Day after day after day of constant searching (which was essentially us riding our bikes up and down the streets of our neighborhood looking for 'For Sale' signs), we finally found what appeared to be an ideal property. We had already found an interested party to invest with us in the project and now we just had to 'sell' them on idea that this was the perfect property to pursue our venture.
There were some aspects to this particular property that we thought made it especially appealing:
First, the 1500 block is definitely one of the nicer blocks of Montrose: a narrow street with numerous trees, some newly renovated homes, north of Washington Ave and only one block off Broad St.
Second, even though the house is not at the end of the block, it is an end unit in the string of row homes that front Montrose, so there is a 4 foot wide access alley that runs along the west side of the home between this property and the rear yards of the houses that front S. 16th St. Thus, counting the yards, there will always be at least 15 feet or more of open space next to the house. This presented the possibility of adding windows on the side of the house, which is a rare opportunity in row homes.
Third, there are a few other homes on the block that have already added third floors to their properties. You see, the 1500 block of Montrose is mainly two-story row homes but with the recent renovations, some people have added a third floor, bringing the area up to a more reasonable size for a family. We felt this would be to our benefit if we too desired to add a third floor. In this neighborhood, Zoning allows a maximum building height of 35 feet above grade.
Fourth, Montrose St runs east-west and this property is on the south side of the block. This means that the rear facade of the house faces south (the side of the house that gets the most light and also the side of the house that we can have as much glass as we like.)
And lastly, yes...it is very old, more than 100 years old, but the "bones" of the house appeared to be in good shape. It was not falling down like some others we looked at but it had also never been completely renovated, so some of the original aspects of the house remained. All signs pointed to the fact that this was great opportunity with a lot of potential.
All parties were interested in the Montrose property. We decided it would be best to form an LLC in which to buy the property and pursue the renovations. We formed Southern Liberties, LLC (for those of you not from Philly, this is a play on Northern Liberties, a hip neighborhood northeast of downtown). After successfully closing on the property, it was time to get started on the initial design.
As the owner as well as the designer, we had a number of objectives we wanted to fulfill with this venture. First, we wanted to utilize our talents as architects to take great care in the design of the home - from a quality standpoint as well as a sustainable one. I guess we are what most folks would consider “Modernists” and one of the first things we wanted to do was really open up the plan so all the spaces (inside and out - vertically and horizontally) could meld together. Another concept that we felt very strongly about was bringing natural light into the interior of the house. This a common problem with row homes since the streets are usually narrow and you have a house attached to either side of you.
With the building orientation already well-established, one of our first design tasks was to tie down the program. How many bedrooms / bathrooms and how big (SF) was this house to be? Should we maximize the lot to the fullest depth and the height to the highest limits of what is allowed? Well, seeing that the lot was only 15 feet wide and about 52 feet deep for a grand total footprint of less than 800 SF....I'd say that we were all in favor of trying to fit as much house on there as possible. A quick calculation let us know that, by maximizing our limits, we would be able to build a 1850 SF home at most. This size was plenty for us to fit the 3 bedrm / den/ 2.5 bath that we decided would be the ideal scenario.
One of the first design opportunities we wanted to explore was the idea of having a "switchback" stair towards the rear of the house opposed to the standard "straight-through" stair that you typically see in row homes. Our thinking was that by doing this we could have the main space of the house be free of any circulation and have more open area at each floor. Another option we wanted to explore was adding more windows on the west (side) facade. After some code research we determined that, due to the fact that we had a 4' wide alley between our property line the next, we would be able to have 25% of the surface area of the facade be windows (this is allowable if you are between 3 -5 feet away). The other caveat we discovered was that if we were greater than 5 feet away we could have unlimited glazing. Thus came the idea of "stepping" the exterior wall at the stair landing in about 2 feet, therefore allowing us to have this wall essentially be a continuous "window wall" from ground to roof.
Below are the initial plans we came up with. The stair would be very transparent with an "open risers" and cable railings. This would allow a visual connection between the living/dining space and the kitchen and back patio.
There are two zoning code regulations in Philadelphia that we were breaking here and would thus need to go for two separate variances. First was the fact that, by code, the minimum open area on a residential lot needs to be 30% of the total area of the lot (20% for corner lots). Second was that no part of the structure can rise above 35' from grade. One can attempt to acquire variances from the Zoning Board of Adjustment for these two items. For the rear yard, the minimum depth the City will allow is 9'-6". In regards to the height, its basically open to whatever the ZBA allows (typically, people are only asking for about 7 to10 feet in order to have the roof access stair.) Also, you might notice the "Green Roof" note on the Roof Deck Plan. This was one of the many sustainable strategies that I'll discuss later on.
We decided to go before the ZBA in order to acquire our variances. Since we were and LLC (and officially a 'corporation') we needed to hire a lawyer to represent us in front of the board. There is one thing you must do before you go before the ZBA and that is present to and get approval by your neighborhood association. Ours is SOSNA (South of South Neighborhood Association). Our presentation to SOSNA went very well. They were extremely enthusiastic about project and excited about all the green aspects. It went so well, we actually got a standing ovation (a rarity amongst neighborhood association meetings).
Unfortunately, the ZBA was not so enthusiastic. We never even got to the point of discussing the variances we were seeking because they did not want to get beyond the fact that they didn't think we should be building a 3-story house on this block of Montrose (predominantly 2-story). We tried to explain that we are totally within our rights to build the third story and that others are beginning to add third stories too AND that this was not what we were actually here to discuss. The ZBA wanted to hear nothing of that nor did they seems to care that we were building a 'green' home that will be a model that others can follow. Needless to say, we were denied our variance and were told that unless we stepped our third story back far enough so that you could not see it from the street, we would never get our variance. I was already aware that this would not work. We would have to step back about 15 feet from the front. With such a small lot, there was not much left of the third floor and would not be very cost-effective. I walked out furious and determined to never go through that again. We decided to redesign the entire layout and move forward with a "by-right" scheme (no variances needed). This option involved moving the stair back to the "straight through" position and cutting about 200 SF out of the house.
After a few months of redesigning and re-documenting, we submitted and got approved for building permit. It was during this time, though, that we bid the job out to about 5 different contractors. No one seemed to be able to match our price point...except one. After going to see a few of this "low bidder's" past projects, we were convinced that he was the right guy for the job. he did high quality work and was genuinely a nice, upstanding guy. This is very important.
I will discuss the pros and cons of the bidding process in an other post at some point.