There are no small projects that don’t also contain a seed of potential to blossom into large projects, and this is especially true of older houses. This particular one, a reinvention of a charming 1920s Tudor, began as an accessibility retrofit for a couple. The husband was beset with mobility challenges when they first approached architect William Ruhl, FAIA, for help. The quirky home in Newton, Massachusetts, was lovable, but it wasn’t very livable, and its chief obstacles were small level changes connecting key areas of the house. Here a step, there a step, everywhere a step.
When Will arrived to see the house and determine how he might tackle its problems, he was dumbfounded. He and his wife had owned its near replica and had struggled with many of the same assets and deficiencies. He was eager to apply his intimate knowledge of the building to a new set of program requirements. “The clients had done a lot of work already,” he recalls. “They had replaced windows and done a ton of shoring up work. And when I met with them, they were talking about remodeling for accessibility and adding an elevator. But then they disappeared for about a year.”
At the end of that year, the wife returned—her husband had died in the intervening time, and she had no current issues with mobility. “When she came back around, she had a completely new vision of what she wanted,” says Will. Her love for the clinker brick house was unchanged, but her new agenda was to combat its dark interiors, its large but poorly laid out kitchen, and its small, somewhat useless secondary spaces. Having shared the journey of her husband’s decline, she retained the idea of addressing excessive level changes on the first floor.
“When we first met, we established that I had lived, breathed, and grappled with the problems of this house. My wife and I chose to keep the quirky level changes, and just put on an addition off the back,” says Will. “The original house was designed so you enter into a slightly recessed area and then step up to the living room. To get to the back of the house, it was three steps up to a double-sided stair landing and then steps back down on the other side. So that was the big architectural requirement—to make everything on the first floor the same level.”
No easy task, for sure, but one made even more difficult by the town’s highly restrictive, anti-McMansion codes. Building a large addition to help sort everything out was not an option. “This is the smallest house on the street, but the town is very strict about adding floor space,” he explains. “We had to calculate everything down to the square inch.”
Ultimately, they were allowed to build a 60-square-foot addition, sliced into the core of the house at the approximate midpoint. That enabled Will to design an entirely new stair (without the problematic landing and steps) and flip it 180 degrees. While tiny, the addition and its strategic array of fenestration solved the client’s primary desire for more natural light in the house. Coming in at the center and from above through a 6-foot-square window on the third floor, light now permeates the house where it’s needed most.
The team also widened nearly every doorway, which allows central light to join other sources from the perimeter of the house. Select windows at the perimeter were enlarged and, in some cases, taken down to the floor plate and up to the ceiling. Not only do they bring in more light, they modernize the look of the interiors.
Light and Bright
The client drove the decision-making for every material—every choice needed to hew to light and bright. Will had the existing white oak floors repaired where needed, and sanded and bleached. The custom-built kitchen cabinets are a pale Tabu veneer with a delicate wood grain. “I wanted them to feel more like paneling,” he says. Solid surface counters and backsplash complement the wood. “Her thing was whites and grays, which worked nicely with our tastes.”
While the south-facing kitchen didn’t really gain space, a new layout enabled Will to add the client’s requested sitting room and fireplace. (A fireplace in the living room received a modern, streamlined facelift.)
On the second level, the addition opened up space for a home office, carved out of a former hall bathroom. Bedrooms were reassigned and upgraded, with the guest room now occupying the original home’s master quarters and the master relocated to the rear, sunny side of the house. Will remodeled both the guest bathroom and master bathroom completely, and added an extra water closet to the latter per the client.
The third floor had been nearly inaccessible, according to Will, prior to the new stair. With better access, it made sense to redo the extra bedrooms it contained, and turn one into a flex space, creating a suite for either a nanny or caregiver.
And so, the small job morphed into a major architectural interiors renovation touching nearly every component of the house (including upgrading all the systems and insulation). Those 60 extra square feet and the brilliantly designed and crafted new stair—measured and modeled and revised repeatedly—made all the difference in the building’s appeal and function.
Says Will, “I think the design improved with all the restrictions and problem solving. We’d find that we were a square inch over and then ask ourselves, how are we going to solve that? And the design would get better.”
Plans and Drawings
ARCHITECT: William T. Ruhl, FAIA, and Sandra A. Jahnes, AIA, LEED AP, principals; Nerijus Petrokas, LEED GA; Kristen Bender Daabul, Assoc. AIA, LEED GA, NCIDQ; Ruhl Studio Architects, Watertown, Mass.
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Kristen Bender Daabul, Assoc. AIA, LEED GA, NCIDQ (formerly with Ruhl Walker Architects, now with Walker Architects)
BUILDER: Rick Guidelli, founding principal; Doug Bellow, principal; Zach Bensley, project manager; Zach Gilchrest, carpenter; Gilman Guidelli & Bellow, Newton
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Jennifer Brooke, Christian Lemon, Lemon Brooke, LLC, Concord, Mass.
ENGINEERING: Jennifer McClain, PE, and Stacy Weaver, PE, principals, RSE Associates, Watertown, Mass.
PROJECT SIZE: 3,000 square feet
SITE SIZE: .5 acre
$350 a square foot
Nat Rea Photography
CABINETRY: Custom kitchen cabinets, Tabu Natural + Dyed Tay Koto 04.059 veneer; custom master bath vanities, Tabu Natural + Dyed Tay Koto 04.002 veneer; custom powder room vanity, Tabu Walnut 51.B02 BIO 2 veneer
CLADDING: Copper, Boral TruExterior nickel-gap poly-ash siding, James Hardie Reveal Panel System, slate
COUNTERTOPS: Kitchen, Caesarstone White Attica Quartz; master bath, Caesarstone Pure White quartz; powder room, Calacatta gold marble
ENTRY DOORS/LOCKETS: Emtek
ESPRESSO MAKER: Gaggenau
FAUCETS/SHOWERHEADS: Kitchen, Blanco Blancoculina; Blanco Cantata wall-mounted pot filler; master bath, AXOR Urquiola; guest bath, Hansgrohe Talis S
FIREPLACE SURROUNDS: Living room, Ashfield stone schist; family room,
Ann Sacks Fountainebleau limestone
FLOORING: Rift-cut white oak
HVAC: ADP, Lennox, Fantech
MEDICINE CABINETS: Robern
MICROWAVE: Bosch Microwave Drawer,
TruStile Doors, Emtek
ROOFING: Custom copper and slate; Carlisle Syntec EPDM
SHOWERHEADS: AXOR Urquiola with Dornbracht body sprays
SINKS: Kitchen, Blanco Quatrus; master bath, Kohler Verticyl; secondary bathrooms, Kohler Stillness
TILE: Foyer, Stone Source Provenza Q-Stone, Gray; master bath, Ann Sacks
Palladium travertine; guest bath, Waterworks Greystone, Tilebar Marbella
TOILETS: TOTO Aquia
TOWEL HEATER: Vogue UK Serene MDO49
TUB: Hydrosystem Newbury Freestanding Bathtub
Henry Blueskin VP100
VANITIES/LAVS: Duravit ME by Starck
VENTILATION: Panasonic, Fantech
WINE REFRIGERATION: TRUE