Buying a condo might seem to be an exercise in ceding control—one has little prerogative to alter the building’s exterior, and a condo association has veto power over many other changes a homeowner might desire.
Yet one resident of the Belmont Lofts, which were developed on a city brownfield near the railroad tracks in 2003, managed to make a radical change within the building envelope. The resident bought a pair of adjacent units—a two-bedroom and a one-bedroom—and combined them into a single condo. Now 3,200 square feet in size, the place allows for a measure of grandiosity that matches the sweeping views through its generous windows.
And, thanks to Formwork Architecture, it has a quality of timelessness that departs from the building’s original loft style. “I wanted to get away from the more casual attitude of exposed ducts,” said Formwork’s Cecilia Nichols, who described her client as “dignified and elegant”—someone for whom an industrial look of exposed ductwork did not seem appropriate.
“The original point that artists were making in SoHo and TriBeCa was that systems aren’t ugly,” said Nichols of the open-ductwork aesthetic. “But they took a lot of care with those systems.” Adopted by developers for new construction, the look sometimes devolved into an anything-goes arrangement.
In the Belmont loft, the Formwork architects strived for beauty and workability. The condo had many assets already: high ceilings, large windows, and several outdoor spaces. Encompassing the square footage of two units, it offered the potential for a luxurious living space. The challenge was to make sense of the newly enlarged home in a way that was modern but not trendy.
Up and up
The transformation of the condo’s staircase, a focal point within the open common area, exemplifies the way Formwork met this goal. “The original stair was heavy metal,” said Nichols. “We didn’t want it to look like it used to be an industrial staircase.” It was also in an awkward position within the newly joined space.
Aiming to warm up the material palette, Formwork designed a new staircase with white oak treads on a metal frame. Glass panels on metal supports form the balusters, with a subtly sinuous wooden handrail providing a grace note.
The first landing is supported by a dark wood-clad box into which the architects inserted a niche of drawers and shelves facing the condo’s main entry door. Meanwhile, custom metal constructions fill what Nichols calls “code gaps” above the second landing. In such situations, she said, “We think of a Bauhaus or De Stijl sculpture to fill the gap.”
The client’s needs included space for a grand piano, a TV room that could house a massive screen, and plenty of room for cooking and entertaining. Formwork altered the layout to make the majority of the former one-bedroom condo into a media room. While the existing living room’s footprint didn’t change, ductwork went undercover and the room gained new built-in bookshelves and a bar.
“The way we think about floor plans is that things are separated by thicker or thinner volumes,” said Nichols. She and partner Robert Nichols took great care in designing doorways, to lend a sense of passing through walls more substantial than the builder’s standard 4 ½”. “You intuit that a thicker wall is a more insulated, protective envelope,” she said—a principle that harkens back to ancient architecture.
The folding and sliding doors, too, are pleasingly hefty—wooden frames with fabric panels and cunning leather pulls, meant to be “not just a door, but a finish on the wall,” said Nichols.
Reclaimed European white oak replaced the old concrete floors. “All the main living spaces are very white with neutrals,” said Nichols, “so the rugs are allowed to pop out. When we carve into thicknesses, those have color, like slicing into a cake.” Private rooms feature more saturated color on some walls to make them “cozier and more enveloping.”
The old kitchen kept its appliances and cabinets, but Formwork extended the island to make an oversized, uninterrupted workspace with a dark gray quartz countertop. The cabinets were repainted and the pantry enlarged.
Upstairs, in a hallway between the master and guest bedrooms, a door opens onto the roof deck, where Formwork designed a platform made of ipe decking that incorporates planting boxes into a pleasing geometric whole. “We wanted it to have a prospect,” said Nichols, to explain the notion of raising the seating off the existing roof. At that lower level, she said, “You get a bathtubby feel” as though surrounded by high walls. From the platform, the view of downtown, Belmont and Carter’s Mountain opens up.
The bigness of those views matches the scale of the home—surprisingly grand within a multi-family building. But its size feels human and liveable, due to the designers’ consideration for a dignified aesthetic. “For us it’s really important that we think, ‘What’s beautiful, period?’” said Nichols. “Not trendy. Architecture is too big an investment—it should be there for a long time.”
The Belmont Loft brings together the work of many top-notch tradespeople and companies: Albemarle Countertops, Charlottesville: custom-cut soapstone sink in powder room. albemarlecountertops.com; Charlottesville Woodworks, Charlottesville: constructed built-in shelves and doors, reworked kitchen cabinets. charlottesvillewoodworks.com. Maharam, New York: provided fabric panels for doors. maharam.com. Dale Morse at Clay Hill Forge, Waynesboro: Forged the chandelier above the dining table. clayhillforge.com. Mountain Lumber, Ruckersville: provided reclaimed European white oak flooring. mountainlumber.com. Danielle Grinnen, Virginia: designed custom rugs in living room and master bedroom. Trove, New York: provided wallpaper for stairwell with image of dozens of flying birds. troveline.com. JANUS et Cie, California: provided outdoor furniture. janusetcie.com. Illuminations, Washington, D.C.: provided lighting. illuminc.com. BDDW, New York: crafted dining table and chairs, living room mirror and coffee table, and other furniture. bddw.com. Hudson Furniture, New York: provided living room sofa. hudsonfurnitureinc.com. B&B Italia, Italy: provided media room sofa. bebitalia.com. Captions: Appliances and cabinets remained, but Formwork extended the kitchen’s island to make an oversized, uninterrupted workspace with a dark gray quartz countertop. The condo’s new staircaise, a focal point within the open common area, is made from white oak treads on a metal frame. Glass panels on metal supports form the balusters, with a subtly sinuous wooden handrail providing a grace note.