Anyway.
This plan definitely felt the best so far to the clients, but something still wasn’t sitting quite right (with all of us, really) so we brought in another set of eyes! Trained, talented, and experienced eyes! Adriana is great friends with an NYC-based architect named Matt Bremer, so she brought my renderings to him for some input!
Matt drew the above doodle, Adriana sent the doodle to me, I made the alterations in SketchUp, and that got us to…
And that’s…pretty much what we ended up building. With some minor changes, naturally.
All in all—is this the house I would have built if I could have built anything my heart desired? No. But it IS a house that I think takes into consideration the things that I talked about at the beginning of this post. Simple and relatively inexpensive to build fairly quickly, satisfied our technical requirements, had the happy approval of the homeowners, made effective use of the site, and allowed for an efficient but spacious-feeling interior layout. Check check check!
Now let’s build this thing! This is where it gets fun.
Psssst! Olivebridge Cottage is an ongoing series about a renovation that flew off the rails (and then found its way back on)! For lots of backstory and schadenfreude, check out these past posts!
- New Season, New Project!
- Plans for Olivebridge Cottage!
- Oh Dear, Here We Go…
- Little House of Horrors
- From Bad to Worse (And Worse and Worse and Worse)
- Blogger is Hired to Renovate, Mistakenly Destroys Ulster County Art Piece “House”
- Olivebridge Cottage: 2.0!
- Designing Olivebridge Cottage 2.0: Part 1!