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Part 3: Building our dream home required some compromise

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“It was a little bit over budget, but we were too deliriously happy about the kitchen to mind”

Devon Banks

Before renovating, I had the vague idea that an architect swoops in with a grand plan, makes some drawings, and then peaces out. Maybe some do. All I know is that it didn’t take long into our home renovation for my partner to accidentally text our architect the heart-wink emoji meant for me.

For months, Otto Ruano was our most recent text, sender of 4 a.m. emails about lightbulbs; soliloquist on what, exactly, gypsum is made out of. The dude is committed.

We were anxious to get started—and to finish. But we didn’t even know what we could do. We were still couch surfing until we could spruce up what would be the rental unit. A friend recommended an electrician who gave us a good price ($15,000) to rewire all three floors and was fine with waiting while we figured out the plan for the first floor and basement.

It only took about a week to rewire the second floor, after which Otto hooked us up with a contractor who did small jobs and sent a crew to strip the wallpaper and repair the walls. That’s when we learned professional painting is really, really expensive and shrugged that we would do it ourselves. (Hubris. Halfway into a third miserable week painting yet another molding curve, my partner got the flu. By that point, I actually envied him.)

Devon Banks

Otto persuaded us that replacing the musty-but-functional upstairs kitchen was much less of a big deal than we thought and would pay dividends in rental income. Seemingly in minutes, he sketched out a basic IKEA kitchen with an implausible price: $960, including laminate countertop and good old Haggeby fronts—the cheapest, and perfectly lovely. With demolition and installation quoted at $825—not counting the site prep we already planned, keeping the existing appliances, and putting in a subway-tile backsplash ourselves —we had a new upstairs kitchen for only $1,600, in a week. We moved in by mid-January.

Living upstairs, we began fully absorbing the strangeness of our old-house layout. It’s roughly a railroad—four rooms in a row downstairs, two of them windowless, with the kitchen in the back; upstairs, the same layout plus a bonus room above the stairwell. Add an unpleasant entrance, into a narrow hall with a bathroom on your left, and a very long trip to that bathroom from the bedroom, for which we’d designated the room facing the street. (As nice as it is to sleep facing the yard, we spend more waking hours in the kitchen and dining room, and we wanted easy access from the kitchen to the backyard. Eventually.)

What we wanted most was to get rid of the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. We knew open kitchens weren’t traditional, but we had lived with windowless, tiny kitchens and were living in a not-too-bad galley kitchen now, and we knew we wanted a dynamic flow in and around food prep.

First-floor walk through leading into the kitchen
Justin Brooks

We didn’t care much about the living room, which would be relegated to the windowless middle room; it was the kitchen and the dining room that would be the center of the house. What we didn’t know was whether getting rid of the wall would require complex engineering or just a day or two of demo and reinforcement.

All of this had to get ironed out in a seemingly endless series of hours-long meetings and walk-throughs by potential contractors. Officially, it started with project specifics written out by Otto and his team. Then contractors were sent a bullet-point summary of what we wanted to do. Here’s part of it, minus the electrical and plumbing minutiae:

New kitchen/dining/living rooms:

– Remove the partition between the kitchen and the dining room, and remove the partitions that form the hallway from the entrance. See the existing conditions drawings.

– 800sf new prefinished wood flooring throughout 1st floor. New half round shoe molding throughout.

– Paint Entire 1st floor exclude Hallway. Include new walls (approximately 2,000 sf of wall area + 750sf of ceiling area).

– New Solid Core shaker doors (5) total.

– New Bathroom with new tub, sink, and toilet.

– Separate plumbing number out. See below for plumbing scope.

– Drop a new gypsum ceiling and run new molding throughout the living room, dining room, and kitchen.

– Kitchen to be Ikea kitchen purchased by owner installed by you. Add new tile backsplash, approximately 20sf.

– Tile purchased by owner and shipped to site, installed by you.

– Fixtures and Appliances by owner, installed by you.

– Electrical: allowance for replacing of all electrical throughout. [etc]

Plumbing was what truly terrified us. It seemed that the New York City Department of Buildings code changed every few weeks, and with each change came thousands of dollars. And it was news to me that “plumbing” also included heating the house, not just the sewage and water supply. We had a brief but frantic inquiry into whether, instead of converting to a boiler system with window air-conditioning units in the summer, we could have minisplit units for both heating and cooling. In the end, that was definitely not in the budget.

We learned that bringing through contractors is a little like going to the dermatologist: You probably want to talk about pimples or wrinkles, but she needs to talk to you about melanoma first. Sure, yes, plumbing code. When do we get to talk about what I now know to call, in jargon that was totally unfamiliar to me before, finishes? Or whether we could afford to knock down the wall between the dining room and the kitchen?

Not yet.

Occasionally, Otto would bring a flooring sample or two to our meetings to spice up the tedium of talking mechanicals. (We desperately wanted to rip up the linoleum on the first floor and restore the original pine floors, but contractor after contractor assured us they were destroyed by evil black flooring glue and probably water damage too.)

As the estimates came in, we made the rookie mistake of assuming these prices were worth obsessing over. At that point, everything is a ballpark figure, so economizing on backsplash tile to save $800 wasn’t the best use of time—or imagination. We, and more importantly Otto, needed to figure out the range of the possible.

With those in hand, that’s when he came up with two alternate renderings to give the contractors. Our favorite was his plan to nearly double the size of the bathroom by eliminating the useless hallway at the entrance to the unit, orienting the entry door into the living room.

But there was bad news about Option A. Otto had come to believe the wall between the kitchen and the dining room would require an engineer, that it possibly would need a new beam and columns down into the foundation. (Translation: more money than we had in our $130,000 renovation budget.) “Option B does not require an engineer and allows us to create an opening that is about three feet wide on either side of the island,” he wrote. It would look like this from the dining room:

Kitchen wall Option B
LEAD Studio/Otto Ruano
LEAD Studio/Otto Ruano

We were less enthusiastic. By now, our expectations had grown and grown, and the idea of doing dishes facing a blank wall did not meet them. We waited for the more detailed estimates to come back from the four contractors: Two Otto had worked with before, one our inspector recommended, one Otto’s neighbor had used. There was one contractor from a previous project Otto couldn’t stop enthusing about, CNS. “If we could get CNS…” was how he began more than once sentence, like, If all our dreams could come true.

And… we did get CNS. Their estimate came in near budget, and not only did they think Option A was possible, a consultation with a structural engineer Otto works with determined that we actually didn’t need to run columns down to the foundation, thanks to our super-sturdy, dense, old-growth beams being in excellent shape. A simple header beam to reinforce the opening would do.

Kitchen wall Option A
LEAD Studio/Otto Ruano

The estimated total with appliances and finishes and the architect’s fee: $139,867.70, not counting a contingency for surprises. It was a little bit over budget, but we were too deliriously happy about the open kitchen to mind. We were in.

Next week, on Renovation Diary:

Contractor drama, and our homeowner starts taking stock of budget overages while living in a construction zone.