Two major remodeling jobs on a modernist house in sunny California elevate practical storage spaces to works of art. Once you've designed and built a pricey, avant-garde residential addition -- especially a complicated project that challenged your crew and thrilled the homeowners -- the sweetest phrase you can hear from those homeowners is, "Let's do Phase Two."
That was the request made by homeowners Ned Freed and Tamara McDonald-Freed to Hartman Baldwin, a design/build firm in Claremont, Calif., that does about $6 million in sales a year, most of it from referrals and repeat customers. When asked if he and his wife considered hiring any other firm for the second phase, Freed said, "Not even for a minute."
Such is the success of Hartman Baldwin's dual-pronged approach to business. "We want to stay friends with our clients," says principal Devon Hartman, "and do something really beautiful."
For the first phase, in 1995, Hartman Baldwin popped the ceiling up on a 1953 flat-roofed, one-story modernist home to create a home office on a wide bridge overlooking a library addition on one side and an enlarged dining room on the other -- all of it canopied by a dramatic barrel ceiling of white-washed ash. The kitchen and living room were also redone.
For the second phase, completed last year, Hartman Baldwin was asked to come back and build a new bedroom and luxury bathroom for the couple, a new bedroom and bathroom for their son, Thomas, and a basement library for the overflow of Freed's 7,000 books that he couldn't fit in the first library addition.
Freed, a software innovator who sold his company to Sun Microsystems, is a voracious reader who goes through at least a half a book a day. He reads mysteries and science fiction, enjoys dictionaries and plays, and he's got them bar-coded and entered into a library software program so he doesn't buy duplicates. But where to put all those books presented a problem for his wife, a preschool owner, who is sensitive to dust and balked at the floor-to-ceiling bookcases that were taking over the couple's bedroom.
The couple bought the house in 1989, having moved from their native Oklahoma to attend Harvey Mudd College, one of several prestigious private colleges that help give Claremont its refined, culture-rich aura. It's the kind of community where people tend to stay and remodel, rather than moving out of the area, when their homes no longer meet their needs.
The house was considered so cutting edge in the 1950s, with wide walls of glass wrapped around a backyard patio, that it was written up in a magazine. Freed saw potential even though previous owners had, over the decades, installed cheap kitchen cabinets without one apparent true right angle, added gothic touches, and turned the once-elegant patio into an aviary for a giant falcon and its giant droppings.
Ned tucked his office into a corner of the living room for a few years, and when the house finally wore down the family's patience, they started searching for a firm to do a remodel. What they didn't want was the kind of experience where what gets drawn on paper is not what gets built. In those cases, Freed says, "There's always a glitch between what the architect says and what the builder says."
With enough dollars and sense to hire the right remodeler, the couple was referred by friends to Hartman Baldwin, a firm with a stellar reputation in town for getting complicated jobs done for exacting clients. In Freed's mind, some of that is attributed to the designers and builders working for the same company. "I'm a big believer in the design/build concept," he says.
Until they came to work for his company, architects have told Devon Hartman they had never seen one of their projects improve during construction. In this company, though, the building crews "have massive input," Hartman says, which makes for better projects and better outcomes.
The first design step was finding a place for Freed's office. He wanted a distinct space but didn't want to be isolated from his family. "I like to see what's going on in the house," he says. It was during a design charette, Hartman recalls, when someone came up with the radical concept to pop up the ceiling and create the bridge. The idea was a hit.
Of course, coming up with an unconventional design for the house and getting it approved by the city's notoriously conservative Architectural Commission are two different things. "We knew it would be an uphill conversation with the city and the neighborhood," Hartman says. "Nobody else in the neighborhood has a curved roof, so how can you say that it fits in?"
By pointing out the home's modern origins, the firm convinced the commission. To ease neighbor's fears, the firm hosted two teas at the Freed home to display color renditions of the proposed addition, to answer any questions, and to tell neighbors of the time frame for the remodel (see "Good Neighbor Policy," below).
Success down under
The first phase was, Hartman says, "one of the most complicated jobs we've ever done." It involved six steel posts sunk 3 feet in the ground, which supported the giant glulam beam and wood arches. "There was some math going on," foreman Allen Suckley says to describe the complex engineering of the project.
Suckley, who has been with Hartman Baldwin for 17 years, also was foreman, with Dave Robertson, on the second phase's basement and bedroom wing. It was a complex project for the firm, too, especially because basements are rare in California. But Robertson's past basement experience was a benefit. The site for the basement was just a few feet from the neighbor's rock wall and was mostly stones with a little soil filler. Excavation took four days with heavy machinery and two and a half weeks of pushing a wheelbarrow up a ramp.
With the site dug down to 121/2 feet, the main concern was waterproofing the concrete block structure. It involved a system of emulsion, matting, 1-inch foam board, perforated drainpipes, and gravel backfill to within 6 inches of grade. It took about 10 weeks to get the basement roughed out, and then the ground-floor construction took another eight months. An entire month was lost when a communication error caused the wrong tile to be delivered. "I went berserk," Suckley recalls.
However, none of the problems came from conflicts between the design and build arms of the company. "I make a phone call," Robertson says, "half an hour later someone's there."
A win for the team
After all the months of work, the house feels to McDonald-Freed "like a work of art." Everything is pristine, from the finely crafted maple and cherry cabinetry throughout the house to the travertine marble floors in the master bathroom and the glass stairwell window made by a noted local artist. The house is fully wired for stereo and Internet and has a solar power system that runs the electrical meter backward on sunny days.
And perhaps most important, there is so much room for Freed's books that he has empty shelf space. Some of the shelves are double-depth for even more capacity.
Some of the success for the project is due to the homeowners, who "are very creative and open to suggestions," Hartman says. "They are a joy to work with."
According to Suckley, while clients sometimes either have a hard time making up their minds or change their minds frequently, Freed and McDonald-Freed "make good decisions and stick with them." Plus, he says, the couple fully embraced the design/build concept by embracing the input of the whole crew.
"They let us design a lot of stuff ourselves," Suckley says. "They let us go wild, obviously." --Freelancer Kathy Price-Robinson writes about remodeling and green building from the central coast of California. She is author of an award-winning remodeling series, "Pardon Our Dust," for the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times.
Good Neighbor Policy
For a remodeling project to be considered completely successful, the needs of the neighbors, who must suffer the noise and dust and traffic of the remodel with no benefit to themselves, must be taken into consideration. After all, the owners of the surrounding homes could someday be future clients.
To bolster their good reputation in the community of Claremont, Calif., the owners and employees of Hartman Baldwin have a strong "good neighbor policy" built into their procedures.
The first task, of course, is creating a good design, which will enhance the neighborhood. According to Devon Hartman, the people of Claremont "care about the design vocabulary that's used in the town. The city knows that good design is good for everyone."
Then, the company strives to let the neighbors know when a job will be starting and when big objects like concrete trucks will be crowding the street. Any major happening is a good reason to connect with neighbors to keep the lines of communication open. "We can head off fears, rather than letting them fester," Hartman says.
While the job is in process, a dress code keeps all workers looking sharp in Hartman Baldwin shirts, and a restriction on loud rock and roll music makes for a more peaceful environment.
And when the concrete truck is there, it's a sure bet that some concrete will slop out onto the street. Rather than letting the neighbors drive over that, track it into their driveways, and then into their homes, Hartman Baldwin crews clean it up every day rather than at the end of the job.
Dave Robertson, a foreman on the Freed job, says, "We try hard to keep [neighbors] happy.