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California Contemporary, Westchester, New York

I wrote about this project in a previous entry called Bringing archetypal form into architecture.

California Contemporary living spaceAn architect friend donated an hour of his time at his temple’s fundraising auction. The hour was for a consultation, no plans or town review – just a walk-through. After going over to the house and seeing its rough condition, I was called in to give my two cents. And that is where this all began …

The homeowners bought the house on a desirable cul-de-sac. The property included an in-ground pool plus a large lower field originally part of an orchard. It worked well for a family with two small children. The building was set well back from the road on the high ground, a quiet retreat from the bustle of life.

The house definitely had potential – but needed “some work”. I usually receive some sketches and basic layouts when an architect is involved; but in this case I was simply invited to check it out and, “see what you think”.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s construction, design and building standards were all over the map. In this case, a family of contractors with very challenged ideas got their hands on some great land and just started building. I believe this house was built by one of the brothers … not a gifted craftsman. The result was rough indeed. The saving grace lay in square footage (over 3000) and sheetrock construction which is relatively easy to remove, remodel and replace. The homeowners were very open minded to any ideas I might have about how to solve “the problems”. Little did I know that this project would turn out to be a one-and-a-half-year-long design and construction odyssey.

The kitchen is bright and airy.

As is often the case with design/build projects, budget and ideas flow before plans are actually drawn.

I got my first look at the “California Contemporary” on a snowy February day. I climbed over unshoveled snow to get to the front door, which was evidently never used – and the driveway led nowhere near it. The building was open and spacious, on multiple levels with one large and one smaller greenhouse-style additions. Most of the house was either on slab or inaccessible crawl space. It was heated by electric baseboard and partially air-conditioned.

The clients, as usual, were anxious to get going and concerned about cost. They were concerned about energy bills – as heating such a large, tall space with electricity and no warm return air can be a budget buster.

Walking into this house, I saw immediately that Linda had a wonderful eclectic sense of design. The items she collected from the family’s travels were high quality, colorful, often spiritually powerful. These gave me a sense of where I could go with the design: color, detail, movement, and powerful simplicity.

California Contemporary sitting areaThe plan emerges

I put together an initial list and pricing which included some big stuff:

  • Complimentary Hydro air heat retaining the base electric system
  • Removal of a very poorly constructed aforementioned greenhouses to be replaced with an extension to a post and beam sunroom. This would be heated by a radiant floor system off the new boiler.
  • New bathrooms
  • Exterior patio and stonework
  • Removal of all interior doors and trim, replacing them with knotty Alder Shaker-style flat panel doors and red oak beaded casing and baseboard throughout – all in a stained and varnished satin finish. Normally mixing woods like this is too dynamic. We usually try to calm the spirit of a house with well-resolved, consistent detail. In this case, however, strong design statements complimented the owner’s taste and personality.

Creating a distinctive front entry corrected the home’s first impression

We chose hand-forged lever hardware in a deep bronze for the doors. The entry door was replaced by a large 42” wide by 7’ tall oak Craftsman unit with 20” sidelights and 6” exterior casing and solid oak sill. Now the front entry really said something!

We built a new walkway to the front door from the parking area. It has a flared beginning with post lighting and wall sconces to lead the way in; not perfect, but way better than before. Now in the evening as you come up the drive, the new entry stands out from the rest of the structure in a welcoming way.

It is difficult to detail even a small portion of the work that goes into a full house renovation lasting more than one year. Just the cleanup and materials management could be a thousand man-hours during that time period.

On this project, where the owners lived in the house throughout the work, moving and protecting furnishings was a daunting task. Linda and John took several vacations of a week or more. Highly recommended to preserve sanity!


Ready, set, go! Floor refinishing at breakneck speed

During one of the family vacations, we planned to refinish of the oak floors. My son Jesse was working full time for me, so I left it to him to get the organization done. He enlisted the help of two friends and proceeded to empty all of the closets, bedrooms, and living areas of clothes, furnishings and bric a brac – making careful note of their locations in order to replace them. We rented garment racks, purchased rolls of plastic for protection, and emptied the house. Fortunately the owner’s very aggressive dog took a vacation too, so we had the two bay garage for storage.

The choice of floor finishing company was critical. The sanding had to begin the minute the house was cleared. It takes at least a work week to refinish the floors, allowing for drying time between staining and applying three coats of polyurethane finish. The family would be gone for 10 days. It would have been a catastrophe had they returned with the floor incomplete. Fortunately, like some Cat-in-the-Hat-hurry-HURRY-Mom’s-COMING!! moment, Thing One and Thing Two put the house back together again! Red protective paper was put down in the walkways … like it never happened – except the floors were beautiful, finished in my favorite Golden Pecan Minwax stain.

Obviously, it is preferable to finish floors at the very end of construction so as not to damage them. But in this case, when the window of opportunity presented itself we jumped on it, later to pay the hidden price of endless floor protection for the duration of the work. In this type of remodeling, a schedule is very difficult to follow.


California Contemporary wave wall

The wave wall makes an energetic statement.

On the upper landing above the kitchen, there was an odd open space where a bank of mirrored panels dominated the feeling, enforcing an unnecessary infinite perspective on an area that needed focus and intimacy if it was to work with the emerging themes of the home.

I chose to do the unthinkable: remove the mirrors and build an undulating wall of tiles with inset glass shelves. Having a brave and trusting client has its benefits!

The glass shelves became a perfect display for the objects d’art from Linda’s travels. We illuminated the wall with 3” gimbaled low voltage recessed fixtures. What fun!

The dead, useless, feel of the old space became a very interesting place to sit – overlooking the kitchen and living room.









California Cont children's bath

California Cont children's showerThis is no ordinary children’s bath!

(Photos above and left)

The middle bath was a real challenge. It needed a complete gutting, down to the frame. There was a bizarre trayed ceiling detail and a cement block tub that had to go. We were left with a long narrow room wedged between two children’s bedrooms.

We chose to build a shower stall rather than set another tub. By letting the shower floor recess below the rest of the floor, the feeling became more spacious, the energy running through the frameless shower door out into the glass block window to the exterior.

Because the window is in the shower, I chose glass block for its contemporary look and water tightness. Most common window structures are wood and they don’t hold up well in the hyper-wet shower environment.

In our bath projects, whenever possible, I use a remote blower-type exhaust fan which is very quiet and unobtrusive – you only see the 4 or 5 inch round louvre in the ceiling. This tight little bathroom needed efficient ventilation. The FanTec Company makes an unsurpassed system of components; and I know of no failures of the blower units in any of our installations to date. The further away the blower is from the bath, the quieter the installation. I often use a lighted switch as a reminder that the unit is on.

The wall tile for this bath is a 1” glass hand-cut tile installed on 12” x 12” sheets with very careful grouting and grout cleaning required. I ran the top wainscot line in another undulating curve helping to establish more of the moving line theme of the project. Very bold indeed, in green and blue with a bluish floor tile and green textured wallpaper. A company that uses recycled glass of various color ranges made the countertop. It has a nice quality of visual depth and texture and is a treat for the eyes!


California Cont Master Bath double sink

California Cont Master bath with tub.The Master bath goes exotic and brings the outdoors in.

(Photos above, left, and below)

We used a unique tile in the Master Bath as well. While shopping at a great local store, Champion Tile in Mount Kisco, I found just what I was looking for in a 2” x 2” rainforest marble. I love this part of my job! It had strong veining and tones ranging from beige to brown and ochre. Very energetic! It also went well with the 12″ x 12″ limestone floor.

While I was at the counter establishing quantities, another customer (a mid-sixty-ish woman, conservatively dressed) stood at the counter with her standard white 4×4 marble selection. She took one look at the rainforest tile and said, “Oh my God, you are NOT going to use that!”

This, of course was the precise indicator that I had chosen correctly. This “California Contemporary” had become an eclectic powerhouse.

Now I ask you. Who wouldn’t want to take a shower in a rainforest?


California Cont Master bath shower stall