Fast Track, Narrow Lot

When one of the many trials faced by architects and builders — budget, timeliness, ordinances, collaboration — is accentuated by a particularly challenging aspect of a project, it may seem as though the entire plan could come unraveled at any point. In the Somerset Show House of Birmingham, Mich., all these factors — and others — converged to challenge the skills and nerves of those involved.

This spec home, designed by architect Dominic Tringali and built by Doug Derocher of Custom Homes by Derocher in Royal Oak, Mich., was built in only eight months and faced an extremely firm deadline. It is a high-end home, adding another facet of challenges to the timeline, and sits on a uniquely narrow lot, which created logistic challenges.

Making decisions collaboratively was the key to avoiding catastrophe in this project, according to Derocher. “All we had was the footprint of the home and the elevation; so much of the design was done on the fly,” he explains. “This can actually be easier, though, as it eliminates the delays from clients having too many choices. Clients who have never built a home face so many options. There is an endless amount of product available that can cause them to labor over decisions for too long. We had the luxury of making those decisions as needed.”

The original home on the lot was torn down and the lot sat vacant for years while owned by Derocher. The company performs many infill projects such as these, and generally keeps a handful of lots as inventory for customers to choose from. So when clients approach the company ready to build, the project isn’t delayed while looking for the perfect lot.

This home, however, was built for charity, with products donated by local suppliers. It also faced a hard deadline for the grand opening of a three-month long open house. The team of architect, builder, landscaper and interior designer was able to collaborate on decisions to quickly put together a package that worked.

“We created a virtual client; an empty nester couple — either grandparents or young professionals without children,” Derocher explains. The location of the home lent itself to this type of client. It is within walking distance to downtown, upscale shopping and entertainment, and is also in an established neighborhood.

A lot to consider

Because the lot was in such an invaluable location, creating a house that corresponded in scale was imperative. The lot, however, was only 45 ft. wide, which is only the width of a Hummer and a half, explains architect Dominic Tringali. “Yet the spaces don’t feel like an apartment or a small house. The rooms are interconnected, creating the feel of spaciousness,” he explains.

Because the virtual client is an empty nester, there are only two bedrooms — a massive 4,500 sq .ft. master bedroom upstairs with a smaller bedroom for guests or visiting grandchildren. The bedrooms, office, laundry room and other facilities are also upstairs to save room and create the feel of space for living and entertaining on the main level. These, and the downstairs areas, all meet in the eating area in the main level, which is the heart of the home.

This creates a spacious luxury home in a location where tenants enjoy upscale urban living without the cramped quarters of a downtown studio. The maximization of exterior space, a commodity in city living, helped create this feeling. Outdoor rooms featuring a fireplace, fountain and Japanese garden tie in with the interior spaces to make both feel larger.

The lack of space on the small lot also created logistical challenges for product delivery and for the contractors working on the site. Exterior features such as the fireplace, brickwork, a mosquito system and heated surfaces (including the driveway, sidewalk and tiles to melt ice and snow) required careful coordination of schedules. While the most amount of room to work with was on the road side of the house, there was only 5 ft. of working room in the back of the lot. Tringali and Derocher collaborated with the neighbor to borrow 5 ft. of property to use for building, and in turn landscaped this area when the project was completed.

Making small seem big

Because the home is on a corner with three visible faces, no portion of the house could be neglected in ornamentation or quality. The exterior walls, both of the home and as a part of the landscaping, create the feeling of privacy and make the house appear more manageable for the lot.

“The landscaping walls keep the home from looking like it is rising out of nowhere or leaping out of the lot,” Tringali says. He explains that a city ordinance, launched shortly before the project began, included height, lot coverage and setback restrictions, and dictated the height and placement of the home. Because of this, the garage is built under the house to save space on both the lot and interior of the home. The mudroom and copious amounts of storage also make this section of the home useful and livable. It leads up to the heart of the upstairs, connecting it to often-used areas.

While the landscaping walls help situate the home on the lot, they constitute an award-winning feature of the project. Made of two-toned commercial brick, the vertical portions of the walls feature horizontally raked joints, while the horizontally laid brick features vertically raked joints, adding Old-World charm. Tringali describes them as having a Frank Lloyd Wright feel that is in line with the home’s contemporary style rooted in traditional elements. This is carried throughout the home, with features such as unique wood, bold colors and French doors with opaque glass inlay, which is Derocher’s favorite aspect of the home.

“The Rocky Mountain Hardware on glass and wood merges old with new, which is what really creates warmth throughout the home,” he explains. While it is a new home, these features help it blend into the surrounding older and established homes of the neighborhood. While the architect and builder expedited decisions by knowing what they wanted, many items had to be special ordered. The home features five different kinds of doors, one-touch lighting controls, a state-of-the-art theater, Gladiator storage system, and custom trim and millwork, all of which took careful coordination of contractors to keep the project on track.

Tringali attributes this coordination and execution to plain old hard work. “Doug (Derocher’s) manpower was taken to the limits,” he says. “Whenever a problem came up, he would say, ‘This didn’t work, but I can do these three things.’ Or, we would brainstorm on the spot. We just kept moving forward and solving problems.”

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