Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Top of the Slope

After a year-long hiatus I've been wanting to get back to this blog because a lot has happened in the meantime, and a lot of interesting stuff that did happen throughout our project hasn't been written about yet.

I recently watched a Youtube video where some people started a renovation and the host of the program remarked that they were on a "slippery slope".  I think this is the way a lot of renovations seem to go; you end up dealing with a lot more than you bargained for in terms of time, money and stress. It also seems like a common thread that people get the idea that they want to do a renovation and they start out being very ambitious and really stretching themselves to the breaking point.  Everybody has their own story for how they got onto the slippery slope, I guess.  For me it was this Dwell magazine from February 2010.

Yep, way back in 2010 is when the seed of what would become this crazy renovation saga was planted.  This magazine cover really jumped out at me, and believe it or not I think the reason is because of that green car on the cover, which I've since learned is a '63 Thunderbird.  I'm not a car enthusiast, at all, but for some reason that car really grabbed my attention and I think it's because when I was very, very little, I had a tiny green matchbox car that looked like that green mist '63 T-bird. It turns out the house in the picture is in Michigan, where my grandparents were originally from, and which I visited once as a very small child, and it has a kind of eastern US mid-century modern vibe that must have triggered the neural remnants of some deeply buried childhood impressions. Plus it's a damn cool house.

 So my girlfriend at the time, who is my wife now, said "Why don't you get it if you like it?". So I did.  And flipping through the pages I began this journey into all things housey and designery and architecty.

Truth is before I became an engineer, I always wanted to be an architect.  I like drawing, and I drew a lot of buildings as a kid. I also bought the house I was living in with the idea that one day I would renovate it, and add a second storey on it, like many of the houses in our neighborhood have done over the years.  So the idea to renovate was already there but this magazine kind of kick-started my interest in it for real.  One of the ads in this magazine was for the Turkel Dwell Homes Collection which is manufactured by Lindal Cedar Homes. One of the pictures really stood out as a nice design for a narrow city lot.

I thought this house was really cool. Turkel is a west-coast firm from California so it probably resonated with my west-coast roots.  I got a little obsessed about finding out all the details of this plan and managed to track down some layouts for this and other Turkel-designed Lindal homes.  I found the efficiency of the designs incredibly interesting. Architecture is such a cool blend of practical and efficient use of space, mixed with artistic concessions, kind of like a tension-release interplay between hard-cold science and creative, emotional art.

Around this time I stumbled across some pictures by Toronto firm SuperKul who did this amazing house there called the Crescent Road House.

This also kind of resonated because the lot size is and layout is pretty similar to ours. The house isn't much wider than ours, and although this was obviously a really high-end build (it has an elevator inside) I thought this could be a pretty good source of inspiration. I contacted Superkul to see if they could do a project where we live, but then I started thinking it would be hard to work on a custom design with somebody so far away. I like this house enough that I tried building a 3D model of the layout.

It turns out that this house, as well as the Dwell-Turkel-Lindal house were both too big for us to be able to build, because I found out there are restrictions on how big of a house you can build on the lots in my neighborhood, since they are close to the 100-year flood plain. So I started messing around in Sketchup.  Just tonight, I stumbled across a few of the old Sketchup models that I started making back then to try and come up with ideas for a second-story addition and extension on our house.  Here are a couple of them.

I know these are not very good, but they were kind of fun and more importantly, I started to realize that unless you are building something pretty standard, it's hard to come up with a good design where all the details fall into place. Take the carport for example. Way too high for one thing, owing to the fact that our house was originally constructed as a "storey and a half" bungalow with the basement half sticking up out of the ground.

After messing around with Sketchup I realized that even though it was fun it was not really a good way to approach designing a floor plan. This is what architects call "the program" I guess. You have to start by figuring out what rooms go where.  You do that before going all crazy in Sketchup.  So I found an website called Floorplanner, which was really cool.  You can design your floor plan and even put little pieces of furniture in it, and then click a button to see what it will look like in 3D.  This is kind of like playing with legos or a doll house, but for grown ups.

It turns out that the designs I was playing with in Floorplanner are still there, and it looks like they were made back in 2011. So this was well before we started our renovation.  You can only do one "project" on the free version of so I ended up making a few different storeys with a few different designs for each one, until I filled up my quota of possible layouts on the free tier. Here's what some of those looked like.

This was the first attempt and it was pretty boring.  It also moved the stairs to the right side of the house and I realized that keeping the stairs in the same location where the existing basement stairs were, was probably a better option.

The next one I liked a little better. It re-used exactly the same original footprint of the house without any extensions to the foundation anywhere. When you think that the original house fit in a 24' x 28' footprint and had two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, entry with closet, a dine-in kitchen, as well as stairs to the basement and a linen closet in the hall, that's pretty amazing. They were small rooms for sure, but they sure packed a lot into a small space.

I kind of liked this layout because there was a fish tank embedded into the wall between the entry and the tatami room. How cool would that be?  Also instead of a full tatami room I tried making half of the room with raised tatami mats. The table would sit in the middle, half over the raised tatami mats and half over the regular floor. That way you could either sit on the tatami mats, like a bench, or on a chair if you prefer.

Next I tried switching up the kitchen and the tatami room, and here's what that looked like:

This was the last iteration of the floorplan I came up with and the one I think I liked the best, based on trial and error from my previous attempts. This layout basically took the kitchen in the existing house from the front left and pushed it to the back right of the house, replaced the bathroom and one of the bedrooms with a japanese-style tatami room, pushed the front door to the right, and used up the space where the kitchen used to be, for a living room. Even looking back on this now, it's quite an efficient layout. The only downside was that the front door would have been separated from the driveway on the opposite side. This can mean a lot of snow shovelling in winter to get from your front door to your car.

Coming up with a good layout for the second storey addition must have been hard, because I don't have any designs saved on floorplanner for that. I just remember spending hours and hours messing around with this site, trying to come up with something modest yet beautiful, and ultimately getting kind of frustrated and finding it can be a lot harder than it looks, and thinking that this is why people hire architects, to solve these kind of problems and come up with the right "program".

In hindsight, I'm not sure we were terribly far off from having a workable layout. If I'd come up with a good plan for the 2nd storey, that last iteration could've worked pretty well despite the door and driveway on opposite sides.  What's a little snow shovelling?!  It would have been a way more affordable build, too, because it required no new foundation work, and we would not have had overhangs on the 2nd storey either.  I doubt that we could have given it the same beautiful aesthetic on the exterior if we'd designed it all ourselves, and no doubt a structural engineer would have required some changes, but it's interesting to see how far I actually got with this back in 2011 before we started looking for an architect who could refine our goals into a workable plan with a mix of Japanese and modern Canadian features.

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The Top of the Slope

After a year-long hiatus I've been wanting to get back to this blog because a lot has happened in the meantime, and a lot of interesting...