Ten years ago, when S+H Construction, of Cambridge, Mass., renovated the exterior of this house, the homeowners’ choice of peach paint stood out in a sea of conservative grays and browns in the Harvard Square neighborhood. Recently, when it came time for a more extensive remodel, the owners opted to replace the pastel shade with a palette of gray, white, and dark brown on both the outside and inside of the home.
When they began thinking about the most recent remodel, the homeowners requested that S+H Construction owners Doug Hanna and Alex Slive visit Iceland to see the renovation of their home there by Reykjavik architect Bjorn Skaptason of Atelier Arkitekta, who they had also hired for the Boston remodel. “[The client] wanted to show us the style and quality of the work,” Hanna says.
For the smaller 1998 exterior and basement remodel, the homeowners had hired a few Icelandic carpenters to help S+H Construction with the job. They wanted some of the same Nordic island crew to collaborate again with S+H. The owners asked the international team to complete the whole-house project in eight months.
It took Skaptason a year to design the project. “The front façade is like an image or stage,” he says, “but backstage, it is a whole new world. You enter through this façade to discover what is behind it.” He worked within the rules of the Avon Hill Conservation district to preserve the shell of the house, placing two small additions and a modern terrace on the rear of the home.
“We had an opportunity to play more at the back — it was a big lot,” he says. “We could install larger windows and a new terrace to adapt the outside with the new interiors.” The extensive project also included gutting and refinishing the interior to create more open spaces, digging down and out in the basement, and installing a house control system.
The Nordic Track
Due to the tight schedule, Skaptason was still working on the interior details when the crew began preparing the shell. The architect flew to Boston almost every month for the 18 months from design to completion. He had to convert the metric measurements to feet and inches for S+H Construction and the historic review board.
Hanna says that the Icelandic crew worked during the evenings and on weekends, which helped keep the project on schedule. It also helped that some of the same crew had worked together in 1998. “We got along well and worked off of each other,” Hanna says. “It boosted morale on the jobsite and expedited the job.”
S+H superintendent Joe Ramunno met every morning with the head of the Icelandic crew to determine responsibilities. Hanna’s crew focused on the structural aspects of the job — coordinating the basement dig and concrete work and installing the rough carpentry, including windows and doors. The Icelandic crew was responsible for cabinetry installation and finish work.
For the final push to meet the deadline, a larger crew of 14 S+H Construction employees, two additional Icelandic carpenters, and several subcontractors all worked on the job. “On any given day, we would have 60 people on the job. It was like an extreme makeover. If it rained, we put up tarps and just kept working,” Hanna says.
Wide Open Spaces
On the interior, Skaptason used the same materials throughout the house to provide design continuity, including dark brown walnut flooring, gray and black granite, and glass. “There are just a few materials, but they are really expensive and nice. The whole design is colorful with no color,” he says.
The architect used texture and undulating curved walls to add life to the simple palette. “The original house had a lot of corridors and doors. It was a traditional, dysfunctional layout,” he says. His goal for the main floor was to eliminate the doors and walls to create an open space.
To create the curves, the drywall team started with a thin, flexible plywood known as Wacky Wood, then wrapped it with wet ¼-inch gypsum board. “But you could see the seams between the drywall,” Hanna says. So the team abandoned that idea and turned to traditional wire lathe and plaster.