August 2009: Something bigger

August 2009: Something bigger

Five years ago, David and Jordan Phemister were feeling pretty good about what they’d just bought: an 800-square-foot bungalow in a prime Belmont location. Built in 1920, it still had original flooring and plaster, plus a charming front porch. Though it was small, it was enough space for the two of them.

The Phemisters travel a soapstone-edged walkway, designed by Jordan, from the contemporary rear to the 89-year-old front of their house.

“I remember we had a bunch of family here,” remembers David, thinking back to one of the first weekends they lived in the house. “Several of the folks said, ‘You could do so much with this.’ We were so relieved to have gotten a house in Belmont we could afford. We didn’t have kids. I didn’t have any vision of expanding at that point.” But it wasn’t long before the idea took hold.
The sticking point was the kitchen, found at the back of the little house. “It was a tight galley kitchen,” says Jordan, an enthusiastic cook. The Phemisters thought about redoing the space, but, says David, “We realized it may be better to save our money and do something bigger down the road.”

Fast-forward three years to 2007, when the couple spent the July 4 weekend embarking on that “something bigger” with some good old-fashioned demolition on the rear parts of their home. They were expecting their first child. And along with their family, the Phemisters’ vision for the house was expanding: They’d taken that notion of redoing the kitchen and, with the help of local architecture firm Wolf-Ackerman, turned it into a plan for an exciting two-story addition that would double the size of their living space.

A marriage of styles

One of the main challenges in the design process for the Phemisters’ addition was that, in David’s words, “We knew we wanted something modern, but we wanted to fit into the existing fabric of the neighborhood.” Indeed, the addition is unapologetic about its contemporary bent, at least when viewed from the backyard.

A cedar rain screen and cedar plywood define the exterior look of the new addition, which replaced two earlier (and awkwardly proportioned) ones.

A cedar rain screen covers most of the exterior, except where it gives way to cedar plywood and cement board—all of them in contrast to the original building’s stucco. Lines are crisp, and structural elements, like glue-laminated ceiling beams that penetrate through the rear wall to the outdoors, remain exposed and visible. Architect Dave Ackerman explains that it’s all part of an “attitude of not covering things up. Let things be themselves—that dictated the aesthetics of the space.”

That’s clearly a modernist approach, but one tempered by the Phemisters’ desire not to impose on their very close neighbors. Stand on the sidewalk in front of their house, and you can barely see the addition, as tall as it is. “[Wolf-Ackerman] really took advantage of the site,” says Jordan, referring to the slope away from the street that allows two stories in the back to nearly hide behind one story in the front. The addition’s roof slopes upward at the back, too, meaning there’s no façade popping up behind the roof of the original structure.

Inside, the transition is just as well-managed. Walking from front to back, one passes through the very small, boxy rooms built in 1920 and through the former kitchen (now a pair of closets). Then this close, low-ceilinged space gives way to a generous, open one, where a beautiful new kitchen overlooks the sunken living/dining space. On one side, a staircase leads up to the master bedroom and bathroom. The feeling is one of light, backyard views, and upward motion.

“It’s the classic thing,” says Jordan, reflecting on how the addition draws her and her family out from the older rooms. “They’ve created such a great space that we’re always back there now.”

Upward and outward

That “great space” is certainly a world away from what it replaced—a pair of earlier 20’x7′ rear additions that, in Ackerman’s dry assessment, were “hard to furnish.” If a better kitchen was the seed of the Phemisters’ urge to remodel, they certainly got what they wanted: lots more storage and work room, and total integration with the space where they do their living.

Little of the rear addition is visible from the street.

Jordan especially appreciates how, looking out and down from the sink or counters, she has an easy sightline to her daughter, now 21 months old and often found playing under the staircase. “It’s so easy to keep an eye on her. That space [under the stairs] becomes such a natural alley for her. [Before construction] we couldn’t imagine not putting storage under the stairs, but it would have been horrible,” she laughs. “The kitchen is the threshold between old and new; I wouldn’t have anticipated how well that works.”

Meanwhile, the kitchen easily accommodates two cooks. “The aisle is really generous. We can be back-to-back and not bump into each other,” says Jordan. Guests often find informal seating on the steps that lead down into the dining area.

The combined living/dining space exemplifies something that the Phemisters, Dave Ackerman and the contractors (design-build firm Alloy Workshop) all say was special about this project: a fluid exchange of ideas among all the parties. “It was the most collaborative process I’ve been part of,” says Zach Snider, an Alloy partner. For example, the staircase to the second floor was designed by Alloy while Wolf-Ackerman suggested the railing detail. “It was a hybrid way of doing it, because [the Phemisters and Alloy] were willing to do more,” says Ackerman.

Sliding doors and pocket doors make the most of the space.

For their part, the Phemisters contributed a considerable amount of sweat equity: David and his father put a galvanized standing-seam roof on both the old and new portions of the house, and the couple took on gutters, painting, drywall, bath fixture installation and other tasks. “It makes you more vested in the project,” says David. “That was important to us beyond the cost savings.”

If the living room ceiling hints at what’s above (the yellow pine planking doubles as the master bedroom floor), the staircase firmly links upper and lower stories. It’s flanked by a massive two-story panel made of Polygal, a translucent material that lets in light but not a clear view. “This was Wolf-Ackerman’s suggestion,” says David. “We wanted to do a big window, but it would have been an insulation and privacy issue.” The Polygal makes the most of morning sun from the east, but minimizes energy loss by trapping air between its two layers.

The Phemisters were interested generally in an efficient building envelope. The addition has soy-based insulation, which kept the heating and cooling cost increase down to $25-30 per month. Cross-breezes through the space mean A/C isn’t usually needed at night.

Back to front

Jordan says that in the bedroom, from the vantage point of the low bed, she has another reason to appreciate the addition’s upward-sloping roofline: “It’s nice from an experiential side,” she says. Indeed, from any point in the room—not just the bed—the space feels extremely airy, with its white walls and ceiling and minimal furniture. Three large windows to the south overlook the backyard and, in winter, Carter Mountain and the Ragged Mountains. “The ceiling height makes it feel bigger than it is,” says David.

Architect Dave Ackerman calls the yellow pine flooring of the master bedroom “an opportunity to let something do more than one thing”: The planks double as the ceiling of the living area below.

A subtle detail emphasizes the modern nature of this design: Instead of moulding around the edge of the floor, Wolf-Ackerman suggested that the wallboard simply stop, appearing to hover an inch or so above the floor. A pocket door leads to the bathroom, done up in white cabinets and tile, its shower graced with an eye-level window that was a last-minute addition to the design. “The shower is the closest thing to an outdoor shower you can get,” says David.
The building process took just over a year, during which the Phemisters’ daughter was born. They cocooned her in the old section of the house while construction continued in the back. It was tight, they say, but Alloy made it work. “You hear more horror stories than great stories about builders. But it all just worked,” says David. “I thought it was fun.”

In some ways, the process continues. The couple plan to add a deck that will wrap around the new addition and take full advantage of their oasis-like backyard, with its fig tree, tomato patch and soapstone-edged walkway (which Jordan, a landscape architect, designed).
And they’d like to give some attention to the old section of the house—the part that originally caught their eye back in 2004. “When we walked in, we liked it right away,” says David. Now, though “we didn’t want these rooms to be obsolete,” it’s clear that the heart of their home has shifted to the addition. “[The front] is mainly transitional space,” David says, “because the back is so great.”

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