Joe Fletcher

Best of the Year 2013 Remodeling Design Awards
Category  Whole-House Remodeling over $500,000
Location  San Francisco
Contractor  Kyle Mortz, Art of Construction, San Francisco

With its hills, views, and Victorian houses, San Francisco has perhaps the most distinctive character of any major American city, and it zealously protects its brand with strict limits on new construction. Add in the region’s seismic requirements, says San Francisco-based general contractor Kyle Mortz, and you get “lots of fun remodels—and lots of challenges.”

This Victorian, in the city’s Noe Valley neighborhood, raised the bar even higher than usual. When its new owner bought the century-old building, it had stood uninhabited and partly demolished for a year, the subject of an aborted rehab project by a developer gone bust. Mortz, architect Jonathan Feldman, and interior designer Lisa Lougee filled the breach with a fast-track remodel, improving on the original developer’s plans, penning new construction details, and securing permit amendments on the fly. The product is a deft combination of modern and period elements that betrays none of the effort involved in its making.

Working Magic With the Approval Process

Feldman had no intention of sticking with the previous owner’s plans, but the approvals that came with them were too precious to abandon. “In San Francisco,” Feldman points out, “any change to the building envelope is very politicized and very slow.” So, rather than start from scratch, he says, “We asked: What tweaks can we make, big or small, that wouldn’t get tangled up in the approval process?”

To improve outdoor access without increasing the building footprint, Feldman sacrificed interior space, creating an elevated deck off the kitchen. Along with a new semi-open floor plan, the resulting indoor-outdoor flow makes the interior seem larger rather than smaller.

Improving the “headroom-challenged” second floor required some strategically placed dormers, Feldman says, “and we wrestled with the [city agencies] to get those dormers in there.” His success yielded much-needed volume for a third bedroom and an expanded master suite, while leaving the building’s silhouette largely unchanged.

Feldman sought building permit changes on an as-needed basis, staging the long-lead items first. “It was very strategically done in small pieces, so we didn’t have to present [code officials] with 50 changes at once,” he says. “That also allowed us to keep moving, to keep the permits ahead of where the builders were.”

The process required both patience and flexibility because major design elements—including the large new window and door openings at the rear of the house—depended on factors beyond the architect’s control. “One of the exciting things about working in a big city is that you don’t always know [in advance] what you can do,” he says. “There’s a lot of subjectivity.”

Working one step ahead of a project already under way raised the stakes, Mortz admits. “But having a job in motion, you get a different reception at the code office,” he adds. “There’s definitely experience involved in showing what you’re proposing in a good light. [Feldman] and his firm are very smart when it comes to that.”

Steel Stair at the Core

Conventional wood stairs typically constitute part of a project’s framing stage. The welded-steel assembly that forms the visual and circulatory core of this house was the opposite, Mortz says. “These stairs went in at the very end, after the Sheetrock and finishes.” Until that point, he adds, “we used scaffolding to get up and down.” Complicating matters further, every piece of the stair had to fit through the front door. “The stringers, treads, and risers were cut to length and assembled in the field,” he says.

The outer stringers consist of flat plates that lie flush with the wall surface; the tubular steel inner stringers are supported by steel plates bolted to the edges of the landings and concealed by wood trim. The railing also was assembled from parts in the field. “Once the angle of the stringer was established and the treads installed,” Mortz says, “the railing assembly went next, as a continuation of that.” The process resembled finish carpentry, he says, but in steel rather than wood: “Making all these field-welded connections, having to be so careful and precise, but working with these big, heavy pieces.”

Selectively Modern 

A stroll from the home’s restored Victorian façade to its rear garden covers a considerable span of architectural history, but Feldman and Lougee made sure that the trip is a smooth one. “We face this problem often with these old houses,” Feldman says, “how to balance our modern sensibilities and the way people like to live now—with open plans—without being too jarring.” Rather than simply grafting a starkly contemporary addition onto an historic building, they subtly interwove the two themes.“The stair wanted to be a modern element, and the back of the house wanted to be modern,” Feldman says, “those were kind of given, but we also wanted to make sure that there were modern elements throughout the house, not just in those two places.”

A lime green front door is the first clue that what lies within goes beyond period charm. The stair, silhouetted through a steel-framed glass screen, confirms that impression, as do the splashes of citrus color that accent the interior. “We intentionally used a lot of punches of color,” Feldman says, “in the furniture, in the lighting fixtures, in the front door.”Updated traditional millwork and trim balance the effect. “We used a consistent traditional Shaker style, and made [the cabinetry] more modern by adding lighting and using it as a room divider,” Feldman says. Fumed oak at the floors and stair treads “stitches the house together,” he adds. “It feels a little bit old, but still fresh.”