Calmness under pressure sees a remodeler through zoning battles
Good thing Jeffrey Glass is a nice guy, because reaching the happy ending of the Ajemark/Asland remodel in Greenwich, Conn., required preternatural niceness.
Ulrika Ajemark and Henrick Asland,s 1,910-square-foot, one-story house was vintage 1949, with boxed-off rooms, a skimpy kitchen and four bedrooms ranging from tiny to small. Having owned it for 10 years, they were running out of space. Besides, their family of three was about to expand: Ajemark was expecting a second child. After looking for a bigger house, the couple decided to stay put, update the floor plan of their house and add a second floor, as owners of several other houses in the upper-middle-class neighborhood had done.
|Ulrika Ajemark did not want the remodeled house to dwarf its neighbors. By retaining the one-story wings and positioning the second story over the main block, Jeffrey Glass muffled its impact. The entry portico, with its Scandinavian-style balcony, also helped screen the added story. After photo by Randall Perry|
In January 2001, Ajemark called a contractor whose ads showcased great-looking second-story additions. She told him it was important that most of the construction be over before her baby arrived in early September. The contractor agreed in principle but "kept changing the start date," says Ajemark. "I was not comfortable with them."
Ajemark decided to find another contractor, even though three months had slipped away. Glass' Stamford, Conn., design/build company, Construction Concepts Corp., recently had completed a remodel for one of Ajemark's friends in Greenwich's tightknit Scandinavian community. On the friend's recommendation, Ajemark called Glass in late April, and they met for about 1 1/2 hours.
Ajemark's remodeling ideas were well-developed at this point, Glass says, so the main purpose of that meeting was to gauge compatibility. Glass' pleasant manner, can-do attitude and clear professionalism hit home for Ajemark. "I felt comfortable right away," she says. A week later she signed a design contract.
|Glass nearly doubled the size of the house and multiplied its livability exponentially. He added a second floor containing three bedrooms and a generous master suite; created an open-plan first floor featuring an expanded and upgraded kitchen; and set up a basement laundry room thatÆs reached by a spiral staircase. AjemarkÆs daughter didnÆt want the house to be remodeled, period. To keep her engaged in the project but prevent her from wandering into the construction area, the Construction Concepts crew accompanied her up the ladder every so often to show her the progress of the second-floor work. Photo by Randall Perry|
Zoning zinger No. 1
The family, including Ajemark's 8-year-old daughter, had planned to move out for a few weeks during the initial demolition and second-floor framing stage but decided to occupy the house during the remodel. So Glass urged them to do the job in phases, one floor at a time. They decided to add the second story first to resolve a roof leak and get the biggest chunk of work done before the baby arrived.
On June 18, Glass delivered to Ajemark a design for the remodeling project, including a new kitchen and laundry area, a more open first-floor plan, a new entry, and a four-bedroom, two-bath second-floor pop-up. Ajemark approved the plans and signed the construction contract for phase one.
Her previous contractor, Ajemark recalls, told her that building a large addition would be "no problem." That's why Ajemark assured Glass the 1,507-square-foot addition would be cleared by the town's zoning enforcement office. Surprise. "When we went to file the building permit," says Glass, "the zoning enforcement officer said, 'It's too big.' We had to take out 300 square feet." To stem the tide of large additions in dense neighborhoods, the town had reduced the allowable floor-area ratio on residential lots in December 1998.
|Nearly doubling the size of the former master bedroom, the new master suite includes a large walk-in closet and a master bathroom with separate shower and tub, two sinks and a separate water closet. Photos by Randall Perry|
Glass had discussed the potential job-size problem in initial meetings with Ajemark, but "she was positive the entire project would be approved," Glass says. "Due to the fast-track schedule we were on, we accepted her understanding. We thought she had been to the zoning department. We didn't know about the previous contractor."
Despite the emergency slicing he had to perform, Glass hoped the full addition could be built eventually. That's because the zoning change had been made without public hearings and was being challenged in court. Glass figured the zoning would be reversed or "we would go for a zoning variance" and lopped 300 square feet of living space off the property. His strategy was to target areas that could be cut and added back without wasted construction. Out went the 2-foot bump-out that was going to be built across the front entry. Out went the balcony landing that was going to perch above it. By removing the tool shed and dollhouse that were standing in the back yard, Construction Concepts shaved off 112 square feet. The most painful cut was the 153 square feet that disappeared when Glass sliced the baby's bedroom from the second-floor plan. "It looked like the house was chopped off," says Glass. "I hated it."
Ever the optimist, Glass presented a revised construction plan that included air-conditioning and heating systems big enough to service the remodeled house as originally designed.
Demolition began in July, and construction of the job proceeded with only one major incident. Demolition at the start of phase one revealed that half the beams under the first floor did not extend all the way across the span. The house would not be able to support a second-floor load. The bad framing had been done during a remodel in the 1970s, says Glass. After consulting a structural engineer, Construction Concepts installed new floor joists, beams and girders.
"One advantage to homeowners in design/build," Glass says, "is that we anticipate problems by the age of homes and build coverage into job pricing." Because Construction Concepts was building from its own plans, Glass thought it was his company's responsibility for not catching the framing problem earlier. He told Ajemark about the situation but solved it without troubling her further or charging any extra.
|Ajemark's daughter specified a bay window with window seat, and a door onto the balcony. Designer Todd Forcellina incorporated both in the plan. Glass even included an access panel linking her room to her baby brother's room. Photo by Randall Perry|
Zoning zinger No. 2
After a few design revisions were completed in February 2002, Glass obtained a permit for phase two, the first-floor remodel, in March. On May 6, the court reversed the zoning change, clearing the way for Glass to build the bedroom, balcony and entry that had been cut from the plan in 2001. This would be phase three. The city intended to hold public hearings and reinstate the change, however, so Glass had to move fast.
Glass obtained a permit for phase three on Aug. 22. Meanwhile, "we were trying to obtain a certificate of occupancy for phase one," he says. "The building department inspections were complete, but zoning would not sign off. They wanted to see us. We went down to the zoning department, and they were very upset that there had been three permits issued on the same project. The zoning inspector called and screamed at the building department."
Because phase two had passed final inspections, the zoning inspector "threw out our permit for phase three and said to make it part of phase one," says Glass.
The last thing Glass wanted was to exacerbate the problem. "These people [in the zoning and building offices] are very nice, and they will work with you," he says. "If you get them provoked, though, you can wait and wait."
Accordingly, Glass smiled and went back to the drawing board. He asked Construction Concepts designer Todd Forcellina to redo the drawings to show the entire project as one job. The revised drawings were filed Sept. 10.
New drawings in hand, the zoning officer came to the job to verify the dimensions shown and issued the amended phase one permit. The inspections that followed "flowed through," Glass says; the confusion "didn't slow us down."
By late October, Construction Concepts had completed the construction.
Any day now, the claws of zoning change will open again. But Ajemark's house is beyond their grasp.
|The remodeled kitchen stretches across an eating peninsula to the windows on the side of the house and opens to the family room. Designer Todd Forcellina used white cabinets, pictorial tiles, strip oak flooring, a sand-tone granite island top and dark granite countertops to establish a country kitchen ambience. Cabinets: National Forest Products. Oven, cooktop and warming drawer: Thermador. Range hood and dishwasher: Miele. Refrigerator: KitchenAid. Under-counter wine storage unit: Sub-Zero.|
Throughout the project, Ajemark viewed the zoning problems from a comfortable distance. It was "very frustrating," she says, to have to truncate phase one and scramble at phase three. But Construction Concepts handled the problems for her. "Jeff and his guys were down there talking to the inspectors," Ajemark says. "I was extremely grateful."
For Glass, being a nice guy paid off with a happy client, a handsome remodel and an untarnished relationship with the building and zoning departments.
But in remodeling, as in any business, there is such a thing as being too nice. Being so nice that you always let the clients occupy the house during the remodel, for instance. Glass has learned to say no to that request when necessary.
And being so nice that you never question what you are told. Glass won't do that again either. "We should have gone down to the building inspector ourselves" at the beginning of the project, he says, even though Ajemark believed that the remodeling plan would meet zoning code. "We no longer assume anything."
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