Thursday, May 16, 2013

Upper West Side challenge

Manhattan's Upper West Side appeals to me more for some reason than any other Manhattan section.  It could be that this part of the island has a more lived-in feel and is a healthier mix of beautiful houses, apartment buildings and amenities.  I've been contemplating doing a project there for some time now, so when I got this opportunity I jumped to it.

This condominium apartment is not very big but has a certain spaciousness to it, with an open plan living-dining areas and a potential for an open kitchen.  The clients are a really nice couple with a great vision and lots of design ideas.  The biggest challenges are moving a bathroom and installing a central AC system.  Once I had my task laid out in front of me, the work has begun.  Here's what we are starting out with:
The existing living room features panel moldings and a non-working fireplace:

There is a huge window in the dining area facing a courtyard, but at seven floors up all you see are the opposite walls...

 The kitchen has been remodeled some years back (new cabinets and appliances) but it doesn't fit my clients' needs or their aesthetic requirements, so we're not keeping it.

The plan was to move one bathroom to make more room for the kitchen and breakfast counter.  According to New York City law, we have to make it ADA accessible.  This means, in a nutshell, that a door leading into it has to be 34" wide (32" is a minimum clearance for a person in a wheelchair) and there has to be a 60" diameter turn-around inside the bathroom.  Aside from that and a wall-mounted sink, it's a regular bathroom.  Creating an accessible bathroom is always a challenge in the City because if there's one thing we don't have here it's space!  Fortunately for us, this apartment did not present too much trouble in terms of planning this bathroom.  We quickly came up with the plan:

 We have to get an approval from the condo board and the management company before going for a building permit, so we sent the plan in.

While all this is going on, we're exploring different options for the central AC system.  The roof and the courtyard are off-limits and we can't sacrifice a window for a conventional system to be installed in a mechanical room inside the apartments.  Mike from EMC ( recommends a high-velocity system.  I've had very good experience with them in the past, especially with Unico (  They're quiet, economical to run and have very small outlets, round or rectangular.  Now we have to wait for Mike's proposal to assess the cost.

In an off-chance that our initial plan does not get approved, I came up with an alternative solution.  This plan doesn't allow for a breakfast area, but other than that, I almost like it better.  I should probably explain what the general design idea is.  We're creating a traditional, almost Baroque, envelope (walls, doors, trim) and then stuffing it with an eclectic mix of furniture, fixtures and finishes.  With that said, Option B offers better opportunity for introducing traditional elements.


To be continued...

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A cedar house transformation

There was this house that knew better days...

In it lives a very large family that was lacking basic amenities, like having a place to sit down and have a meal together (of course they had a dining room but this isn't Downton Abbey!).  They got in touch with me to suggest some layouts for a larger kitchen, which would involve building an addition.

What started out as a "kitchen project" grew into almost an entire house renovation — from building two new additions to reinforcing the structure, to recladding the exterior with new cedar shingles, not to mention numerous interior changes.

We replanned the entire first floor, expanding the kitchen, adding a large breakfast area and a small office off of the dining room.

This is what the floor plan looked like originally:

This is what we did in the end:

We started out with taking out about half of the first floor, the old second floor deck, and all of the exterior finishes.  Once the demolition was done, the new work began.

It was exciting to watch the house take a new shape, as the breakfast addition was framed out.

After a while the new kitchen space was created.  The family couldn't believe this whole space would be their kitchen!  They even started worrying it was too big, but I reassured them that once the cabinets are installed they'll see it's just the right size.

The work went on, we were busy working on the kitchen design, searching for just the right furniture pieces and light fixtures.  The living room furniture layout started taking shape.  The family needed three separate functions in the living room: watching TV, sitting by the fireplace and having a place to assemble puzzles.  We combined the last two, giving a fireplace area a large enough coffee table, which would serve as a puzzle board if need be.

We also added a large built-in wall unit for the TV, books and a huge collection of board games.

In the kitchen, the clients chose a Shaker style door design, two colors (paint and Pommele Sapele wood) and dark granite counter tops.

This kitchen has to serve a family of eight, so we installed two dishwashers, a large cooktop, double wall ovens and a large refrigerator.  The cabinets feature a variety of storage types: drawers, pull-out shelves, lazy susan, pull-out pantries and open bookshelves for cookbooks.

The breakfast area was finally large enough to fit a lava rock table with enamel top the family brought back from Italy.  Their names are written along the perimeter of the table, making it a very special piece for them.

After the exterior facelift was finished the house looked and smelled wonderful!  These are pre-stained cedar shingles, and there are very few things that smell better than fresh cedar!  With a new front stoop, a copper awning and new wall sconces the house looks so much fresher and more welcoming.

The second floor deck was torn down and rebuilt.  We also created a more private outdoor seating area behind a curved wall.  All that, plus a new design for the back yard, and this is what we got in the end:

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Twin houses in Philadelphia. Rebuilding after a fire — Beginning

On December 1st of last year there was a fire in Northeast Philadelphia that destroyed one house and damaged its twin.  Since then Sense of Space has been working with the owners of the houses to come up with ways to restore both buildings.

After a long process of dealing with insurance companies the work had started to create the designs for both properties.  The quiet cul-de-sac where these buildings sit has been developed in the 1970's, and little has changed since.  All the houses in this street are somewhat contemporary in style.  They all have yellow brick veneer on all facades and a shingle facade feature.
This is what the right-hand side building looks like now.  The other one is gone completely and the remains have been taken down to the foundation.

The interior demolition is almost done in this house and the clean-up is in progress.

While we're working on finalizing the designs, here's a hint of what the final product would look like.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Tricks of the trade — upholstery

Let's say you own a sofa or an armchair that you are considering replacing or re-upholstering.  If a new one will cost you about $3,000, plus the cost of fabric, there is every reason to compare the options.

Usually, when you buy an upholstered piece from a higher-end manufacturer (Robert Allen, Kravet, etc.) you can get a price for this piece with the fabric either included or COM (Customer's Own Material).  COM means that you will buy the fabric from a different manufacturer and have the sofa manufacturer put it on for you.  The labor cost for upholstering the sofa in this case is included in the COM price.  You will have the fabric manufacturer send the fabric to the sofa manufacturer, inspect it, make sure there are no problems and deliver the finished piece to you.

If you choose to pick your fabric from the selection offered by the sofa manufacturer, they will usually offer you several grades of fabric, at different prices.  Sometimes, they will discount the fabric if it's going on their own sofa, which makes even more sense.  The process then is less cumbersome because everything is happening within the same company.

But what if you are considering re-upholstering the existing sofa?  The cost, surprisingly enough, ends up being a wash or even higher than the new piece.  I am now talking about re-upholstering in the same fabric as would go on a new piece.  Here are the contributing factors:
  • Charges for picking up and delivering your sofa to and from the upholsterer's shop
  • Potential hidden cost: springs that came loose and will need to be re-tied (you won't know about this until they've taken your sofa apart)
  • A good upholsterer will re-stuff all the cushions and offer you a choice of fillings — from softer to firmer, natural versus synthetic.  In either case, your old cushion filling will be thrown away
  • If there's damage to the exposed wood parts of the sofa, that will need to be addressed as well
At the end of the day all these items add up making the re-upholstery of an existing piece often more expensive than purchasing a new one.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Mid-Century Modern in NJ

Once upon a time I joined the Coldwell-Banker Concierge Program.  What this program does is when you buy a house through CB, they give you lifetime access to their database of various services in your new area (or whatever area you end up in throughout your life).  I decided to sign up to offer my services to the people in my area.  I did get one call from it, for an office redesign.  When I met with my potential clients, they weren't sure if they wanted to stay in their office and redo it or move to another one.  They ended up moving and not needing my services for the office, but hired me to redo the first floor of their home in Englewood, NJ.

All the houses on their street date back to the 1950's and are all the same design.  My clients bought their house several years ago and always felt there was something amiss.  

Like most people they couldn't quite put their finger on it.  It was the fact that the previous owners tried to "traditionalize" the house by making it a Home Depot showcase, with traditional looking kitchen cabinets in Oak, an entry door with an oval patterned glass panel and arch-top raised panel doors to every room.  Needless to say, this did not sit well with full-width modern windows or the sloped ceilings and exposed beams on the first floor.  I suggested taking down the walls of the kitchen and making the entire first floor one open space.  The entire floor space was not too large, and my concern with an open space plan was that the components would be too close together.  But the family only consists of two people and they're not heavy-duty cooks, so it might just work. 

The space was broken into three functional parts: a kitchen, a dining area and a living area with a fireplace.  The clients loved their fireplace but did not use it enough because it was a traditional wood-burning one, which presented too much of a hassle for them.  They wanted it converted to gas logs (a much better option than a gas insert!) and they were also hoping to heat the Living Room with this fireplace.  When I asked why the heating aspect was so important it turned out they had severe heating and air-conditioning problems.  Once we opened up the walls and ceilings during demolition we instantly knew what the problem was: there was no insulation of any kind anywhere in the house!  This became the front-burner issue.  We consulted with insulation professionals and decided on a few insulation types to achieve maximum results. 

This insulation issue caused another problem: because the crawl space was not insulated, the Bamboo floors deteriorated severely.  They were probably poorly installed in the first place but the absence of temperature control played its part.  The planks came apart and buckled.  I was able to convince the clients to splurge on a new Walnut floor.  We selected the clear stain, which brought up the natural beauty of Walnut.

The clients wanted to keep the entire color scheme neutral yet contrasting, so we chose a dark Thermofoil for the kitchen cabinets, a taupe Quartz counter top and a glass mosaic tile that was a combination of pale neutrals and taupe. 

To visually connect the kitchen and the dining area, we chose to make the dining table out of  Wenge.  The richness of natural Wenge against a cream color of the dining area cabinets created the striking contrast we were after. 

The fireplace mantel was Travertine with a stepped-up hearth taking out a good portion of an already tight living area, so I proposed to remove it and make the hearth flush with the wood floor surface.  Because the fireplace was now a gas log unit, there was no danger of hot particles spilling out on the wood floor.  We selected a beautiful Emperador marble for the surround and the hearth, and I designed a contemporary sculptural composition to act as a mantel.

Now that this project is finished, the interior of the house is much better connected to the modern exterior and there is a sense of visual unity that the house was lacking before.  A few months after this project was completed I was called back to work on the landscape design.  I wanted a variety of shapes, textures and sizes, and with the help of a landscaper selected the appropriate plants.  We also added some path lighting and a sprinkler system. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Tudor on the "Yellow Brick Road"

This is a project that I've worked on for almost two years — a major renovation of a 6-storey Tudor style house built in the 1920's.  When my clients bought this house, about a half of it was uninhabitable, with unused storage rooms, 1970's fake wood paneling and broken windows.  The house had a good "bone structure" but was very poorly planned and unattended to for many years.  My clients wanted to make their home bright and airy, and to take advantage of the fantastic views overlooking the town from a cliff-side. 

We came up with a game plan where we would concentrate on completing the upper three floors (what you see in the pictures below, a view from the street) first so the family could move in, then isolate the bottom levels and build those out.  First, the new central A/C system had to be put in, which became a challenge because all exterior walls and the majority of interior partitions are hollow cement block.  Normally, you snake the A/C ducts in the cavities of the walls and ceilings, but here we couldn't do it everywhere, only in select locations where the interior partitions were wood framing.  Everywhere else the contractors had to break their way through concrete.   Luckily for us, almost every level has its own roof, and we used those attic spaces for all the ducts, wiring and equipment.

It was peculiar that there was no outside access from the street level down to the backyard.  You could only go through the house.  So, after sliding down the cliff-side a couple of times, we decided we needed a stair.  Realizing the potential cost of such stair that would drop almost 50 feet, my clients felt it would add so much to the house, both functionally and aesthetically, and decided to go ahead with the stair. Now it looks like it has always been there, thanks to the masons' craftsmanship.  A pond at the bottom of the stair was cleaned up and a self-containing waterfall feature was added, controllable with a remote. 

When I first saw the house I immediately imagined it being brought back to its Tudor beauty that for some reason did not exist anymore.  Interior detailing was Federal if anything, very minimal and mostly painted white.  The most beautiful feature of the first floor was the pointed arch windows with leaded glass, which we kept and restored.  A matching pointed arch window was installed in the new vestibule.

The very first room in the house, the Parlor, had us stumped for a while.  The clients and I went back and forth discussing what to do with this room.  Too big for a foyer, too close to the entrance to be a proper family room, it was just excruciating!  Finally, we decided to keep its original function and just accept the fact that no one will ever sit in this room. We weren't entirely correct in our dim prognosis.  Once the vestibule was built, and this room became much warmer, its comfy swivel chairs got quite a bit of use.  We also made the opening from this room to the hallway a lot wider, exposing the main staircase and the door to the Juliette balcony in the back. 

The woodwork in this room started out being a dark wood stain, to keep within the Tudor style, but the clients decided later on that it was too dark for them, so everything was painted over and given a glaze finish.  This simple fix made the room look so much brighter and more inviting!

The room directly opposite the Parlor was a no-brainer.  Close to the Kitchen, to the entrance, somewhat private yet easy to get to, became a Family Room.  My clients decided to follow their family lifestyle and not put in a formal dining room. We did end up creating a semi-formal dining area as part of the bigger room downstairs but on the main floor we decided not to waste space on an unnecessary function.

The Kitchen that opens up onto a beautiful terrace overlooking the landscape beyond was severely lacking in functionality.  A long counter, a skewed location of the range and no logical place to sit down and eat, all made it a very awkward space.  We decided to close up one of the openings into the kitchen, which would expand the wall space to allow for more counter and cabinets, and also, would let us add a Powder Room on the main level.  We then added a new stained wood island, a breakfast area with a built-in bench, and reconfigured the existing cabinets, supplementing with new ones, to create a better functioning layout.  All cabinets were then finished with a light-brown glaze.

 If you walk down half a flight, you will end up in the grandest room in the house — the Great Room (we weren’t sure what to call it so it ended up with this nickname).  Boasting 16’ tall ceilings, a Juliette balcony, a fireplace and a 12’x12’ assembly of leaded glass windows, this space was severely lacking in detail.  We added new custom-made woodwork, new decorative wood beams and a beautiful gray faux suede finish.  The furniture layout changed several times.  First, I designed it to look like the picture below.  Then, the clients decided to move the dining table into the new room converted from a former open terrace.  After that, there were a couple more reconfigurations and finally, the room went back to its original layout. 

The fireplace is the only one in the house not converted to gas logs, but it has a gas pipe in it that we decided to put in just in case.  

This is the former open terrace intended at some point for a Dining Room but later becoming a Smoking Room for the guests having a party in the Great Room.  This proved to be a great idea since two of the room's walls are windows and a French door onto a small balcony, which makes it very easy to air out. 

On this same level there were empty grubby-looking storage rooms.  By modifying the floor levels we created a very large room also adjacent to the Great Room, which we've made a Game Room for the kids.  The clients wanted this room to appeal to teenagers and to slightly younger kids alike. They wanted a table tennis or a pool table, a full-blown entertainment/music center with TV and computer game consoles and a "bar" for the older kids.  No alcohol of course!

It was a stroke of genius when I found this graffiti image on one of the royalty-free picture sites.  The clients loved it, and we had it printed at a custom shop, on wallcovering type vinyl.  This image ended up really pulling the room together and suggesting a ceiling light fixture, which took a while to find.  The wall behind the sofa is covered with textured stone tiles, which makes the long wall interesting but doesn't add a whole lot of color not to battle with the graffiti wallpaper.

If you keep going down, on the lowest level you will find a SPA complete with a hot tub, a sauna, a full-featured shower and a small break room converted from a former Laundry.  This space had very tall ceilings and we were able to sink the hot tub into a platform to make it feel more like a SPA hot tub.  The stair leading up to the platform is removable, on casters, to provide access to the tub's motor. 

This space also has access to the outside, to the lower terrace and the backyard.  The SPA is not entirely finished yet, it's still waiting for a potential faux-finishing, glazing and maybe even a fresco.

The floors on this entire level are heated.  The floor tiles in the wet SPA areas are Sicis glass mosaic with a border of Green Onyx.  The shower has a distinct feature besides all the usual body jets, rain shower head, etc. — a cold-water drenching shower head with a chain-pull.  This feature was put in to complete a Russian-style sauna experience: one is supposed to drench oneself with ice-cold water after exiting a sauna.  I found this piece in a line of products of a company that makes chemical lab and factory safety showers.

Because the house has several split levels, we were able to dedicate a separate level to the Master Suite.  We decided to eliminate an elevator stop on this floor and instead, make a spacious Master Bath.  The elevator door used to be where the shower stall is now. The clients wanted warm finishes in the Master Bath, so we opted for Honey Onyx with black Marble accents.  To help break up the monochromatic look (if Honey Onyx can be referred to as monochromatic!) I played with many different shapes and sizes of tiles: diamonds, octagons, mosaics and larger square tiles.

The Master Bedroom was converted from a former Family Room.  We were able to raise the ceiling, which helped bring the proportions of the room closer together.  The furniture in this room is Robert Allen, the draperies are custom-made with Robert Allen fabrics.

There are two boys in the family, who were 13 and 8 when we started out with this project.  The eldest chose to live up in the attic level, where we created a new terrace right outside his bedroom.
  The colors of the Attic rooms are definitely more "grown-up" than the ones of the youngest boy's suite.  He likes bright colors, and lots of light.  Because his room has so many windows, providing enough storage was a challenge, so we decided to follow the same suit as the Attic bedroom. 

For the Bathroom, we decided to go with opaque glass tiles in white and accent them with bright red and blue glass mosaics.  The clients requested that all tubs be extra deep, so I designed this assembly for both Kids' bathrooms where a tub surround continues to become a vanity top. 

This project turned out to be one of the most emotionally rewarding I've done over the years.  The house has abandoned its dungeon-like look and feel and became cozy, warm and inviting.