Friday, January 31, 2014

Lightening-speed progress

It seems like just yesterday we moved out of the house. Oh wait, it was just yesterday. So Wednesday we closed on financing in the morning, had kick-off meeting in afternoon, then all day yesterday I supervised the move. Then this morning I went over to the house to pick up some things left behind and tie up a few loose ends and saw this in the living room....

Notice the art still on the wall in the dining room.

The project manager's work space.

The permit!
The lantern on the right was custom made a few years ago by Jack's Metal Arts in Louisiana.
While I filled up my car with more things to take over the house the crew got busy taking down the fence in the backyard, the portable toilet was delivered, and the construction signs went up out front. I think they would have started with the sledge hammer if the kitchen had only been cleaned out. Thankfully I have the rest of the weekend to move the rest of our detritus out of the house.

Felt a little overwhelmed to have it all go so fast, but given how long we have waited to get going I was really happy to see progress. Now I can't wait to really get out of their way.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Closing on financing and having kick-off meeting

Perhaps the most difficult part of any house project is financing. Especially since the Wild West days of creative mortgage financing are at least a temporary thing of the past. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily—our financial system is certainly better off without liar loans and some of the other craziness that so defined last decade’s housing bubble and crash—but it does require a little more effort to find the right financial institution to fund your project.

(Not our bank, but what better way to bring together architecture and community
banking than American master Louis Sullivan.)
Our experience has been that you might as well forget the big banks if you want anything more than a line of credit or a smallish home equity loan. The bigger the bank the less interested they seem to be in anything that isn’t a standard product that they can buy, trade, slice, dice, or otherwise commoditize. So what to do? Your friendly neighborhood community bank is what you want to look for. But even then it might take some time calling around to find a few that do the kind of construction lending you are looking for. (You can click here to find a community bank in your neck of the woods.)  Not only are they much more likely to do construction lending for residential projects but they also tend not to outsource the regular inspections that are needed each time the contractor wants to draw on the funds. Plus their construction programs seem to be renovation junkies who take a real interest in your project.

To be really helpful, I would love to into all the details of our financing. But that starts to get really personal really fast, so I will resist my urge to lay it all out on the table. I will say that it took us months and months trying to figure it all out. How much we would need, how much cash they would make us put into the project, reams and reams of information for underwriters, appraisals, and the list goes on. And it all came down to that appointment this week where you just cross your fingers hoping that everything is in place for closing.

Essentially, the bank is paying off our existing mortgage and funding 80% of what we need for construction. And all of that, together with closing costs turns out to be 80% of what the house will be worth when construction is finished. Simple, right?

Since the money starts accruing interest as soon as the loan funds we really wanted to leave closing until the last moment before the project actually began. But even I didn’t think we would close on our loan in the morning and then have our kick-off meeting with our contractor that afternoon.  

The kick-off meeting is kind of self-explanatory. It’s the moment when client, contractor, and architect are all in the room at the same time to discuss roles and responsibilities, schedules, work plan, change order processes, etc. In this case it was our architect, her project architect, the contractor, his project manager, and the two of us. The project manager, the project architect and most likely me, are the three that are probably going to be interacting the most over the next 12 months.

I’ve already written about how much confidence we have in our architect and her team, let me now just say a word or two about our contractor and his project manager. First they exude calm confidence and are excellent communicators. I have no worries about working with them. I think in the world of contracting there are those that do good work but may fly a little by the seat of the pants when it comes to administration and overall professional demeanor. I would imagine it would be a lot like the ones you see Jeff Lewis using on his show Flipping Out. Our contractor is not that kind of contractor. I know we will have to pay attention and keep an eye on things but the word turnkey keeps coming into my mind.

Coming soon: squeezing a five-bedroom house into a two-bedroom apartment.

Next week: Work begins.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Choosing a contractor, delay, permits, kick-off...

Detail section showing roof deck over new family room and kitchen.
Unlike when we started searching for an architect, we didn't have to scour the internet for weeks trying to narrow down the choices of contractors. Our architect, who has nothing but a string of successes in her portfolio, picked three firms she thought would be a good fit for the scale of our project. After we finished up conceptual designs, they sent a set of drawings to the three firms for them to price. In the meantime I called every single reference given for each of the firms. In the process I actually ended up having a conversation with a beloved (by me) former Secretary of State. The problem with that was that I wanted to ask foreign policy questions. I managed to refrain however.

When the pricing came back from the three contractors one was so high we were convinced they just didn't want the job. The other two, although their numbers were not exactly close, were at least both something we could live with.

Not too long after that we realized that our financial ducks were not as lined up as we thought they were. So we slowed the project down a bit. Although this was necessary for financial reasons, it had the positive side effect of giving us a good opportunity to digest some of the plans and make alterations. Nothing major. A nip and a tuck here. In a few instances our architect came back and proposed some changes that we are really, really happy about. (More on those in the coming months.) I am hoping that this delay, and all the extra time we spent poring over the plans means client-induced change orders will be non-existent during construction.

The delay also allowed us to get our permits from DC which has a notorious reputation for not exactly being speedy. We used a permit expediter who, for $1,500, walked the plans through all the regulatory hurdles and coordinated a few required corrections with out architect. Two major benefits of having someone do this are 1) You don't have to deal with any of the hassle, and 2) They are experts at getting things through a given municipal system and can cut out a lot of potential delay just by knowing how to work the system. It took us about three months in total to get our permit. Definitely money well spent.

One other permitting option we contemplated but didn't do was third party review. Because of the sometimes egregious delays in DC permitting and lack of staff to make things go more quickly, DC allows approved third parties to actually do the permit review for them. We were told that doing so can cut down an 6-month permit wait to six weeks (but not always). The cost for that convenience was about $6,500. Happily our delayed start date meant that we had at least six months to get our permit. Glad we didn't have to pay money for a service that our taxes (and permitting fees) should already provide.

It was almost a year between the original preliminary pricing and the time we were ready to move forward. The new pricing not only reflected increases due to some of the design changes we made but also reflected a bit of commodity inflation. The difference was  about a 25% increase over the preliminary pricing. Sheesh. But as my husband's dad is known to say: "For a little bit more you get what you really want."

And so here we are, a mere two years after we began our search for an architect, on the eve of our kick-off meeting with the project team. It makes the estimated 330-days until completion seem a short time.

Now, fingers crossed that our construction loan closes tomorrow as planned...

Friday, January 24, 2014

The design process

If there is a single image that sums up the feeling we want in the end product it is this one.
We know we can't get all of this and not all of it is appropriate, but it ticks all the boxes.
The house, the landscaping, the gravel drive, the vintage Mercedes. All of it is gorgeous.
On a ten-point spectrum of clients, with a 'one' being those who don't have a clue what they want and a 'ten' being those who know every little thing they want and don't want, we are probably a 9.5. We certainly had very strong ideas of how we wanted the house to look and feel. We wanted to be true to the Colonial Revival style of the house. But truth be told, what we really wanted was for our house to be a stately Georgian or Federal style house. (We knew our penchant for Greek Revival was asking too much.) We wanted to minimize the cutesy, old lady qualities of the house and introduce Georgian elements without having them look out of place. Thankfully our architect knew exactly what we were going for and has the talent to pull it off.

We also had very strong ideas of what we needed in terms of the program. Those desires didn't change through the design process, but the architect knew how mash all of them together in a way that allowed us to stay within our aesthetic vision and to stay true the age and style of our house. More importantly, they knew how and when to tell us that certain things didn't make sense the way we envisioned it.

One of the first things the architect did was to prepare plans and elevations of our existing house. Then, after chatting about our goals, our program, and a stack of inspiration images we had collected over the years, they pulled out the tracing paper and started to sketch. This was definitely the most enjoyable part of the process. It is also the part of the process where you realize that no matter how much you think you know about design and architecture, you really do need to leave it up to the professionals.

In fairly short order we had an outline of the shape and size of what the addition would look like and how it would relate to the existing house. After that kick-off meeting the architects went back to their office and played around with floor plans and a million little details about how to fit all of our pieces together in a way that achieved our mutually agreed upon aesthetic goals.

As the project gets going in real time I intend to post more information about the actual design, but for now I will leave you with some of our inspiration images for the exterior of the house.

Unfortunately we don't have room for sidelights, but we will be getting a transom over the front door.

One of the things we learned is that a historical railing like this doesn't meet building code.

Who wouldn't want to live here?

Since our new detached garage is going to take up some of our spacious backyard, we wanted it to look as cute as possible.

We thought that both of these images were good inspiration for creating a garage that looks more like a carriage house that would make a nice backdrop for the future garden.

NEXT TIME: Choosing a contractor

The greatest story ever told

What is it about house renovations that turns everyone (myself included) into such yawning bores? 

We once stayed at a really lovely Bed and Breakfast in Santa Cruz where we never once saw the owner. Not really being B&B fans, we loved the fact that we didn't need to try and think of small talk in the morning. We found out after our second stay a few years later that the owners deliberately stay out of their guests' way because, paraphrasing the in-room information packet, they didn't want to hear about our house renovation plans and we probably didn't want to hear about theirs.

If we all have the potential to bore or be bored by tales of bathroom fixtures and floor coverings, why do we all seem so complicit in the explosion of house and garden porn so ubiquitous on TV and the Internet? When did arm-chair contracting and designing become a national pastime? (Based on the offerings in Britain, I would suggest the UK suffers from the same.)

Then again, does it matter? You are all obviously here because you like a good before and after. Or maybe you are contemplating your own project. Either way, prepare to be bored...

Deciding what we wanted to do
It wasn't long after we bought our 1934 Colonial Revival in 2010 that my other half looked at me one night and said "I feel like we've made the biggest mistake of our lives". Although I was heartbroken to hear him say it, I couldn't really disagree. By that time we had plunked down a hefty chunk of change on "improvements" to our "new house" that didn't do anything to make the house look better. (Replacing an AC system doesn't do anything to up your curb appeal.) Even as we made some cosmetic repairs (see here) and began feeling better about our house, we started to plot more serious renovations. 

Top of the list was a better kitchen, better bathrooms, and more bedroom closet space. But mission creep is a bitch and once you get rolling it is hard to know where to stop finding things you want to do. Certainly budget comes into play, but until it all gets priced out, might as well put it on the list. And so the list grows. And grows. And grows.

Our program includes a few big ticket items:
  • New kitchen
  • New family room
  • New detached garage
  • New master bedroom
  • Bigger master bath and more master closets
  • Bigger guest bath
  • Gut, insulate, and install new built-ins in library
  • Gut and insulate the lovely attic bedroom
  • Return the side porch to its former screen porch glory
  • Some sort of solution to a front door that empties right into our living room
Making those things happen led to the following:
  • New bedroom and full bath in the newly excavated basement under the new kitchen and family room
  • New butler's pantry in old kitchen
  • New mudroom off the driveway
  • New front hall
  • Replace the crazy narrow, steep stairs to the attic bedroom
And then the other nickels and dimes:
  • Improved water pressure
  • New recessed lighting
  • Better mantels and fireplace surrounds
  • New wood floors throughout (so much of the original was being impacted)
  • New interior trim
  • Outlets in existing house brought up to code in terms of quantity and placement
  • New or restored radiators
  • Two AC zones
  • New exterior wood clapboards
  • Improved limed finish on exterior brick
The totally unexpected:
  • A geothermal heating and cooling system. More on this soon. 
Falling in love with an architect
Finding the right person to design a project is perhaps the most difficult part of the process. Thankfully for design junkies like ourselves, it was also one of the most fun. In these days of slap-dash home improvements where little sensitivity is given to scale and proportion, finding the an architect who would respect our 1934 house was our most pressing concern.

We started by canvassing the listings on the website of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). And let me just say this to architecture firms--especially the small ones--woe to you who do not have a pleasant, easy-to-navigate website with good photos. You are design professionals and the year is 2014 (well it was 2012, but you get the idea). Would it really kill you to put some effort into your website?

After much surfing using the AIA list as our guide, we narrowed it down to four firms. Each of them appeared to know how to design additions to be in harmony with the existing house and all of them clearly understood scale and proportion. Once we had those four selected we contacted each of them by email to set up interviews. 

Here is another web caveat for firms: make sure someone is checking your marketing email inbox. We had one very good firm that never got back to us. By the time they finally did (citing a cock-up on their email inbox management) we had already chosen a firm to work with. And let me tell you, this was a good three months after we made initial contact with each of the firms.

We were thorough. We interviewed each of the three firms and checked all their references. Going into the process we definitely had a favorite firm, they were the first ones to be interviewed and did not disappoint. The second firm wowed us with their technical know-how of how to get things done in DC and  were really good at explaining how their process worked. They instilled a lot of confidence. The third firm kind of charmed the socks off of us. Ideas were flying, sexy project pictures were shown, creative enthusiasm oozed from every pore. We both went to bed thinking, wow, our first choice was no longer our first choice. Contestant number three had won us over.

And then the next morning as I stepped out of our tiny, crappy, little master bedroom shower with really awful water pressure, I looked over at the mister and said "I think I want to go with the first firm". That is, our first choice. Something about sleeping on it brought me back to the first firm. He quickly replied "I was thinking the same thing!". Happily, there would be no conflict about who we should hire. We called all their references and made our decision.

But how to break up with the two firms we didn't choose? Thank god for email. It feels so personal to reject someone who puts their creative soul on the line. Have you ever had to break up with your hairdresser? It's hard to do.

I need to say one more thing about the process of choosing an architect. There are lots of resources out there, including one from the AIA, about what kinds of questions you should ask a firm before hiring them. But one thing that might not be so obvious is that you probably should think about what kind of impression you are making on the architect. When times are good (and they always seem to be good in DC) architects can pick which projects they want to work on. If you seem like you are going to be an annoying client or if you have aesthetic interests that don't mesh with their own aesthetic, then they may not want you even though you may want them.  So the impression you make counts.

Staying in love with an architect
After so many years talking about our dream house and all of our ideas about how we wanted our living spaces to look and feel, hiring an architect was like hiring a friend. A pricey friend. One that will let you talk for hours but isn't afraid to tell you when your idea is not a good one. True, they may be more diplomatic than a friend, but the effect is roughly the same. And, like a friend they have some pretty strong viewpoints that don't always jive with yours--at least you may not think that they do. But you are friends with this person for a reason and, if you have chosen wisely, they often know better than you do.  This doesn't mean they are always right and you need to make sure that your needs and desires aren't getting lost in the process. Sometimes one can be charmed by an idea or a direction and lose sight of what one finds important. And sometimes that can lead to the aforementioned mission creep where small projects become big ones.

All of the architects we spoke with charged an hourly rate through the conceptual design phase. Once the general program, size, and style of your project is nailed down they estimate how much the construction project will cost and then propose a fixed-fee contract for the remainder of the process based on a percentage of that cost. This, along with the by-the-hour fee in the conceptual phase, generally comes out anywhere between ten and fifteen percent.

One tip: Have all of your program or design disagreements with your spouse BEFORE each meeting you have with your architect. Especially in the early phase when they are being paid by the hour. Do you really want to pay them to listen to a 20 minute conversation with your better half about how wide a shelf should be? Typically we discuss in depth ahead of time how we feel about various aspects of the projects and work out our kinks ahead of time. It helps that we are largely simpatico on most things. For those of you who don't see eye-to-eye, you may need your architect to lead you to a good compromise.

NEXT TIME: The design process and choosing a contractor

Saturday, January 18, 2014

What you've missed so far

Even though this blog is about a renovation project that has yet to start, I thought it would be helpful to share what we have been up to since we bought our house in the spring of 2010.

We first tried to buy a house in 2005, at the height of the housing bubble and in one of the more expensive metro areas in the country. Thankfully, we were outbid on two houses and decided to wait for the market to drop. Since the day I met my husband in 2002 he had been talking about the housing bubble and how prices were not sustainable based on underlying fundamentals the average household economy. For a long time I seriously thought he was just trying to get a whisper campaign going. Like if he made these comments at enough cocktail parties housing prices would start to come down. Even as we made those rejected offers in 2005 he talked about the craziness in the housing market and all of the liar loans and crazy ARMs people were getting into. In DC there were bidding wars with people waiving all contingencies. I mean who really needs a house inspection anyway? So when our offer on the second house, which was a full 20% over asking, didn't even make it into the top five bids we decided to pull out for awhile.

Awhile turned into five years. When we dipped our toes back into the market in 2010 much of the housing market heat was gone. Unlike other parts of the country that saw huge price drops, the market for single family homes in most parts of DC merely cooled a bit, so there was still some anxiety on our part that the market was going to penalize us yet again for only having a cash down payment rather than a butt-load of trumped up equity in an existing home.

So even though we had escaped the effects of the worst of the housing bubble, when it came down to it, we were like most first-time home buyers and we kind of dove in with our eyes wide shut. I should say that in the five years that we waited the market out, we kept a near constant eye on the multiple listing service (MLS) and knew that there wasn't much to choose from. When we finally got serious in early 2010 we were really disappointed with what was on the market. Then one day I came across a house that was a little ugly but seemed to have a lot of potential and was on a good sized lot. Although we don't have kids running around, my husband likes to garden in a major way and we were hoping for the pitter-patter of little paws. When I showed it to him he said that he had already seen it and had thought it might be a good one for us.

We did end up getting the house for less than the asking price, but given all the deferred maintenance and sprucing up the house needed we probably paid too much. Never doubt the power of "staging" a home when buying or selling.

Since we bought the house in 2010 we have:

  • restored all 22 of the original wood windows from 1934
  • added new, working shutters on the front of the house
  • refinished the floors from a kind of yellowy color to a darker brown (that we had custom mixed and then failed to keep track of the formula)
  • replaced the AC system which died a month after we closed on the house
  • replaced a leaky water heater
  • replaced the washer and dryer
  • made major repairs to the slate roof which hadn't seen any maintenance in decades
  • removed a total of five enormous trees
  • updated the electrical system (heavy up, new panel, and all new switches and outlets throughout the house)
  • had four chimney flues relined
  • put on new copper gutters and downspouts
  • replaced two toilets
  • ripped out old galvanized pipe (which didn't really solve our water pressure problems)
  • ripped out an enormous amount of ivy ground cover

I am sure I am missing a few things here and there but those are certainly the big ticket items.

It looks a little naked with the trees gone, but we plan to add an appropriate railing to the porch roof and of course add the screens back in which will both help balance the house again. You will note the two out of scale windows on the right were improved when we had all the windows restored. The shutters look a whole lot better. The aluminum screen door is gone, new gutters, the hedge is in way better shape...

We changed the front door from red to Farrow and Ball's Hague Blue. We thought we would test it out on a door that will be replaced before committing to it on a new door. The door surround is in Farrow and Ball's Wimborne White. You probably can't tell why from this picture but I have fallen in love with Wimborne White. It is so creamy. I hope it will be able to make an appearance on the renovated house. The lantern was custom made by an artisan in New Orleans. 

The old door with a broken old knocker looking awfully festive.

One of four fireplaces in the house--all of which needed to have their flues relined to be operational.

A view of the living room after we had made an improvement or two. The walls are Benjamin Moore White Dove. 
Another living room shot showing the fireplace with its sexy new flue (i.e., one that works).

Lucy showing off the new floor finish.

Ah, the ubiquitous red dining room. I don't necessarily have a problem with the seemingly mandatory red dining room in DC houses, but this one was a particularly hideous shade that could only be described as raspberry sherbet. And yes, that is a glass pineapple atop the brass chandelier. 

A view of the dining room after the bad raspberry was gone. Here again is Benjamin Moore White Dove looking decidedly cooler in this light.

Dining room view showing the new french doors that replaced he vinyl sliders that were here when we bought the house.

What a lovely, sunny attic bedroom right? Except that the ceiling/roof has almost no insulation and that queen size bed is inflatable. No queen is ever going to make it up those steps.

A modest basement rec room with a cozy fireplace. Although this counted as one of the four working fireplaces in the house, we found out when we went to have its flue relined that it shared a flue with the boiler, a situation not allowed by code. So even after relining the flue (for the boiler) this fireplace remains inoperable.

One of the total scores for this house was the fact that they hadn't enclosed the screen porch like so many have done over the years. Of course it didn't have its screens anymore, but at least we didn't have to demo a cold/hot room to bring back the porch. And by the way, that touted ceiling fan turned out to be an indoor fan which is why those blades are so droopy.

We were extremely happy with the generous lot size. At about 0.21 acres it is large for the neighborhood and puts more distance between us and our next door neighbors than most others.  It took Lucy about 10 minutes to find all of the holes in that supposed fenced rear yard. We bought the house when the leaves were off the trees and so didn't realize how shady it all was. After removing five trees we now have a decent amount of light for the garden and still plenty of other trees nearby.
The back of the house showing the new french doors and our experiment with Farrow and Balls Cooking Apple Green on the narrow kitchen door.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Why 'Lucy's Forever Home'?

Anyone who has adopted a dog or a cat in recent years will be familiar with the phrase 'forever home'. As in: "Lucy is a friendly one-year old Corgi/Mountain Feist mix from a shelter in West Virginia looking for her forever home."

But this is not a blog about rescue pets. Well, not really. You see over the next year or so we will be renovating and putting an addition on our forever home that we share with Lucy. My plan is to document the project every step of the way. From the existing house, to the design process, to working with a contractor, to living in temporary quarters, and everything in between.

For now, we start with a little look at Lucy feeling right at home in our pre-renovation house.

Lucy came home with us on Halloween 2010. Just five months after we purchased the house, we hadn't done much yet.

Still looking a little skinny from her days at the shelter (the fabulous Washington Animal Rescue League), Lucy checks out the action on the street. Lamp is by Christopher Spitzmiller, chairs are Barcelona Chairs from Knoll.

An Arco Lamp makes a perfect perch for watching squirrels.

Lucy having a little me time in the master bedroom. This wool rug has done a yeoman's job over the years being cozy on the toes and easy to clean.

Lucy napping on a Saarinen Womb Chair in a putty color bouclĂ©.

Relaxing on the sea grass rug next to a red Vignelli Handkerchief Chair.

Enjoying the garden terrace in late spring.

Helping me at the holidays in the awful kitchen. You will see more of this atrocity in the coming weeks. 

Always at home.

A snuggly blanket we got at a Design Within Reach sample sale.

The look of love. The mug on the table is from Heath Ceramics in Sausalito, California.