Remodeling is all about bringing an existing building into alignment with an owner’s current needs. This historical Boston townhouse shows the structural evolution that can result when a series of projects tracks an owner through various stages of life. In 1997, architect Treffle LaFleche updated the building—a 19th-century North End rowhouse whose flanking neighbors had long since disappeared—with a strikingly modern remodel that opened up a long side wall to views of the nearby Old North Church. In the years since, as the owner married and started a family, LaFleche’s firm tweaked the original makeover with four smaller remodels, each further adapting the 15-foot-wide, five-story house to better serve the changing needs of a contemporary urban household. The latest remodel is this multi­purpose mudroom, which employs outside-the-box thinking to smooth the rough edges of family life in the city.

Split Decision

The four above-grade floors of the house were largely spoken for, so LaFleche and project architect Matthew Simitis turned to the semi-finished basement for additional space. Exploiting the existing front entry’s elevation—a half-story below the first floor—the architects designed a split-level entry sequence. From a landing inside the front door, a brightly day-lit stair now accesses the lower-level mudroom, where family members can doff coats and boots before ascending to the home’s living spaces.

In LaFleche and Simitis’ interpretation, a mudroom is more than a place to shed outerwear. “They’re an active family,” Simitis says of his clients, “and they didn’t have a lot of storage space.” During the planning stage, “we talked about ski storage, umbrella storage, and off-season clothing storage,” all of which found a place in the room’s ash-veneer cabinetry. An L-shaped center island offers a versatile workspace—expandable via an ash-surfaced drop-leaf—and incorporates stainless steel-faced refrigerator and freezer drawers. “They store Thanksgiving turkeys there before putting them in the oven,” Simitis says. “Part of the island cabinetry is designed to hold gift-wrapping supplies. The room serves a lot of purposes. It’s a hard-working space.”

Here, form weighs equally with function. A granite-surfaced “waterfall” stair descends from the granite-tiled entry landing to the charcoal-stained concrete mudroom floor. A translucent screen of art-glass panels admits daylight from the building’s street-facing windows while offering privacy from passersby. The room’s millwork—ash accented with Brazilian cherry—follows the palette of the home’s living areas, serving as the backdrop for an extensive collection of modern art. Not coincidentally, the owners’ devotion to art also set the bar for this project. They viewed it, LaFleche says, “not just as a functional change, but as a poetic change, too. If we hadn’t crystallized that idea, they wouldn’t have gone ahead with it.”

Art of Glass

The key to making a below-grade space inviting is bringing in natural light, and this English basement-level mudroom gets a healthy dose from the two tiers of windows that line its stairway. Because those windows open directly onto the street, LaFleche and Simitis integrated the stair rail with a glass screen that transmits ample daylight while obscuring sidewalk views of the interior.

The assembly takes as its starting point the welded-steel railing detail of the original 1997 remodel, using it as a lattice to support panels of Bendheim art glass. “The guardrail is designed to code, and that provided the framework for the glass,” Simitis says. At the mudroom level, three vertical panels of corrugated glass span from floor to ceiling, softening and scattering light throughout the space. As it passes to the first-floor level, above, the composition becomes a multilayered patchwork of four different glass patterns, which the architects and clients chose by holding various combinations up to the light. “‘Do you prefer this? Or that?’” Simitis says. “Like going to the eye doctor.”

Low Overhead

At less than 7 feet high, the existing basement ceiling was too low for a habitable space, says Resteghini, “so we dug out the basement by 2½ feet.” He relied on the Cambridge, Mass., branch of Chutehall International, a civil engineering and tunneling specialist, to do the work. Due to the close quarters, all digging was done by hand. “They used a bucket-and-conveyor belt system to remove material from the building,” Resteghini says. Further complicating the excavation, he adds, “there were some structural point loads that needed to be supported,” and the owners remained in the residence throughout the job. The crew used single-sided forms for the foundation walls, which they poured against the interior of the existing walls. Here the building’s narrowness became an advantage. Rather than erect a system of angled braces to support the forms, the crew used horizontal jack posts and braced the side walls against each other.

Merit Award

Category: Basement Remodeling Over $100,000

Location: Boston

Architect: Treffle LaFleche & Matthew Simitis, LDa Architecture & Interiors, Cambridge, Mass.

Contractor: Michael Resteghini, F.H. Perry Builder, Hopkinton, Mass.