We had a big meeting at the house last week with Chip Brian, Mike Daddio and the rest of the blessed team at Design Development. It was the first meeting we had all together walking through the house. Mike—our construction guru—gave us his take on the progress. Lo and behold, good news? It seems even in the midst of our great renovation saga, Mike was quite happy with the progress we’ve been making. Predictably enough though, there are still many decisions yet to be made.
Chip Brian & Michael Daddio, Principals of Design Development
There was a door in the great room where we’d decided to put a window instead so that there was better symmetry if you’re looking in from the outside porch. We also spoke extensively about the wood stove exhaust pipe, which goes into the bedroom above and needs to be cased. We talked about angling it so it doesn’t need to go through the bedroom – you’d be surprised how quickly a renovator (even this renovator) starts getting construction savvy! The one big compromise I had to make was sacrificing the washer-dryer of my dreams (yes I just said ‘the washer-dryer of my dreams’) because it was too big for the space.
The new porch is being built.
The one thing about an old house (notice how in this blog I keep saying ‘the one thing about an old house’ as if there’s one thing rather than MANY things), is that the older and older it gets the more you need to retro fit current appliances into unique spaces. It’s kind of like when you have the iPhone 3 and then the iPhone 4 comes out and you get the iPhone 4 and then there’s the iPhone 5—in other words, you’re having trouble keeping up.
The door that is becoming a window
John and Imre discussing the window.
The last big decision we spoke about that day was lifting the house. If you recall, the dilemma was whether or not we should raise it 5 feet without a garage, or 8 feet and include a garage – The pros and cons of both were greatly debated between John and I and our diplomatic DD team. Diplomacy was in order since John and I are on opposite sides of the equation. However, I’m standing my ground on this one, and hopefully by next week I’ll have turned the tide in my favor. At this point, I am definitely what they’d call a “take no prisoners” renovator– experience, time and even bad tiles have molded me into what I am today!
The newly shingled house—propped up porch
Before I can select the Kohler fixtures and furniture for my bathroom, I have to make some hefty tiling decisions. I’m not so sure why selecting tile is so difficult for me, perhaps it has something to do with its permanence. Then again doesn’t that sum up house renovation in general? If you could snap your fingers and replace the horrendous carpeting you swore looked great as a swatch, renovators would be far less neurotic!
To that point, I remember that growing up we had the same blue tile in the “children’s” bathroom for my entire childhood. My adult brain knows that design disasters (sorry Mom) can be changed – but the child in me only recalls irreversible blue tiles.
With that in mind, designer Charles Riley and I headed down to Ann Sacks. Their showroom is like a wonderland filled with exotic mosaics of ceramic and marble tiles. As soon as I entered the store, I found the most fascinating ceramic tile that (to the naked eye) looks like bleached wood plank flooring: It was perfect for the two downstairs bathrooms.
For the full bath on the first level we found a beautiful terracotta tile in the most perfect shade of robin’s egg blue – a nod to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House – my favorite home renovation movie of all time. Charles, though, felt the creamy white terracotta was perhaps a better choice; so we picked up a sample of both.
For the upstairs bathroom we found a fabulous ceramic cross-motif tile for the floor and a simple white subway tile for the walls. To break up the white I selected a sea foam glass tile to use as trim. The upstairs bathroom gets the most incredible light so I knew the glass would sparkle. Satisfied that we had made all the correct choices, Charles and I headed up to the cottage to evaluate.
All was perfect except the robin’s egg blue. It turned a very unflattering shade of gray in the natural light of the cottage. Yet another important rule of home renovation: everything must be seen in the light it will be living in, or else you could find yourself having tiling remorse (I coined that myself). The definition of tiling remorse: tiling an entire space, then changing your mind once you’ve finished, or–even worse–living with it (I can see the Dr. Phil episode already). So the robin’s egg blue didn’t work and we decided on the creamy white terracotta (what Charles picked). It was as if Charles was sent to save me from bad blue tile twice! My Design Development team to the rescue again! Yet another important rule of home renovation: when you start thinking of your building team as guardian angels, the project’s taken its toll.
While much of renovating can be (in my opinion) as gripping as a Tom Clancy novel (especially if you’re the renovator), some aspects are a little more commonplace. They’re just as important, though, because they set the stage for the entire project. So I’ll try to make this week’s story about our electrical plan as thrilling as possible.
Charles Riley (our Design Development designer) and I traveled to Branford, Connecticut, this past Saturday to discuss a lighting plan for the house – something unexpectedly time-intensive and fraught with anxiety-ridden decision making. Our mission was to determine a number of things, such as what type of lighting would fit each room, how many outlets were needed for code (to be explained further down), and just an overall check of the lighting situation. Because the house is old and quirky, every room, including the porch, has a unique set of lighting challenges. It’s not as if there’s just one central ceiling fixture in each room – there are many. And in order to do it properly, you need to have some idea of where the furniture is going to be placed and how much task lighting you need, etc., all while maintaining the original integrity of the house. Are you still with me?
A preliminary plan was drawn by our architect, Joe, but what Joe did not realize was that I have a fierce phobia of ceiling fans (I’m hoping he’s seen stranger things). The first course of business was to banish all ceiling fans from the plan – and there were many. It’s a lovely beach cottage touch, no doubt, but not for this Feng Shui loving chick!
Lighting is such an important consideration when it comes to ambience. In essence, it’s make or break. Dimmers and three-way switches had to be painstakingly discussed (no doubt, riveting topics). Most importantly, though, “code” had to be dealt with. Code is when the town dictates placement of certain elements of the electrical plan.
The real challenge with this was how to reuse the original light fixtures that are still in the house. They need to be rewired to meet code, but they are authentic and beautiful and I couldn’t, in good conscience, get rid of them. We found a spot for each of the three that remain! How? Our Design Development experts were the guiding light (no pun intended) on this; navigating the intricacies of what we could and could not do in terms of the town mandates (even renovators can’t fight City Hall).
When all of this is done, I may just write a novel of my own – they need more thrillers out there that involve house renovation.
Believe it or not, when it comes to renovating, there is a method to my madness. I have created three books that are basically my holy (house) grail! Encompassing all the different aspects of the renovation, I use them religiously for the project.
The first book is my Inspiration Book – this is where all things creative coming to fruition in the house first start. Divided up by room, the sections have different inspirations for what I want each room to look like (in a perfect world my house would match the delightful images on each page of my inspiration book). Every month I go through dozens of home magazines and tear out what inspires me – making the book a delicious bevvy of tear sheets, magazine clippings, and appealing images.
The second book is the Working Book I carry with me every day (it’s basically become an extra limb). It’s filled with things I need to order, notes on the renovation by room, and a list of fixtures that need to go in each room. This way, when I meet with my Design Development team I have notes on each space in the house and can refer back to it always. Each room section begins with a floor plan of that space, so I know the dimensions I need for everything I’m ordering.
And finally the third book (a little more boring) is my Accounting Book. This is where the less glamorous magic happens. Again organized by room, each section has everything I’ve ordered for that room and the invoices for it; so when the renovation is over, I know how much I’ve spent.
When this is all over I’m thinking of auctioning off the three renovation books of Jaqui Lividini. After the saga of this renovation, I have a feeling they’ll be worth millions someday…
Progress, progress, progress…there’s a word I feel we haven’t seen on this blog for quite some time. I went to the house last weekend and finally everything seems to be moving in a forward motion rather than the plateauing one you’ve all been hearing about. Thank you Design Development!
The upstairs and downstairs bathrooms are all framed, and the ceiling in the upstairs bedroom is gone! There are shingles on half of the house (should be complete by next weekend), and we’re reviewing concepts for the lifted house (4 vs. 8 feet). Finally, the best (and in my case, most dangerous) part of house renovation is about to begin: decorating.
Last week, Doug (our DD project manager) presented me with a list of bathroom must-haves (endless, BTW). Ever since, I’ve been perusing bathroom photos as I’m starting to decide what I envision for my own. I recently had dinner with my friend Susan, who happens to be building a house from scratch in Northern California. She is a design mentor for me in many ways – she has amazing style and pitch perfect taste to boot. From time to time I ask her to weigh-in on all types of design dilemmas that have entered my life.
At dinner we touched on the usual topics; children, the weather, friends and bathroom fixtures. Susan shared her findings that most high-end bathtubs are made of acrylic – rather than porcelain. Since what I am looking for are vintage-inspired porcelain fixtures, I was definitely surprised and somewhat disappointed until Susan pointed me in the direction of Kohler. She outfitted all of her bathrooms in Kohler and was delighted with the results. After spending quite some time on their website, I think this might be a great solution for me. According to Doug, it’s also a prudent one, since going vintage comes with its own set of problems. The “vintage” collection at Kohler might just do the trick – period look with modern function. Stay tuned….
We also are deciding whether or not to put a wood stove into the great room. Though it’s an additional expense, I think in the winter, when you’re looking out at the water, it will be nice to have a balance of warmth and fire – especially when there’s so much glass in the house. My Design Development team figured out how to fit the stove between two windows so we could look at the water while enjoying the fire. Genius! Again I’m looking for an authentic look but modern function. If anyone out there has any suggestions, I’m all ears.
I know the stove will be a good addition, as will the cathedral ceiling upstairs, as will the porcelain bathroom fixtures, as will the many additions that are surely on the horizon. Coco Chanel very wisely once said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” I’m hoping when it comes to house renovation rather than fashion, she’d prefer additions to subtractions.
As you’ve probably surmised from this blog already, renovating is not for the faint of heart. Believe it or not, I had my first trip ever to a police station last weekend—all the result of an unfortunate situation with an electrician. I’m hoping you will all gain a bit of wisdom from my mistakes. Our original contractor had hired an electrician whom I directly gave quite a hefty down payment. Once we parted ways with that contactor, we were instructed to work directly with this electrician. When we contacted the electrician, he told us that he wouldn’t refund our payment, but that he would do the work—which was, ironically, the last thing we heard from him for quite some time. How convenient for him! Things went radio silent—no answers, no work. Though he had my down payment he never showed up, never returned our phone calls, and seemed to temporarily have forgotten his email address. At this point, we decided there was no way we would ever be working together.
It’s amazing how lawsuits have a way of bringing people out of the woodwork (quite literally.) Soon after I hired a lawyer to get my down payment back, the vanishing electrician randomly showed up on site. As a result, I went to the police station and was forced to file a complaint—and suddenly found myself in the real estate version of Law and Order. I was brought into the interrogation room, my friend Katie was forbidden from coming with me, and I suddenly had old crime movie flashbacks (you know the ones, where they’re under that big shiny light). Happily, my fears were completely baseless. The Branford police department could not have been more professional and polite. A special shout-out to the police officer assigned to my case—he was a true gentleman.
You might ask how a fairly intelligent, seasoned renovator could be so incredibly stupid as not to have a contract before handing over a check for thousands of dollars? I have absolutely no answer. At the time, it just didn’t seem as big a lapse of judgment as it does now. Renovations consist of thousands of decisions both big and small. Occasionally one bad decision turns into an afternoon at the police station. Thankfully and hopefully that is a rare occurrence.
So, in the “lessons learned” category, here are a few of my favorites for fellow renovators:
• Be careful about handing out down payments—do not do it in advance. Wait until the day the work begins.
• Always have a signed, written contract with the contractor and only pay him. Do not pay subcontractors directly. Having nothing in writing can lead to, well, questionable circumstances.
• Last but not least, you should be personally involved in all hiring and firing decisions, rather than leave them up to someone else.
So there you have it. Just when I thought, “How could anything else possibly go wrong with this house?”—it did. If these walls could talk . . .
You know how a few weeks back I said, I’m trying hard to become one of those people who sees a silver lining in everything? Turns out this week, we found an actual silver lining (if you can believe it) in FEMA’s ordinance to raise the house. However, this silver lining took the form of extremely frustrating news, so I’m not sure that counts as a silver lining…but let’s be positive.
We journeyed to Branford Saturday and met with our Design Development project manager, Doug Buttendorf (yes the DD team works on the weekends!). Construction started last week and we were anxious to see progress. The first thing the team did was demolish what remained of our porch — as it had been badly damaged by Hurricane Irene. What they uncovered was beyond unsettling. The second floor of the cottage is partially supported by 8 columns (3 of which were rotted). Unbeknownst to us, the wooden beams that the columns sit on were rotted as well! In addition, the brick piers that the house was built on are either missing bricks in places or are barely being held together by crumbling bricks. If FEMA hadn’t made us raise the house, we’d never have uncovered this and the house could have come tumbling down on us at any moment. It’s disappointing to know that the two home inspections we had prior to purchase did not uncover these problems …but I guess that’s yet another lesson to be learned in all this.
The true silver lining and the news that we are most excited about is our master bedroom ceiling. A cathedral ceiling in the master bedroom was something I had my heart set on, but it was going to be difficult to achieve given the constraints of the house, so we nixed it early on. But then on Saturday, Doug gave us some very exciting news. The DD team figured out how to make it work (a specialty of theirs)! This room is my favorite for many reasons, but most especially because it is the real “house boat” room — with forever views and not a strip of land in sight. Our new ceiling will make Sunday mornings in bed all the more special with more light, more ocean, and more space. The house was going to fall on us, but then I got the ceiling I wanted – so all is well in the life of this home renovator.
SO, I’m sure you’re all waiting, with breath that’s bated – we’ve decided to: RAISE the house not raze it. Of course the first step in this decision-making process was to hold another “feet to the fire” meeting with Chip Brian, the head honcho of the Design Development team. He was brutally honest about the grim realities of building a new house, coupled with the grim reality of what I – Jaqui Lividini – would do with a completely blank canvas – which led to the conclusion that razing it would be a very bad idea. As for the cost, I have a funny feeling it would sky rocket. What can I say? Although I live by the simple-is-more philosophy – simple can be very expensive.
In reality, keeping the integrity of the cottage was primarily the deciding factor. I knew, no matter what was designed, I would not be able to preserve the authentic charm if starting from scratch. However, I did feel we needed to add a “specialist” to our team. I called our original architect, David Preusch. Although we decided not to continue with his plan a few years ago, that decision had nothing to do with him or his excellent work. We had worked for a year with David, and I felt his intimate knowledge of our cottage would be a big help in keeping the aesthetic of our Connecticut shore house intact.
So now Design Development and Preusch are working together. Another endearing fact about Chip, Doug and the DD team: egoless! They are happy to work with David on finding the right solution for the façade of the newly elevated house. We are hoping to choose between 2 different designs – one elevated house with a garage and one elevated without a garage. We’ll decide from there, which one we want (because we haven’t been faced with enough decisions.)
The other more difficult decision that needed to be made was when we’d actually lift the house. With FEMA’s new ordinance, lifting services along the Connecticut shoreline are as coveted as an Hermes Birkin bag. So we decided to renovate, then lift (It still scares me to say that — let alone do it). Chip assures me it will all work – a leap of faith for John and me, but we have complete trust in Chip and team. And the view will be even more spectacular from our newly elevated house.
All in all, the two big choices have been made – raise not raze, renovate then elevate. When this is all over and done with we’re thinking of making a Lifetime movie. What do you think?
If my beach cottage were actually a houseboat, right now it would be a very, very rocky one. As you know from the last update, FEMA has unfortunately rezoned the Branford waterfront due to Hurricane Sandy. The short version being: I need to raise my house higher above the shoreline in order to meet FEMA standards. Raising the house, though, is far more complicated and far more expensive than you could even imagine. The entire design we had planned is now compromised, and I’ve suddenly become one of those new homeowners whose house is less a house and more a never-ending work in progress. As an on-the-go personality, I am more than dismayed by this standstill. At this point, there’s really only one question to consider: Should we raze the house, or raise the house?
Raising the house implies far more of a cost than we had ever expected. So we’ve been forced to ask ourselves whether or not it’s worth it just to tear it down and start from scratch. I’m almost afraid to give myself that much creative bandwidth. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not exactly a woman of simple taste! So if we tear down the house and start from zero – will I really ever be done? Another thing to consider is the beach cottage aesthetic that we desperately wanted to keep intact when we first bought the house. If we rebuild, will it have even a semblance to the house that we fell in love with in the first place?
My Batman, Robin, Superman (and every other superhero I can think of) at Design Development are trying to help me mitigate the costs of raising the house. As of now, the cost of tearing it down and rebuilding (horrifyingly enough) does not seem so vastly different than the budget required for raising it and redesigning it. Tearing down the house, though, brings a whole other host of restrictions that will rear their ugly heads if we were to rebuild – so it seems we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. I’m beginning to understand why certain New Yorkers never leave New York.
By Jaqui Lividini
We got some news this week: Turns out months after the fact, Hurricane Sandy reared its ugly head one last time. Due to all the substantial damage on the Connecticut Shore Line, FEMA has redefined zoning in Branford. In July, our cottage will be classified as a high-velocity zone property rather than its current status as a still-water zone property. What does this mean in real life terms? Our cottage has to be raised 15 feet above sea level. It’s of course to avoid Sandy’s aftermath a second time – a painful-but-necessary kind of change. I wouldn’t wish a hurricane on anyone, but this news was definitely a different kind of disaster. I understand a house needing to be raised in order to save it from ruin, but in terms of design it’s definitely a stressful setback. When you’re renovating though, no matter who you are, you have to be as flexible as possible. It’s going to be one delay after the other – there’s no such thing as a smooth-sailing renovation (except in Nancy Meyer movies). I’ll spare you even more technical details, but now what to do about this?
I must admit I’m in a bit of mourning over this situation, if you recall one of the reasons John and I fell in love with this cottage is just that, it’s a cottage — small & charming. I’m acutely aware that I may loose that intimacy if our house suddenly soars 10 feet into the air! On the flip side – the views will be even more spectacular then before – if that’s even possible, and perhaps a garage can be snuggled under the house. I had a moment of defiance when I first heard about the re-zoning, dug my heels into the ground, and said I am not doing it – what is the worst that can happen. Well I quickly found out from my cracker jack insurance agent Norm Munckle that the consequence is no flood insurance. I quickly got over myself.
In the meantime — Design Development to the rescue! While I was grappling with so much indecision, Doug, our project manager, quickly solidified a game plan while enlisting both our designer (Charles) and the architect (Joe) to start working on possible design solutions. We spent the weekend going through tear sheets trying to decide what’s feasible in terms of space, scope, and expense. We should reach a conclusion by next week (though I’m sure like everything else that conclusion will have to be tweaked, changed, tossed, turned etc.).
What’s most important to us is keeping the integrity of the beach cottage, even though we’ll have to redesign both the front and the back. Doug and team are now working through the rules and regulations of house lifting – but I must say, the the town of Branford, especially Laura and Janice, have been spectacular in their willingness to help make this situation as palatable as possible – as for the garage – seems simple – stay tuned! At the end of the day — let’s just say it was a blessing in disguise that we hadn’t begun major renovations earlier, as any work that was done would have had to be scrapped and started from scratch. I’m starting to have to be one of those people that sees a silver lining in everything…let’s see how that goes!