The entire shell of the house is now in place, at long last. (Photo by Jay Paul)
We’re back. Did you miss us? Despite all of my cries about permits, escalating costs and bureaucratic backlogs, the reason you haven’t heard from us in a hundred days isn’t clerical, logistical or economic. It’s personal. During this age of national fractionalism, progressives on the coasts are striving to understand their conservative neighbors in the Midwest. For us, this took an über-local slant as we struggled to build empathy with neighbors due west of our property line. In July, cement-mixer trucks started pouring the foundation. However, akin to WWI’s Hundred Days Offensive when Allies on the Western Front finally broke through, compelling an armistice with Germany, it cost three months of time and resources to squabble over the delicacies of deeds and easements. In the end, we hashed out a temporary Alley Treaty that allowed the heavy machinery to start rolling.
Framing, at long last, began in mid-October. Thanks to the efficient simplicity of our SIPs panels, we went from foundation to framed in nine days. The interior framing and finishing continues, but the entire shell of the house, including the roof, is now in place. I’ve already cracked my first beer on the third floor, and many a friend has clambered up ladders to take in our sensational view. Because that’s where it all began.
When life hands you a skinny lot, you learn to trim the fat. When designing a home from scratch, the options are endless. Except, for us, they all had to fit within three parameters: what we love, what the city allows and what our budget affords. Wet bar and modest wine cellar: check. Panoramic river basin view: sure … but tempered by Commission of Architectural Review (CAR)- and zoning-mandated height restrictions. Finished basement: nixed. Estimates put it at $85,000.
Given the 22-foot-wide lot and 3 feet of required setback from neighbors, the rectangle of our home could be a maximum of 16 feet wide. Losing the basement square footage meant that we had to go up and back. Since our block is filled with two-story facades, though, we had to jigger the plans to blend in along the street while still accommodating seven humans. CAR only allowed us 35 feet above grade, so our architects drew up something less skyscraper and more Powhatan longhouse.
The solution? A tale of two houses. First, we raised the front third of our structure and designed high ceilings on the first and second floors (10 and 11 feet, respectively). Thus, from the inside, the front layout steps down, giving us room for three slightly shorter stories in the rest of the house. A cross-section view shows an ingenious plan that squeezed an extra 543 square feet from the loft level to give us 2,900 square feet of living area.
A cross-section of the house shows how the Tesauros squeezed three floors into their narrow lot to maximize living space. Click upper-right corner to expand. (Image courtesy Jason Tesauro)
Once the dimensions were set, we divided the space into functional blocks. As the blueprints made conceptual sense, we laid them out with string. After literally walking off each room, we tweaked the floor plan — one foot more here, six inches less there — until it felt right. First floor from front to back: sitting room, dining room, powder room and big working kitchen with a large island and French doors to the patio. With our hard-won off-street parking, we knew we’d be entering from the rear, but we didn’t want a passel of children dragging soccer cleats and backpacks through the kitchen. Instead, we created a large mud room as the middle entry point that will also house bikes (hung from a wall rack), our deep freezer and access to mechanical systems.
Up the steps we go. As it turns out, by moving the stairs toward the front of the house, we were able to extend the three-story area. Go left at the second-floor landing, and you’ll pass 10-year-old Cecilia’s room, a Jack-and-Jill bathroom, and the teen boys’ room. For the boys, as a concession for sharing a room, the high ceiling allows loft beds and huge open space (we’re still debating rock-climbing panels for the 11-foot-high walls). Down the other end of the hall, there’s a preschooler-sized room for Julian, a laundry room and our master suite with double walk-in closet and south-facing balcony.
Atop the third floor, turn left and you’re facing the backside of the boys’ loft, half of which will be walled off as a third-floor storage space. Turn right and you’ll pass a half bath and Isabella’s high school hideaway en route to a spacious family room. This configuration purposely puts the kids way up for those times when the adults are partying down. Adjacent, there’s Daddy’s just-big-enough office with two large windows. The pièce de résistance is our huge, open but covered wraparound terrace. From this, the tallest spot in the tallest house on the tallest hill, the view is spectacular.
So, you make choices and sacrifices. Yes, we lost a basement, but we gained a double-sided gas fireplace to separate the dining and sitting rooms and keep us toasty. We chose fewer windows than some, yet we splurged on larger sizes, more glass walls and quality doors. We also gave up a front porch — because CAR’s mandated covered porch would’ve rendered our front rooms too dark. In the end, it’s not our dream house, it’s our reality house. And that’s right where we choose to be.