A House Rebuilt on Ideas

Good ideas are hard to come by. It has been said that the best way to come up with a good idea is to first have many ideas. But what may be even more difficult than finding a good idea is deciding which is the good one, and how to get others to understand it. And in a design/build situation, ideas come from all directions.

Joe Dellanno, president of Design Solutions, Arlington, Mass., listens to homeowners, who usually have many good ideas. However, it sometimes is difficult for them to communicate their ideas and difficult for designers to interpret them.

“But if you pay close attention to what they are saying, I think designers and homeowners would both begin to enjoy the profession much more.” This type of open communication is the basis for the design/build process as well as Dellanno’s most recent project — a 7,500 sq.-ft. whole-house renovation of a 1911 stucco Victorian home.

“This client knew exactly what they wanted and communicated it to the design/build team,” Dellanno says. “Their vision was clear; they allowed us to do our craft well and in turn listened to what we wanted to say. We had an opportunity to do something great with this house and it really stepped up our creativeness.”

Several of the most unique ideas for the home came out of necessary problem solving such as tearing up the basement floor to run air-conditioning and heating ductwork in 3-ft. trenches in order to preserve adequate headroom. Additionally, venting the garage roof, which also is a deck overlooking the lake, produced a mahogany baseboard venting element that breathes as air flows across it.

Gerry Dunleavy, Dunleavy Construction, the project’s builder, says the design/build relationship made the decision-making process easier. Because everyone on the design/build team is clued in to the big picture from the beginning, he can count on incorporating elements such as ductwork and venting before a mistake is made.

Subsequently, a helpful tool early in the game was 3-D imaging software. It helped alleviate one of the homeowner’s main concerns, Dunleavy says, which was being able to see guests in the dining room while she was in the kitchen. “We were able to [virtually] put her in her kitchen and say, ‘If you open it up on this side, you’ll cut off this side of the table,’ and so on. That is something you can’t get from a bare set of plans. This service was like gold to the homeowner.”

The 3-D software helped solidify the kitchen-side addition, one of the three sides of the home on which additions were constructed. This portion presented unique challenges that required commercial-grade steel beams to be installed to support the home.

“We extended one side of the house by eight feet and now you go into that part of the home and there is a room [where one never existed]. You would never know that part of the home had the old foundation wall right in the middle,” Dunleavy points out. In the ceiling is the steel beam that replaces the foundation wall and now allows for a view of the lake. This feat and others were possible by having an engineer on the design/build team.

“The engineer worked with the builder and myself every step of the way, qualifying problems and getting alternatives based on what the homeowner wanted to do,” Dellanno says.

“We removed 60 percent of the existing foundation. The home had a very heavy tile roof, so we had to secure the home with temporary shoring, which was the most hair-raising part of the project,” Dunleavy says. “That is a nerve-racking feeling. We marked different points of the home and took note of the measurements so we would know if the house dropped. We took readings and the engineer checked it, and it stayed in place, thank goodness.”

In a lake-view corner with a picture window, the homeowner wanted as much glass as possible. More steel — a 6- by 6-ft. post covered with wood — was needed to minimize trim to accomplish this goal.

While bringing the home up to date and remodeling it to take better advantage of lake views, its historical integrity also needed to be maintained. Craftsmen were brought in to match the stucco on the outside and woodwork on the inside to preserve the home’s hard-to-replicate character. In keeping with the elegance of the home and the owner’s tastes, many personal touches were incorporated early on to hide the family’s “toys.”

“The fact that we had the homeowners, the designer, builder and engineer on board, we could do things like hiding a plasma TV or creating the underground a/c,” Dunleavy says. “It wasn’t just a set of plans we handed out (and said), ‘Now you figure out how to do the a/c or hide a large TV in a formal room.’ We didn’t waste design time redrawing the plan.” In addition to plentiful built-in cabinetry, the television was hidden behind cupboard doors that matched the home’s original woodwork style.

The homeowner’s willingness to share ideas paid off in the master bedroom, where the suggestion to reverse the location of the bathroom and walk-in closet late in the planning stage opened up the room. A genuinely original idea of removing the back of an armoire and placing it at the opening of the closet was also incorporated. The front doors open as intended to expose the interior of an armoire, but with the back of the furniture missing, one walks directly through it and into the closet.

The homeowners’ personal flair, desire to stay true to the home’s elegance and insistence on making their vision clear while allowing the designer and builder to do what they do best, produced an addition that fit seamlessly into the home and historic area. Such creativity surfaced while preserving the area’s natural environment according to careful regulations.

“I believe you have to stay back 100 feet from the water, which is the conservation zone,” Dunleavy explains. “We had to put up hay bales and a siltation fence near the water, and not even a coffee cup was allowed between the bales and the lake.” No vehicles were allowed to be parked over night and an arborist was required to certify that an unhealthy old oak tree needed to come down. Not only did this process preserve the surrounding natural areas, but the local flavor as well.

“In 50 or 60 years, hopefully people will say, ‘Look what a great job they did in 2004,’” Dunleavy says. “It looks like it always belonged yet looks like we were never there. They really restored and brought back an old home to today’s living standards.” These standards include all the newest smart-home features such as remote Internet control of the home’s functions, and customized lighting and music from the touch of a garage door opener.

What stands out in this project for Dellanno are the homeowners, which he says are not typical. “We wanted to give them our best. Their ability to work within the design/build system and take advantage of the craftsmanship really stands out.” This produced an end product that can only be the result of sharing many good ideas, and a listener who was able to pick up on the best ones and turn them into reality.