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Modernist Makeover With Icelandic Flair

S+H Construction

Project Name

Modernist Makeover With Icelandic Flair


Project Status


Year Completed


Room or Space

Living Room



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Project Description

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.

The interior walls do not have baseboards. “It’s just drywall right down to the floor. That clean European look may sound like less work, but it can be more work because you can’t hide anything,” Hanna says. “Also, with no baseboards, if someone kicks the bottom of the wall, they could put a hole in it.” To protect the lower section of the wall, the crew installed plywood blocking between the studs on the bottom 6 inches.

Skaptason says that all the granite for the house came from Italy. It was more cost-effective for the owners to purchase it in Europe and ship it to Boston. Since the owners had a large container full of the stone, Hanna says they used it throughout the house. “It’s used in the basement — even the mechanical room has granite tile,” he says.

Other containers from Iceland held the cabinetry and wine shelves, all installed by the Icelandic crew.

Higher Power

The original design, approved by the historic board, included installing a garage under the terrace. The homeowners also wanted a glass wall in the garage so that they could have a view of the wine cellar as they drove in. However, the ground water was too high, and adding pumps to periodically remove any collected water would have been prohibitively expensive and would have extended the already tight schedule.

Though S+H Construction dug the basement during the 1998 remodel to bring the basement’s ceiling height from about 5 feet to 7 feet, during this remodel, the owners asked for another dig to raise the ceiling to 8 feet 5 inches and expand the square footage to add a wine cellar. (See “The Big Dig,” below.)

In addition to wine storage and a tasting room, the new basement has a pantry, storage, a mechanical room, a powder room, and a small sitting area.

The wine shelves, designed by Skaptason, are made of a curved aluminum roofing material. “It fit every type of bottle shape. I used that as a base and added extra elements to make it functional,” he says.

The mechanical room takes up about a quarter of the basement and includes the infrastructure for the Crestron Electronics smart-house system that controls the home’s HVAC, music, water temperature, and window blinds. The owners requested that a large gas generator be installed behind the garage outbuilding to power the entire system in case of a power outage. Custom detailing by Hanna’s crew hides the shades and motors behind the window casings.

Touchscreen keypads are mounted on the wall in the living areas and bedrooms, but the homeowners can also control the system using their laptops. “We’ve done smaller systems, but we’ve never installed one like this,” Hanna says. Skaptason says that the client’s house in Iceland has some smart features, but this project is much more technical. “It took the specialist months to program the whole thing,” he says.

The Big Dig

Remodeler Doug Hanna of S+H Construction, in Cambridge, Mass., says that clients are increasingly asking him to add ceiling height to their basements to make them more comfortable living spaces. “With houses in a tight urban setting, you can’t expand outward or upward. There is one place you can expand — down,” he says.

Part of the reason for this is the size restrictions imposed on homes in some Cambridge neighborhoods. Houses in certain zones are limited to a .5 floor area ratio (FAR). This means that a house on a 5,000-square-foot lot can only have 2,500 square feet of living space, which is defined at a height of 7 feet or over. “If you have a 5-foot-high basement, you can dig down to create a ceiling height of 6 feet 11 inches and still walk around comfortably, but that is not included in the FAR,” Hanna explains.

He says that basement excavations help homeowners work around the zone restrictions and allow them to squeeze as much square footage out of their houses as possible.

Limited living space was not an issue for this house, where the lot was large enough to allow for the deeper basement. S+H Construction crews usually do the work in smaller projects, but Hanna prefers to use a subcontractor for larger jobs.

For another project, Hanna’s crew found an underground stream during a basement excavation. “We diverted it into a large pipe and put a catch basin in the back that led to another stream,” he says, a decision that cost the homeowner $70,000. 


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