When purchasing this sprawling yet compartmentalized older home, both husband and wife knew that they were in for a challenge. The home, built in the 1880s near Pittsburgh, had seen multiple wings added over the years but no upgrades in decades. The living space was 9,000 square feet, but the house had small rooms and narrow hallways once used by servants.
High on the couple's list of priorities was enlarging the kitchen, “because that, of course, is where people end up congregating,” homeowner Wendy says.
Shortly after the purchase, the couple turned to Pittsburgh architect John Cullen of Korzeniwsky Cullen for existing conditions drawings and schematic designs in preparation for a major overhaul of the first floor. After interviewing eight remodeling companies, the family narrowed the list to two and ultimately chose Mike Kelly of Aspen Valley Contracting, a general contractor with 30 years of experience in Pittsburgh's high-end market. “Mike Kelly had a very thorough presentation with a very good breakdown of the work,” Wendy says, noting that they also visited a similar kitchen job that he had completed. “We liked his approach to our project and his personality was a good fit for us.”
While the family lived on the third floor, Aspen Valley started remodeling the ground floor. For Kelly and his crew, the largest part of the $250,000 job was expanding the kitchen using space in an adjacent pantry, powder room, back staircase, and porch. This meant demolishing an exterior wall, removing the original half-bath, moving plumbing, upgrading the hot-water heating, reconfiguring a back staircase, and taking down interior walls to open up the space for the new kitchen.
The contractor also created a bar area between the kitchen and family room, added a closet and a seating area in the main hallway, and built a new powder room under the main stairs. Kelly's team refinished the hardwood floors, covered damaged plaster walls with drywall upstairs, replicated plaster detailing in the living room, and installed a whole-house
Dealing with the unexpected is expected in older homes, but some challenges are clear from the beginning. In this project, the kitchen had three ceiling heights — 8 feet 6½ inches, 8 feet 7 inches, and 9 feet 3 inches — and a beam visible down the center of the room, but the owners felt strongly that they didn't want to see any differences in the new space. With two young children and big gatherings of an extended Italian family planned for around the table, homeowners Wendy and Ed wanted the eating area to feel open and as visually connected to the food-prep area as possible. The team decided to raise the entire ceiling to 9 feet 3 inches by replacing a steel beam with a flitch beam over a longer span and raising this and an existing flitch beam. A structural engineer briefly joined the project team to size the new beam and to review related issues.
Near the center of the family's new kitchen is an island with a granite countertop measuring 6 feet 7 inches by 6 feet 3 inches and a Viking stove with downdraft venting. “This is what I envisioned,” says Wendy, who loves both the large work space and the lack of an over-the-stove hood.
“This project saw delays for various reasons,” Kelly says. “But Ed and Wendy should be very proud of the end result. They put a lot of themselves into the remodeling.” The general contractor and the project architect, who have worked together over the past 10 years, collaborated often during the job. “There were adjustments in the field by all parties on this project,” Cullen says. “It was constant problem-solving as walls were opened up.”
Going in For a Fitting
Removing an exterior wall to turn the porch into part of the new eating area brought with it more challenges.
The floor here was a solid concrete slab extending into the existing kitchen. In fact, multiple floor levels existed throughout the new space, requiring that the crews build up several surfaces at once. Aspen Valley's carpenters then installed new hardwood flooring in the kitchen and later refinished floors throughout the house, matching all finishes on old hardwood and new.
The project required careful coordination with the installation of the home's new air-conditioning system. With hot-water heat, the house had no ductwork, so the subcontractor installed a SpacePak system that uses flexible tubing threaded through walls, ceilings, and floors to provide high-velocity central air.