Shifting gears

Stan Better has been a contractor in the Cincinnati area since 1981. Among his clientele in that city’s Amberley Village neighborhood is a home-owning couple that has called upon his company, Stan Better Construction, numerous times throughout the past two decades to tackle renovation and addition projects within their 5,000-sq.-ft. house, including kitchen and bathroom remodels and enlargements, and adding a conservatory and solarium.

In the fall of 2012, the owners—two 60-something empty nesters, who requested their name not be used in this article—came to Better with their latest dream: to transform a dingy 450-sq.-ft. two-car garage into an ornately appointed family room whose distinguishing features would include a spacious workstation along one wall, a vaulted ceiling, a large sitting area warmed by a gas fireplace, and a striking 8-ft.-long 500-gallon fish tank.

This project also called for building a new attached 864-sq.-ft. three-car garage. The total price tag, says Better: around $400,000. 

The question always arises, when homeowners shell out big bucks to renovate, why they just didn’t move instead. In this case, the owners have lived in their house for 21 years, “and we love the backyard and location,” says the wife. And as Orthodox Jews these owners live within walking distance of their synagogue, which, coincidentally, Better’s firm designed and built.

Office space

The impetus for the garage conversion, explains the wife, was “I needed more space for my office.” The inclusion of the fish tank, she explains, was a birthday present for her husband, who owns and manages nursing homes. “I wanted him to be in the room with me,” she laughs. To support that tank’s weight, Better’s team had to build a platform reinforced by 8 in. of concrete over the garage 4-in.-thick floor.

Installing that tank was just one of several design and construction issues that the contractor addressed during this six-month project.

Another was the old garage’s concrete floor, which was one step lower than the first floor of the house. Better’s solution was to apply new 2x6 sleepers on 2x4 pressure-treated plates over the existing concrete slab. These were shimmed to accommodate a sloped floor, and to allow new hardwood flooring to be flush with floors in adjacent rooms. This solution also allowed Better to insulate the floor cavity.

Better notes that he and the owners lucked out because the garage’s concrete original floor had been pored with footings that went below the frost line. In Cincinnati, that’s a code requirement for any habitable room.

One design flourish that Better recommended, says the wife, was to vault the garage’s flat ceiling for a more dramatic effect in the renovated living space. To achieve this, Better’s crew “sistered” 2x10s on each side of the trusses and bolted them onto the garage roof’s existing rafters. By doing this, the trusses to the vault could be cut without disrupting the structural integrity of the garage roof. 

Accommodating changes

Better says he regularly works for these and other local owners on a “time and materials” basis, mainly because they are inclined to request changes in mid-project. For example, while Better’s crew was erecting the new garage, the husband purchased a Tesla and wanted the crew to install the plug-in recharging apparatus that this electric car needs. That meant using a 60-amp circuit, which required the electrician to rewire a good part of the entire house.

The owners also decided during the construction phase that they wanted a whole-house generator that would be connected to the house’s natural-gas line. The installation of that generator added about $15,000 to the cost of the project. 

Better says unanticipated changes can be part of any remodeling project. He’s quick to add that he has “very good rapport” with the wife, whom he describes as “the kind of client who respects me and still has her own opinions.” The wife, he notes, usually doesn’t need to see several options in order to choose a product or color.

The completed family room is notable for its extensive woodwork and cabinetry, which the homeowners special-ordered from a manufacturer in Lakewood, N.J., that had supplied materials for their son’s new home. “His pricing was very competitive,” the wife notes. That manufacturer sent a crew to Cincinnati to install the products in the house, which took about a week. The wood is natural cherry, which matches the wood, molding, and cabinets in the adjacent living and kitchen areas. 

Among the other features in this renovated space is a window whose bay seat is large enough to lie in. Indeed, light streams into this room through several windows and a full glass door. 

The installation of the workstation and fish tank required closing off an existing opening in the old garage to provide a back wall. The room’s exterior walls were furred out, and the walls, floor and ceiling were insulated.

By adding the new larger garage, which is accessible from the house via a mudroom, Better says he was able to carve out a bigger space for the house’s laundry room, as well as an area for an extra refrigerator and freezer. 

All told, the owners were very pleased with Better’s work. And at least for a while, the wife says she and her husband aren’t planning any new renovation projects.