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Bigger House, Big Headache--Even for the Pros

This is the remodeling tale of two architects.

We had both done many renovation projects in our profession, so we approached our own remodeling with the kind of matter of factness of someone opening a checking account.

We had held the hands of many clients during their soul-stretching experiences of having their house torn apart. We watched couples argue over petty things, anguish over decisions and become livid over contractor errors. But not us. We were cool professionals. We knew what to expect and could avoid all the pitfalls.

Our house was a small two-bedroom in North Hollywood. With 860 square feet, the house was only slightly larger than my bachelorette apartment and seemed terribly claustrophobic with a new baby.

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The house was built in 1936, before refrigerators and washing machines, so there were many awkward passageways. We couldn’t even open the refrigerator all the way because there was wall in the way. The kitchen had about 3 feet of counter space, and when the dishes were drying only about 12 inches of space was available.

The tiny master bedroom was only 6 feet from the neighbor’s house. If you opened the bathroom door too quickly you could crush anyone standing at the sink.

The last three owners of the house had been architects. Apparently, its many charming features--cove ceilings, moldings throughout, French windows and hardwood floors--captivated architects. We had the challenge of making the house livable.

We decided to demolish the existing bathroom to enlarge the kitchen and to add 500 square feet with a master bedroom and two new bathrooms.

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Our budget was $30,000, and we came very close to staying within it--except the outside may never be painted and we don’t have any curtains. It might even be safe to say that we risked our lives to meet the budget, as you’ll see from some of our experience with subcontractors.

Things started smoothly. I designed a concept that was economical and easy to build. We agreed to cut 18 inches off the rear of the addition because it made a more efficient use of girder spans, thus decreasing the cost of lumber.

I drew the plans and got the building permit. Frank had planned to do much of the work himself.

To minimize disruption to our life, we planned the project so the addition would be built first, separate from the house, then connected. After the connection, we would demolish the bathroom and finish off the kitchen.

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It was a good thing we did it this way because the project took two years to complete, with Frank working on it during his spare time.

We broke ground in November, 1987. Frank had staked out the dimensions and we hired laborers to dig the crawl space. After a few rains and a redigging, he built the forms and we brought in the premixed concrete.

We had framers recommended to us who were supposed to be real experts. We were amazed at the speed with which they worked. The craftsmanship looked good too.

But one day, when all the walls were in, I went out to the site and noticed that the plans were not on the site. What do we need plans for, they asked. I checked the location of the walls, windows and doors. Not one of the dimensions was correct. I mean not even within 2 feet of where it was supposed to be! The framers had dashed off to a ski trip, so Frank moved the walls himself.

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Then the plumbers came on the job. The drain for the tub could not go under a floor girder, so I had to quickly redesign both bathrooms. Instead of a pedestal sink and a skylight, we now had two more conventional bathrooms. Frank liked it better anyway because it would be better for resale.

The climax of the project was two weeks before Christmas. The plumbers were installing the water heater and we were intermittently out of gas and water for most of the week.

On Friday, the plumbing backed up, and then I went to take a shower and the handle fell off.

On Sunday morning we woke up smelling gas. We called the gas company. The service man said the gas leak was enough to kill us. The only thing that saved us was that it was a windy night and we had our windows open.

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After that it was just a matter of patience (on my part) to finish off the project. When we demolished the existing bathroom to enlarge the kitchen our son (3 years old at the time) was angry at me for weeks. He insisted that the kitchen was better small.

We put European-style modular cabinets in the kitchen because one of the styles matched our existing cabinets, had a butcher-block countertop built and put a white collapsible half-round table below the new window.

Frank had installed a kitchen floor when we moved in by fitting together black-and-white vinyl tiles in the classic diamond-hexagon shape. At the time I had looked all over for that pattern in sheet linoleum. Now it was available. But he didn’t want to put linoleum over his handiwork so he installed another 60 square feet of his elaborate pattern.

The kitchen now holds the two of us, our housekeeper and our son. It is wonderful to have elbow room and counter space in the kitchen. I have back and neck problems, so the new space made working in the kitchen less painful. I no longer have to contort my body to get something out of the refrigerator.

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So you are probably wondering how did a husband and wife who are both architects get along on a project like this?

We started out cool. We could banter trade lingo, “Now if we run the joists this way . . . ..” We could argue the advantages and disadvantages of flex and Romex. In the planning stage things were easy. He was too busy on other projects to be concerned with this silly little room addition.

But near the end, when money and his energy were running out, decisions would be delayed for weeks because I wanted it one way and he wanted it another. I don’t dare mention them in this article because bringing up the subject might be dangerous.

In spite of our professional experience we were not immune from disruption and things not going as planned. There is no way to be so savvy that the plumbing never backs up.

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We have just moved into our new bedroom. It feels so light and open. The dormer ceiling in the closet and hall came out just the way I had hoped.

I put French doors to the walk-in closet and master bathroom to keep the open feeling. “You want a glass door into the bathroom?” Frank exclaimed. But I put a curtain on the door, and he uses the other bathroom anyway.

We continued the moldings throughout the new space (Frank spent many hours installing them) and the new wood windows match the existing. The addition looks as though it belongs with the original house.

The project was definitely worth the inconvenience. We now have a house that we feel comfortable raising a family in.

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The value of our house has gone up $190,000 since we bought the house in 1985. Having that third bedroom and second bathroom made a big difference in the appraisal.

We did meet our budget, which made the challenge of doing it ourselves cost effective. It was not the architect’s dream of building a house with an unlimited budget. But in these times when we are lucky to have a house, it is a close second.

Carol and Frank Limahelu have their own architectural firm in a home studio in North Hollywood.


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