An architect recounts the triumphs (and compromises) behind a recent house renovation.
A residential project is like psychoanalysis. An architect deals with the dreams. wishes, and fantasies of not only the client but himself, and by the end of the job the client either wants to marry or kill the architect (sometimes both). It’s no coincidence that Freud compared the dreams of the unconscious mind to the facade of a house, for the often harmonious appearance of a completed project can mask the difficult and complicated process that led lo the visible result.
They seemed like perfect clients: visual, hip, affluent. Rick Dobbis had been promoted to president of Sony Music International and was back in New York after being stationed in London for a number of years. His partner, Mary Ann Koenig, was studying for her master’s in European History at Columbia University and had an educated eye (her thesis was on Trotsky’s image in Bolshevik art). Originally they had planned to live in Manhattan, but decided to combine home and weekend retreat by purchasing a small picturesque lake with a run-down house.
Often a client has paid a lot of money for a less than fabulous site, and the architect must feign enthusiasm to get the job. Here the site was quite extraordinary: a nine-acre circular jewel of a lake surrounded by a ring of trees and three barn-red windmills from the 1930s. Except for the occasional sound of traffic on nearby I-684 wafting over the breeze, one could imagine being hundreds of miles from Manhattan, not a 30- minute commute.
Visiting them for the first time, I became somewhat alarmed at their self-described “eclectic” taste, which included Chinese altar tables, faux Italian Renaissance painted cabinets, and a large collection of Brooklyn Dodgers memorabilia. (Their dog’s name is Dodger.) The bedroom ceiling was a painted canopy of swags and garlands. Obviously there was a certain aesthetic risk here. But on the positive side, they were enthusiastic and open-minded, and there was at least the chance that they could be· convinced to build something modern and daring.
Aside from their furniture, the house was in as much a mess as the lake was perfect: a rambling collection of additions from the 1950’s onward. It was brown and literally lowbrow, with the gable roof pressing down on the second level and narrow hip-high horizontal windows. The lake was visible only when silting down. Turning its back on the million-dollar view, the 6,500-square-foot house might as well have been on a cul-de-sac in Levittown.
The kitchen was oddly too big, with a huge vent over the cooking island that looked as if it could suck a frying chicken right off the stove. The living room was an ill-proportioned pavilion with a cathedral ceiling and exposed beams. The piece de resistance was a one-ton tub in the master bath, carved from a huge piece of black-and-gold marble. A holdover from the previous owners, it was like a relic from ancient Rome. But sitting forlornly in a corner of the bathroom, it recalled a house inhabited by barbarians who didn’t know what to do with abandoned luxury.
Despite the disconnected nature of the spaces, there was a cozy village-like quality to the collection of smaller structures that fit snug into the hill overlooking the lake. This was the feeling that Rick and Mary Ann wanted to keep. “We felt it was crucial to open up the living spaces, “Rick says, “and make the house more comfortable by integrating it into its surrounding.” They also wanted to modernize the house with new air conditioning and heating, an upgraded electrical system, and a new roof and plumbing.
Was this a teardown? I wondered. Would the final product be a Frankenstein patchwork of measures that wouldn’t hold together? Renovations can present a Pandora’s box of problems that once uncovered are too late to hide. Then of course there was an unrealistic budget; you could barley accomplish the basic functional requirements for $500,000. Although square-foot estimates are useful at the beginning of a job, the refrain of “how much will this cost?” before there is anything to price is a Zen koan on par with the sound of one hand clapping.
Within the confines of the fuzzy budget there was a hierarchy of goals to achieve: open up the house to the lake view, unify the exterior, and renovate the master bath and kitchen. The first two goals were achieved in a Eureka moment when I realized the solution was to wrap the lakefront side with a wall of glass. The formerly dark exterior would dissolve into reflections of lake and sky, and from the inside, all rooms would have the water as the fourth wall of space.
For the front of the house, the jumble of boxes of different heights and angles demanded a more radical idea, a completely visual concept that would relate to the nearby windmills. “We had fantasized about having a tower,” Rich says. “You read our minds. We lived the towers you see in Italy, and we were attracted to a house you had designed that looked like an Italian village.” Towers a la Giotto are okay in my book, so a mysterious shuttered structure was proposed, with a spiral stair ascending to a viewing platform. A kind of Westchester San Gimignano. This would be the climax of the design and a unique way to pull everything together without tearing the house down.
We would treat the marble bathtub as an archeological treasure in its own rounded niche, on a pedestal of steps lit from above by a hidden clerestory. A gold-leafed vaulted ceiling would run the length of the bath with the golden bowls of the vanity floating on a slab of limestone. The walls would be lined with glass tile that sparkled in the light, and a large shower the width of the bath would fill the apse at one end of the room.
It all sounded good until the time came for pricing, permits, and builders to get involved. Knowing there were potentially fatal delays in getting a building permit during the busy construction season, we decided to apply early rather than wait until the final drawings were complete. Usually the Byzantine process of getting a permit is limited to big cities like New York, where a special creature called the “building expediter” exists to present drawings to Kafkaesque bureaucrats who say, “No, we cannot tell you when you will get a permit! Come back next week.” We didn’t think we’d need this kind of help in Armonk. But it turned out the chief inspector there had just quit and no one was quite in charge. Confusion reigned; weeks passed. Finally, as the spring deadline loomed, someone in our office found the approved permit one morning while sorting through a week’s worth of unopened mail.
Rather than complete construction drawings and wait for bad news on price later on, I have learned to get estimates at an early stage. At Rick’s request, one of the first contractors to look at the project was Ron Parlato, the Sony executive set’s builder of choice. He had constructed Tommy Mottola and his ex-wife Mariah Carey’s infamous house nearby, which had burned to the ground six years after it was built. With a recommendation like that, I thought, why bother to build?
When contractors are busy, they don’t give estimates since they don’t have to. As a favor to Rick, Parlato was gracious enough to itemize the cost of the renovation. The shock of the numbers gives me pause even now. Fortunately there were other builders in the area hungry for work. When the lowest estimate remained higher than the original budget, Rick called one of those meetings that architects dread. Amid much finger-pointing and breast-beating, he decided that “the tower was clearly a folly, although one we were very fond of. But there were other expenses essential to the quality of life in the house. The tower was easy to eliminate, since it remains doable.” Crestfallen by the “unkindest cut of all,” the wounded design limped back to the office for remedial treatment.
We decided to concentrate on the most important aspects of the design: the window wall, the master bath, a more modest kitchen, a new roof, and functional necessities. To be prudent, we changed the plans and resubmitted the reduced version of our ideal design to the builders for repricing. To everyone’s surprise (except the builders), the cost came back even higher! How was that possible? “This remains one of life’s great mysteries,” Rick says. “But this was the first time we had been through a renovation, and we were learning as we went along. We just didn’t know what to ask.” Of course it didn’t make sense, but construction is often like entering the Looking Glass in Alice in Wonderland. From a contractor’s point of view, though, the estimates made perfect sense. “It’s very difficult to work with architects who want to marry different materials together,” says builder Paul O’Donohue of Kel-Mar Interiors. “Contemporary designs are beautiful but hard to achieve. The Dobbis project was a mishmash of old and new, so in the end it was easier to build. But because of the age of the house, there were a lot of hidden conditions, so it was difficult to predict and control the pricing.”
When the fin al drawings were submitted for competitive bidding, the price was higher than expected but s till within reason, and pocketbooks opened up. Kei-Mar won the bid, or in their words, ” bought the job” for 50 percent less than their competitor. The site soon became a beehive of activity, and the house was completely ripped apart. Rick and Mary Ann had originally considered living in the walk-out basement during construction, but quickly thought better of it. In addition to the dust and noise, the chaotic appearance is often a source of aggravation and worry to the client who does not know exactly what he or she is looking at. At one point there was little of the original house left on the site; it was disassembled in order to be put back together again.
The triangle of client, builder, and architect is a series of checks and balances. And although the architect is technically representing the owner’s interest during construction, the relationship between parties can be more like the three gunmen in Reservoir Dogs: eyes trained on each other. In the end no triggers were pulled, but there were a number of hair-raising moments: when the upstairs faucet was turned on by the cleaning crew before the plumbing was complete, causing a flood through the living room ceiling stereo speakers; the discovery that new foundations were left out from under the enormously heavy bathtub, or that the structural columns for the glass wall, which were supposed to be of equal width, were built helter-skelter like some jigsaw puzzle parody of Modernism. Eventually all mistakes were corrected with a lot of yelling, screaming, pleading, and cajoling.
The kitchen floor became a comedy of errors that is yet to be solved. The clients wanted an “industrial look,” so a craftsman with impeccable credentials was found (he had done the Casa Armani shop in Soho). Samples we re approved, but the best-laid plans sometimes go terribly wrong. Did the client insist that the floor be redder and push the craftsman into an unstable mixture? Did the craftsman simply have a bad faux cement day? For whatever reason, rather than having an even tonality the Boor turned out looking like a cross between the surface of one of the moons of Jupiter and a pizza. The problem now is how to even it out. At present the solution is to hire another faux artist who will paint out the worst offending splotches. So much for inexpensive raw-concrete floor solutions.
Another unexpected problem (from the client’s point of view) was the visibility of the toilet from the second-floor bath. To keep the glass wall consistent on the exterior, a floor-to-ceiling window was placed in the bathroom next to the toilet. Although a window shade was specified for privacy and there were no neighbors nearby, Mary Ann objected and the clear glass was re placed with a frosted pane. I thought we had made a mistake until I was shown the same treatment in the woman’s bathroom at the Pulitzer Foundation, in St. Louis, just completed by Tadao Ando.
As the project neared the end, the infamous punch list was issued. These are usually small things that are left out or incomplete, such as missing trim and hinges, slightly damaged cabinets that need to be replaced, or sloppy areas of paint. Because there’s an interminable wait for each subcontractor to show up and complete their part, this process can seem endless. When the first round is complete another, smaller list of missing items is issued, and then another one, and so on. With punch lists usually on party gives out from exhaustion (although some lists-legendarily-have been known to get handed down from previous generations). By the second round Rick and Mary Ann were living in the house, and more problems became visible as they viewed it in the changing light of day. The job now is complete. Their friends arrive one by one to ooh and aah at the lake, “knocked out by what they see,” amazed at how quickly and painlessly this renovation seems to have gone. If they only knew.