Dave is an Architectural Designer with a talent for details. We worked together as creative problem-solvers for more than 10 years, and Dave produced the plans that Nicholas Borrell Designs required for presentations and permit requirements.
When Dave interviewed, I could see that he was very talented. It was his handmade 3-foot long dragon that sold me. It was purple and powerful and playful, and it represented the qualities I wanted to express in my own design work. We set up our first studio in the second bedroom of the house on Elm Street. Eventually, we rented a local commercial space as the need to separate family and business became a necessity.
Home remodeling is a client-centered business serving people with specific needs. When you listen carefully to their Wish Lists, it is relatively easy to give them what they want. This is a psychological business, like a poker game, where we “read” the client to get the correct bet or bid to deliver a cohesive design for the right price with superior results.
Entertaining, knowledgeable, humorous, Dave and I were a good team.
We taught a continuing education class on basic design and construction to a packed house and enjoyed sharing the stories of the day-to-day down and dirty challenges, moving the knowledge off the playing field and into the classroom. People love this stuff!
Our company constructed everything from small bathrooms to house-sized additions. Our crews were carpenter-based and we did as much of the work as possible including the tile work, stair building, cabinetry, and form work for footings. Our foundations were true! I am certain that we were one of the first design/build concept companies in the area.
One day while cruising around town, studying and critiquing the competition, we wondered aloud,
We are so good, why aren’t we famous?
There we were, brainstorming on a street that boasted several abrupt additions to large homes. These projects made “statements.” One was a cubist fantasy with a huge circular window and almost no detailing, connected to a wonderful 1920’s manor house. To my eyes it was an appalling design sin.
My approach is to read the strengths of the existing structure, the language of the original intent, and affirm it by repeating its strongest details. If this is done correctly, it is often very difficult to tell where the older work stops and the new work begins. We are “listening” to the house.
As Dave and I kicked ideas around, I realized why recognition eluded us. Maybe … perhaps …
We were doing “too good” a job.
Our work came primarily through recommendation or from a neighbor who watched a project in progress. But after all the brouhaha of construction settles – after the carpenters, the painters, the electricians, and the dumpsters are gone, the end result fits so well that the clients forget we had been there.
To my mind, a home should fit the owners/inhabitants like a well-worn glove, surrounding and reinforcing their personalities with comfort and purpose.
Superimposing an abstract idea or a cubist fantasy certainly makes a statement, but it may not fulfill the needs of the people living within it. And it may not look very good either.
A story of a Greenwich Colonial renovation …
One of my favorite projects was an addition/extension to a very small antique Colonial on a back road in Greenwich.
Upon initial review, our instinct was to tear it down as the existing structure was in very poor condition. However, zoning regulations mandated that the structure remain. The wetlands review located a large portion of the property lying within Army Corp of Engineers One Hundred Year Flood Zone; this means that the probability of the land being under water from stream overflow during the next 100 years was likely.
This restriction dictated that the location of the proposed additions be predominantly to the rear of the structure. Thus, our design consisted of a connecting entry wing and kitchen area leading to a two-story structure, which contained a large family room open to the kitchen, a home office, a powder room, and a stairway to the second floor. Upstairs were two new bedrooms and a master bath above the kitchen wing. We also added a vaulted ceiling living room on the east side.
I recall discussing the plan on site with Dave before construction began. The challenge was to address all the “Wish List” items. How could they be fulfilled without absolutely dominating the poor little Colonial? The solution was in floor height.
If we built a two-story addition with two full-height eight-foot floors starting with the first floor equal to the existing first floor, we would dwarf the house. So we decided to step down three rises (24”) into the new entry, setting the walkway and landing below grade.
To accomplish this, we needed to set the first floor framing inside the block work of the additions – using thinner block work on the top three courses to match wall thickness leaving no ledge on the interior. No easy task. Luckily the grade to the north and east sloped away. So egress to the new patio was at grade level. We kept the exterior wall height of the second floor to five feet, which set the ridge height down as well. From the road as you come from the east or west, you see the now restored Colonial exterior and the very naturally supportive additions moving to the rear.
But recognition? That not-so-subtle nagging ache …
This project ended up making the cover of the New York Times weekend section, the Westchester edition. The proud owners were photographed sitting on the couch in their new living room.
And all was well in the world.
Dave and I had our fifteen minutes of fame after all.