When architect Dean Brenneman and remodeler Peter Pagenstecher merged their individual companies to create what they refer to as an "architect/build" firm, they envisioned working on exactly the type of project and with exactly the type of client they found at this house in Bethesda, Md. These clients participated as part of the remodeling team. They listened and pushed for product and design choices that, even though they cost a little more, helped create a dramatic and inviting house. Brenneman and Pagenstecher enjoy the team approach. They prefer equal input from the architect, builder, and homeowners. That way, they figure, they can count on open communication about the costs and choices so the team can make informed choices.

The approach has been successful. Since they merged in 1997, the Kensington, Md., company has been growing. Brenneman & Pagenstecher's sales volume last year was $3 million. Though they worked on two projects over $1 million in 2001, the company's average jobs are in the $500,000 to $750,000 range. At $960,000, this job was one of the larger ones the firm has completed.

The house is set on a gorgeous lot in a convenient location in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The homeowner bought the 1920s Cape Cod around 1970. He then married, and over the years the household expanded to include nine children. Desperate for space, the couple hired a contractor to add a second floor and re-create the house in the mansard-style. In the 1980s they hired another remodeler to add a simple two-story box to the rear of the house. Though the two remodels provided a practical floor plan, the disjointed additions created an unsightly exterior. In 2000, the family turned to Brenneman & Pagenstecher to find a way to blend the different renovations together to create a single cohesive style.

Photo: Kenneth M. Wyner Blending in

When Brenneman began working on the design in January 2000, his initial sketch simply dressed up the existing mansard style by trimming the façade with dormers and adding a front portico. The homeowners were lukewarm about the design and inquired as to how far he could go with a more substantial budget. Brenneman responded by going through American House Styles by John Milnes Baker with the clients to get some ideas about what they were really looking for. The book shows a simple one-story plan re-created in a range of different house styles from Victorian to contemporary. Using the drawings, he was able to narrow down their preferences to the Italianate and Renaissance Revival styles.

Ultimately, the team chose Italianate Villa because it encompassed all the homeowners wanted and worked well with the exterior focus of the remodel. Brenneman sketched a substantial exterior remodel that included the historical elements of overhanging eaves, decorative brackets, and a porch, but with modern sensibilities.

The dramatic design sparked the imagination of the homeowners. They decided to splurge on real stucco, a clay tile roof, and copper gutters. "You get so used to clients feeling sticker-shocked that you begin to limit yourself," Brenneman says. "Every now and then a client like this comes along and pushes you to show them what you can do."

Brenneman researched Italianate eave bracket shapes, but he couldn't find the right proportions in any stock components. He finally created his own brackets and made full-sized templates to be custom cut by a local millwork company. Using authentic designs and materials, he says, prevented the house from looking like a "spec" version of the Italianate style.

Photo: Kenneth M. Wyner Inside, the dining room and living room switched places. (The dining room is now closer to the kitchen.) Brenneman used a bump-out to add space to the new living room area, which also added interest to the previously flat front façade. The porch starts at the addition, wraps around the house, and ends at the entrance to the family room at the rear of the house.

Wall to wall

Peter Pagenstecher heads up the firm's construction division. With such an extensive remodel, Pagenstecher suggested that the family move out of the house during construction. The family decided not to, insisting they could survive. "I guess with nine children, the family has a high tolerance for the chaos of construction," Brenneman laughs.

Pagenstecher did what he could to prevent too much household disruption. Because most of the early work concentrated on the front of the house, the construction crew built a plywood wall down the middle of the house, parallel to the front wall. "The front zone was ours and behind the wall was the family's space," Pagenstecher says. The wall had doors to keep dust out of the living area but allowed the crew to move back and forth. (The saving grace, Pagenstecher says, was that the kitchen was available for use every single day during the remodel.)

The design/build team replaced the single door in the family room with double French doors to take advantage of the new decks. The crew also repaired window sashes and stained them to match the existing trim. Photo: Kenneth M. Wyner Once the wall was in place, the crew began cutting new window openings in the front wall. That's when they came across something no one on the team had ever seen. The original 1930s walls were made of 5-foot-square, 10-inch-thick concrete panels. The panel edges were L-shaped and locked together to form the walls (see "History Panel"). Cutting these walls required the expertise of a commercial concrete cutting crew. To help the crew cut straight lines, they bolted metal framework to the house to run a wet saw along.

After they started cutting, however, they realized the placement of the cuts left odd-shaped pieces of panel that compromised the structure of the wall. To shore it up, the crew built a temporary wall inside the existing wall to hold up the second story while they removed panel sections across the front and around the corner. They then replaced them with standard wood framing but used 2x10s to match the thickness of the existing concrete walls. As an added bonus, the wider framing gave them an opportunity to "hyper-insulate."

To finish the walls, the stucco subcontractor had to blend the existing concrete substrate with the new wood framing. Pagenstecher says the sub's skills were invaluable in creating a level surface. The crew also removed various bumps on the rear addition and patched some sheathing to create an even surface for the stucco application.

Top of the line

When it came time to frame the roof, the homeowners explained that their previous contractor had taken the old roof off without adequately protecting the house, which was then damaged during a thunderstorm. They expressed their concerns about having a similar water leak when the old roof was removed. Pagenstecher found a simple solution: He built the new roof over the old one.

The truss of the new roof spans the house and does not put any weight on the interior walls. The original cedar shakes were weathered, rotted, and overgrown with moss, which Pagenstecher did not want to have in the attic. He decided to tear the shakes off and lay 30-pound felt paper over the existing sheathing. Removing the shakes also created a safer surface for the crews working on the new roof.

Mixing materials

Pagenstecher and Brenneman speced mahogany decking and cedar brackets, but they chose composite railings and PVC window trim. "We are not purists -- we will mix wood with modern materials," Brenneman says.

Rich mahogany decking extends entertaining from the family room to the outdoors. Hidden fasteners give the decking the look of a wood floor. The design/build team and homeowners approved low-maintenance PVC trim around the windows and composite railing on the deck. Photo: Kenneth M. Wyner The wider trim around the back windows adds architectural definition to the simple rectangular lines of the addition. The PVC trim comes in sheets from a local building supplier. The material expands and contracts up to 1/4 inch over 18 feet. Pagenstecher compensated by cutting the trim so it had room to move. He likes it because the PVC material holds paint well, and if installed properly, the material should look great for many years. The composite deck railings by HB&G also shrinks -- about 1/4 inch over 8 feet, Pagenstecher estimates. From past experience, Pagenstecher learned to install shorter runs to keep the gaps narrow.

Shoring up

Though the interior remodel concentrated on re-orienting the flow, an unexpected discovery lead to more work to strengthen the second-story floors. When the crew removed the kitchen ceiling, they found the joists had been cut up so much to accommodate plumbing and other infrastructure that they were no longer strong enough to support the upper floor.

"One floor joist had a square cut out that left a 1/2 inch on top and a 1/2 inch on the bottom," Pagenstecher says. They replaced all the joists on the rear of the house because this area had to bear the weight of the new tiles in the master bathroom. On the front half of the house, Pagenstecher chose to leave the floor slightly uneven, but the crew sistered the floor joists for added strength.

Outside, all that remained was choosing trim colors. The group had already decided on traditional buff-colored stucco and a contrasting clay tile roof. Brenneman took photos of the front of the house after it had been framed and scanned it into Adobe Photoshop software. He played around with several color schemes on the program. The family chose the most restrained palette, which has six neutral shades of brown, tan, and ivory. It provides a serene façade for the family of eleven.

Open Book Policy

Brenneman & Pagenstecher has an open book estimating policy. The firm gives clients a price for the project, including allowances, and a list of how they arrived at the cost. They break the project management fee into installments over the life of the job. With each weekly bill, the clients are handed receipts associated with the work for that time period (materials and subcontractor costs), a total for the in-house crew's hours, and a portion of the management fee. Peter Pagenstecher says some refer to this method as time and materials with a fixed fee.

According to the partners, there are several advantages to this system. First, the open communication lends itself to making the project a team effort. Not only do the clients know all the costs but they can participate in steering the funds to areas they think are important. Also, with standard markup, clients often complain about the markup on change orders. With this method, there are no change orders, per se. If the homeowners add to the scope of the project, the firm gives them a quote for that work.

Dean Brenneman says when contractors offer a fixed price, they are taking a gamble because there are so many unknown factors. "Remodeling is like exploratory surgery -- you don't know what you're going to find or how much it's going to cost until you open up the house," he says.

The system also allows them to pay subs within days of receiving an invoice. Brenneman says the weekly bills require fiscal and financial discipline and special invoicing and estimating forms. Pagenstecher says fellow remodelers point out the limited profit potential of this method. While this may be true, the duo says they would rather have a customer for life than push for maximum dollars on each job. Rich mahogany decking extends entertaining from the family room to the outdoors. Hidden fasteners give the decking the look of a wood floor. The design/build team and homeowners approved low-maintenance PVC trim around the windows and composite railings on the deck. The architect couldn't find ready-made brackets for the eaves, so he created full-sized templates and had the cedar brackets cut at a local millwork shop.

The new roofline accents what was a simple box of a previous rear addition. Architect Dean Brenneman also added window trim and accented the chimney to punch up the look of the rear elevation.

The design/build team replaced the single door in the family room with double French doors to take advantage of the new decks. The crew also repaired window sashes and stained them to match the existing trim.

History Panel

Pre-cast concrete slabs like the ones found in this Bethesda house were used throughout the United States, but mostly for commercial and industrial buildings. Colonel Robert Aiken devised a concrete panel building method in the early 1900s and used it to construct buildings for the Army.

The first mass residential use of concrete panels was in 1911 by architect Grovesnor Atterbury. He developed an architectural style for houses made of large slabs of concrete that was used for affordable homes in Long Island for the Sage Foundation. In 1918, a large industrial housing development in Youngstown, Ohio, was built using a similar method. About 280 houses were built for workers of Youngstown Sheet & Tubing Company.

Concrete promoters touted the fact that this type of construction is fireproof and could be constructed faster and with less labor than a standard wood-frame method.

Panels were pre-cast and transported to the site or cast on site. Crews used a crane to lift panels into place and then connected them by binding together reinforcing rods and/or grouting the joints. Door and window openings were set with metal jambs.

To finish the exterior surfaces, crews would use heavily stippled paint or score the panel while it was wet to prepare it for stucco application.

Though this method continued to gain popularity in commercial building, it never really caught on in residential construction.

House remodelers and builders may have found the concept too costly for houses or too time consuming to train their crews in a new building method.