Design. Build.

Here’s what I believe:

A family is a system. A house is a place. A home is a system in place.

I was looking for an architect to tidy up our kitchen concept. We knew what we wanted, and I’d designed it and sketched it out, complete with measurements to the half inch. Being married to a carpenter who worked on home renovations, I was confident in our ability to turn that design idea into a built project.

I was less certain, though, about the technicalities of building codes, and I wanted us to get things right. So, through a landscape architect friend, I found an architect-architect with a keen eye for style, a wry sense of humor, and a soft spot for kitchens.

Want to know the difference between a designer and an architect?

An architect finds beauty in mathematics.

Will we both be cooking, at the same time? (Calculates space required between sink and refrigerator, refrigerator and stove.)

What do we want to do in the kitchen? Will we entertain, or just cook? (Calculates space needed for circulating and gathering.)

Where will we sit? Only at the table, or do we need a nook for coffee and the morning paper? (Calculates space for chair and side table, with room enough for someone to walk by.)

Form follows function. That’s what a good architect might say.

Want to know the difference between a good architect and a great one?

A great architect won’t ask the standard questions, not many of them at least. Instead she’ll bring coffee, come for a chat in the undeveloped space, talk about this and that, and observe. She’ll know intuitively that what a client says and how a client behaves might be two entirely different things.

Find the right architect, and the design process might feel like a life-changing intervention. Because a great architect understands in her heart that a family is a system, and a house is a place, and a home is a system in place.

A good architect will bring home to life. A great architect will help build a sanctuary for when the world falls apart.

We worked as a team, designing a kitchen and preparing a floor plan, with a magazine article and photos as our guides. Bernard designed a Vent-A-Hood to match the Magic Chef stove, the focal point of the room. Wanting to use renewable resources and accommodate children and dogs, we chose bamboo, not cork, for the floor. All of the materials, appliances, and layout fit the way we lived with friends and family. The kitchen would be the heart of our home.

The construction loan closed in early 2004, and we jumped right in, excited to get started. The bamboo flooring was delivered on a cold, rainy day, and the teenagers across the street helped haul it inside. We had building permits and a timeline and a budget. Bernard was going to run the job. In six months, maybe less, we would have the kitchen of our dreams, and we would move into our house, settling for unattractive but functional bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs.

Demolition entailed removing all of the structure in the four rooms: Kitchen, butler’s pantry, closet for the deep freeze, and storage pantry. We would save the pretty built-ins and trash everything else — the linoleum floor, the acoustic tile, the hideous appliances.

It was late spring/early summer when we started in earnest, hoping to be settled in by Christmas.

Then came the phone call.

“You know how we wanted to re-do the upstairs bathroom?” Bernard asked one day while I was at work in my office and he was standing in the middle of our demolished kitchen. “Well, that’s going to happen sooner than later.”

Underneath the clean-looking drywall ceiling in the butler’s pantry, the joists had bowed under the weight of the cast-iron tub above and were no longer secure. That the tub hadn’t come crashing through the ceiling was a miracle. The same was true for the tub in the back bedroom, over what was to become our laundry room. The entire structure between the first and second floors was faulty and had to be rebuilt.

We would not be in by Christmas. The house was not a “give it a spit-shine” fixer-upper. We would never move in. We would never have enough money to make things right. It was never going to work.

When they were renovating their own house (similar vintage, similar circumstances), my architect friend confided, a bathroom reduced her to tears one day, and everything felt hopeless. But they didn’t give up, she said, and neither should we.

She brought over a bottle of wine, and we sat on the porch of our dirty, broken, worn-down house and started sketching.


Note: This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”

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