Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation, Kitchens

A Bright, White Kitchen in Fairmount


When a couple from the Fairmount area of Philadelphia asked "How do you feel about an IKEA kitchen?" I felt pretty good. I've actually come around on IKEA kitchens.

Not long ago, the cabinets were flimsy, the drawers kept jumping the runners and installation was needlessly complicated. But they've come a long way.

In the past few years, I've come to respect the product and system improvements enough that we installed IKEA cabinets in our own kitchen. They're affordable, smartly designed, reasonably durable and machined so exactly that my nephew and his buddy were able to assemble mine in a couple days while on summer break from high school.

The construction of an IKEA cabinet frame (AKURUM) is particleboard with a white or beech-colored plastic laminate. Sounds flimsy, but actually similarly constructed to a more expensive KraftMaid cabinet. Only custom cabinetmakers consistently use solid plywood anymore, and you're going to pay dearly for that. Also the argument can be made that plywood can warp over time, that the wood-chip material in the IKEA cabs is more eco-friendly, etc.  - but really, the bottom line is that it's a box. Correctly installed, it's going to last as long as anything else on the market.

IKEA doesn't skimp on the doors, though. They're solid wood with a good quality veneer, and they have a variety of finishes, glass doors and lacquered-style colors. There are also companies online that will custom-make or refinish IKEA doors and panels to your style. If you're going custom, though, I'd recommend waiting until the cabinets are completely installed - the ease of purchase makes it very tempting to tinker with the layout while in process, and if you've already ordered doors based on the original plan...well, you see my point (yes I was guilty of this myself).

The glides, hinges and legs are just as good as any other manufacturer I've worked with. And the soft-closing door and drawer mechanisms are a nice touch.

The client's 1980s-era kitchen remodel in their 100-year-old Fairmount row home was relatively straightforward. We replaced the floor and backsplash with tile from our go-to team at Bell Floor Covering in Northern Liberties. The Cambria Torquay quartz was ordered through IKEA, where we also got the under-cabinet lighting. We added a peninsula with a wine/beer fridge and also installed several strategically placed 5-inch recessed lights.

We installed a Fagor induction cooktop, along with KitchenAid and Fisher & Paykel appliances.

A bright, contemporary, chef-friendly kitchen for the 21st century.

See more pictures.

Basements, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Finished Basement in Philadelphia


I got a call from a colleague, a plumber. “I did a little emergency work on this basement dig-out project for a nice family from Center City. Their contractor dug and re-poured the floor of their row-home basement, did a bit of hasty plumbing and framing, got a bunch of money up-front and then stopped returning calls. They’re understandably very upset. Would you meet with them?” I couldn’t help taking this project even more personally than usual. As a contractor, people give me significant sums of money and trust me with their homes. There is a great deal of responsibility inherent in that relationship. What an absolute bummer.

I brought my engineering consultant down to review what work had been done – digging out and reinforcing the foundation of a home is no joke. It turns out there was no underpinning in the exposed foundation, so that was our first order of business.

The planned bathroom in the basement needed an ejector pump to hoist the bathroom’s refuse to the existing sewer line. Although the contractor had started installation of the pump, there were no check valves or other needed parts in the system. I had the plumber pull the whole thing out and start over.

Once we took care of the existing plumbing and framing issues, the project went smoothly. The couple has a young daughter, so they wanted a rec room with the opportunity for office work. We built a new closet for their washer and dryer, a separate storage closet with access to the ejector pump system, a closet for their heating and AC units, and a bathroom with toilet, shower kit and sink.

We replaced both of the front windows, installed a dropped ceiling throughout, and built a custom staircase with open storage underneath. The remaining area we left open for furniture and playtime.

In the end, the client was very relieved. They finally got what exactly they wanted. I always shoot for thrilled but, after what they went through, I was happy with relieved.


Decks, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Deck in Fairmount, Philadelphia


“I’ve had it with the dirt, David!” Happily, the Fairmount homeowner was talking about her backyard, not my own propensity for creating dust.

She was losing the struggle to keep her stylish town home immaculate, but she certainly had formidable foes — her twin 5-year-olds, who enjoyed nothing more than digging and rolling around in her overgrown backyard and then tracking through the house.

After considering several landscaping and hardscaping options for the yard, we agreed on the thoroughly dirt-free solution: deck it.

In came the pros. We removed the existing pergola, damaged fence panels and half-buried tools and toys. After digging and pouring nine footings, we were ready for framing.

Our framers barely broke a sweat putting together the deck’s structure — it actually took longer to screw down the 500-square-feet of composite decking than to build the frame itself.

We then replaced or secured any loose fence panels, keeping less than a ½” gap between the deck edge and fencing in any spot. Yet we were careful to leave a nice opening for the homeowner’s treasured fig tree.

Mission accomplished, or so I thought.

When I stopped by to chat the following week, I noticed that the tykes had dumped a planter of dirt in the middle of the deck and were building their version of a backyard sandcastle.

But can you blame them?

View photos from this project.


Decks, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Renovation of Manayunk / Philadelphia Garage and Deck, Part 2

Below you'll find some pictures of the completed project for the Manayunk garage reinforcement and deck. You'll see that we took care to ensure that the drainage membrane has a clear shot into the new gutter, keeping the rainwater off the garage roof. Just in case, we also covered the garage roof from inside with a masonry waterproofing sealant.

Since we spent all this time reinforcing the concrete garage roof, of course we didn't want to haphazardly drop a 300-square-foot deck on top of it. So before framing, we carefully measured and transfered the locations of the vertical steel columns below to the deck area above. Then we put masonry block footings for the deck directly on the locations of the steel columns, transferring all the weight of the deck to the columns and new footings below. Double 2x12 beams spanning the block footings provided the basis for the deck joists.

The adjoining neighbor was a little concerned about access, since we built over the existing passway, so we built gates on either side of the deck (with a nice little ramp for said neighbor).

We installed a garage light on a switch as well as an outlet in the garage (in case they want to vacuum their cars in the shade). We also put up a motion-detector light on the face of the deck, towards the parking lot, for a little security and to provide additional light as they approach or leave the garage.

A safe and solid deck and garage for many years to come. And, for those who are following, they had a beautiful baby girl.

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View photos of the entire project.

Decks, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Renovation of Manayunk / Philadelphia Garage and Deck, Part 1


It's always rewarding to get a phone call from an old client about a new project. This call came from the young couple in Manayunk whose kitchen we did almost a year ago (see Manayunk Kitchen Remodel). No longer newlyweds, they were expecting their first child and wanted to ensure things were safe and sound for her arrival. Their house sits on a steep hill (as many in Manayunk do), and it has a funky layout. The backyard is the roof of their garage, which sits a story below their first floor and faces a small neighborhood parking lot. The garage has a 12" thick concrete roof, on top of which was about another foot of dirt and grass. The garage, which hadn't been used in decades, had a simple steel door and was dark, stinky and dank with moisture.

They were concerned about the structural integrity of the concrete roof and, hoping to use it as a functioning garage, wanted to alleviate the moisture while making sure their backyard wouldn't collapse onto their car. Good idea.

Our in-house structural expert helped design a plan to open up the garage for access, reinforce the roof, install a new drainage system and then build a deck on top, giving them over 320 square feet of new living space in the process.

We began by removing the existing garage entry door and most of the exterior wall of the garage. We then dug footings along the side walls and installed four steel I-beams along the roof of the garage, using a steel lift to set the beams onto steel columns. Thank goodness the mason brought four big guys along, or I think I'd be in a permanent back brace.

Then it was time to remove much of the existing grass and dirt, grading the yard towards the front of the garage. We covered an industrial drainage membrane with four inches of clean crushed stone, providing an optimal drainage system to run into the new gutter.

Check in next week to learn about the new deck and our finishing touches.

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View photos of the entire project.

Decks, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

How We Build a Safe and Enjoyable Roof or Backyard Deck


This week I'm taking a more serious tone to discuss a very important topic (and not just share the joy I take in our work). The fact is, we’ve earned a reputation as one of Philadelphia’s top builders of backyard and roof decks because we understand the critical elements in a safe and secure deck. The most important factor to consider when building decks is safety (waterproofing runs a close second in roof decks; I’ll address this topic in a later post). And two important components of a safe deck are the ledger-to-house connection (whenever possible) and railings.

An improperly attached ledger can lead to a deck collapse, as tension and compression forces work to pull the ledger away from the house. The primary force pushing down on the ledger is gravity, known as the vertical load (the weight of building materials plus the weight of people, furniture, etc. on the deck). In addition, lateral loads (such as wind and swelling / shrinking of the deck framing) can exert horizontal force away from the house.

We take extreme care to follow the 2012 International Residential Code for fastener-placement of the ledger board to the house. The IRC spacing guide includes specifics for the number and type of attachment bolts, the bolt stagger pattern, and their exact placement on the ledger board.

Railing posts must always be fastened to the deck framing with two galvanized ½” carriage bolts each (not lag screws) that are secured with washers and nuts. Yet we always take the extra step of attaching the posts to the inside of the perimeter of the deck. Then we use wood blocking to anchor them to the framing, helping to resist forces pushing on top of the post and reinforcing the framing itself.

This approach to railing posts takes more time, more material and decreases the useable deck space by a little bit — but these nominal differences become insignificant when considering the safety of those enjoying our decks.

The photos below show a roof deck we recently built in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia.

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Bathrooms, Bedrooms, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Philadelphia Renovation (5/5): Bathroom


This is the last in a five-part series on an extensive renovation we completed on a home in Philadelphia. Read the firstsecondthird and fourth posts. The second-floor bathroom renovation was another variable — what are we going to find once we pull off the tile, drywall and plaster, and two sets of ceilings? One never knows, especially in centuries-old homes, what challenges or obstacles lay in wait. The hope is, with some creative thinking (and willingness from the client), that we can turn them into opportunities.

Once we pulled down the ceilings, we found a mini-version of the exposed beam layout on the third floor, complete with a section of exposed brick wall. The bathroom isn’t very big, so we jumped at the chance to increase the space by giving it the same open, vaulted ceiling as upstairs.

The next discovery was along the sink and toilet wall. Under the plaster, drywall and tile was a wood, exterior door leading to the back bedroom. How odd. Perhaps the back bedroom was an addition? Were there steps at one point leading from the bathroom down to the backyard, and this door was the access? While we stood scratching our heads, the client walked in and said, “Oh I love it! The door stays!”

The door presented the perfect opportunity to give a traditional, classic bathroom style the history and character it needed to become warm and personal.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the past five weeks of posts and photos about this wonderful project. Please check in next week — springtime has arrived and it’s roof deck time …

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Bathrooms, Bedrooms, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Philadelphia Renovation (4/5): Floors


This is the fourth in a five-part series on an extensive renovation we completed on a home in Philadelphia. Read the first and second and third posts. Restoring the original floors of the home, one of the final phases in the process, also presented the greatest mystery. They were haphazardly covered with decades of dust and makeshift patches — carpet here and there, luan, oak flooring, linoleum and plywood. It was anyone’s guess what was left under there.

Once we exposed the entire floor, we found many broken, damaged and missing boards. Badly injured, but not hopeless — if we could find a supplier with matching floors for patching. And this flooring isn’t the kind you can buy at Lumber Liquidators.

So I went on a citywide search. After several unsuccessful stops, I tried Provenance, an architectural salvage resource in Fishtown. Their wood expert solemnly held up my sample to the light and examined it, weighed it in his hands, carved out shavings with a penknife and slowly nodded. He explained that we were dealing with early white pine — pre-Civil War — that was indigenous to the area but obsolete following the industrial revolution. That was when builders started importing the yellow pine that’s often still used today.

Truly fascinating — but where can I find more?? He pointed to a stack of reclaimed flooring a few feet away. “I happen to have some right there.” Jackpot.

Once the floor was patched and sanded, experience and several flooring experts suggested staining the wood before sealing for a uniform look. I discussed the options with my client and flooring contractor, and we agreed to simply seal it instead with clear polyurethane and let the natural color, contrasts and warmth of the aged floor shine through.

And we’re thrilled we did.

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Bathrooms, Bedrooms, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Philadelphia Renovation (3/5): Masonry


This is the third in a five-part series on an extensive renovation we completed on a home in Philadelphia. Read the first and second posts. Once the demolition stage of the project was complete, it was time to bring in the masons. The original chimney (one of two chimneys in the home) traveled through bedrooms on the 2nd and 3rd floors and had framed closets on either side. We removed all the closets and drywall during demolition and then had our crack masonry team (perhaps a bad choice of words) completely remove the chimneys in the bedrooms. Amazingly — with seven huffing workers, buckets and rope — this was one of the speediest parts of the job.

The masons then began the tedious labor of chipping and scraping off the plaster from the bedroom walls that adjoin the neighbor’s house. They used power and hand chisels and actually used a belt sander to get the brick looking clean and fresh. Although the original brick had some funky patterns and were laid in unusual ways, we embraced the originality and left them exactly as we found them. They repointed the entire wall and sealed it with a clear brick sealer.

One hair-graying event (especially this early in the process) was when the head mason said to me, while holding a loose brick in his hand and pointing to a hole in the wall, “Look, David. Belts.” Belts? So, I reached my hand in the wall and grabbed a handful of, yes, dress belts.The party wall, between my client’s home and her neighbor's, was only one layer of brick thick. So when the mason pulled out a loose brick to reset it, he had a clear line of vision into the neighbor’s closet.

A speedy visit to the neighbor’s with some plaster and an explanation made quick work of that situation.

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Bathrooms, Bedrooms, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Philadelphia Renovation (2/5): Insulation


This is the second in a five-part series on an extensive renovation we completed on a home in Philadelphia. Read the first post. Since we removed all the plaster and drywall and had everything exposed, it made the most sense to use spray-foam insulation throughout the house. I cannot overstate the energy-saving benefit of this product — and since we framed the new walls about ½” off the existing brick walls, the insulation was able to reach a thickness of 3”, wrap the 2-x-3 studs and ensure a fully sealed envelope.

We used Demilec’s Heatlok Soy 200, a rigid polyurethane foam that is soy-based and doesn’t release harmful off-gasses. Although the installation was pretty intense — with the workers covered from head-to-toe in white suits with masks and respirators — once they were done I was able to walk in, open some windows and work the next day.

Before we started installing the drywall, I had my floor contractor stop by to check out his part of the project. He was shocked by the (oddly soothing) blanket of mint-green insulation coating the inside of the house, and he exclaimed [in a strong Chinese accent], “Ahhh – like snow!”

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Bathrooms, Bedrooms, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Philadelphia Renovation (1/5): Exposed Beams

Finished Ceiling Beams

We are currently in the final stages of an extensive renovation in Philadelphia. Our client was very interested in maintaining as much of the character and feel of the original structure as possible, while still enjoying the benefits of modern remodeling. Right up our alley.

We completely gutted the entire second and third floors, including the master bathroom and three bedrooms.

The house is over 150 years old, and when we removed the plaster ceilings (which also had a ‘dropped’ drywall ceiling below them), we found the beautiful, original beams. We were determined, with a little TLC, to restore and feature them as prominently as possible in the master bedroom and bathroom.

This was a difficult process, but the result was even better than I had hoped.

On the beams that run along the roof, we first installed pine furring strips along the top edges of the beams to eventually receive the drywall. We then wrapped all the beams in plastic to protect them from the rest of the process. The insulation contractor sprayed foam insulation between the beams, from the roof to the bottom edge of the furring strips. Then the drywall team installed sheetrock between the beams, as well as wrapping the beams in drywall where they met the vertical walls. This process wasn’t easy as, after decades of settling, not one of the beams was square or plumb — not that I was about to adjust them and risk unhinging the entire roof.

Our taping/spackle expert rose to the challenge, flat taping the drywall against the beams in all their skewed glory. The painters followed him and cut the paint along the beams with precision.

Finally, plastic removal (judgment) day — and the work was flawless. An example of a half-dozen different specialties all performing their jobs perfectly.

I love it when that happens.

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Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation, Kitchens

Kitchen Remodel in Manayunk

A young couple recently bought a home in Manayunk and wanted to rework their cramped kitchen and dining room into a more open, spacious layout. They called us in April to come take a look. The catch: they were planning a July wedding and wanted the entire project to be complete by the time out of town guests arrived. We had to move quickly.

kitchen remodel in philadelphia, manayunkThe kitchen and dining rooms were two separate rooms with a doorway. The tiny kitchen was a dusty pea green and had cabinets, fixtures and color reminiscent of when the bride-to-be was in diapers.

We first had our clients meet with colleagues at A & C Kitchens, located in Chester, PA, where they consulted with a kitchen designer, chose cabinets and developed a working plan for their new kitchen.

While waiting for the cabinets and appliances to be delivered, we began work on the structural, electric and plumbing elements of the project. We began by removing the wall between the kitchen and dining room. Luckily this wall was not load-bearing (determined prior to removal, of course), or we would have needed to install steel structural supports or LVL beams across the opening to support the weight above.

We were also able to pivot the radiator away from the existing dividing wall and locate it on the adjacent dining room wall, preventing it from blocking our new opening. We built a custom radiator cover that maintains the house’s character and serves our space-saving needs.

Our electrician removed the single, ancient light fixture in the dining room and installed six dimmable, recessed lights for better mood and ambiance. He also put an attractive ceiling fan with a light where the old fixture had been.

The refrigerator was relocated from the main area of the kitchen to a nook by the back door; although a few extra steps away, it maximizes the space of the kitchen itself.

The kitchen had been remodeled once before (long ago), and the contractor had built a new kitchen wall – just in front of the original stone and plaster wall – using metal studs and drywall. Unfortunately, he had also compromised the integrity of the studs by cutting them in several places to allow for plumbing and electrical wires. Knowing that some heavy wall cabinets were on the way, we removed most of the sheetrock, installed wood studs wherever needed and also used ½ plywood instead of drywall for added cabinet support.

After we installed the cabinets, we had the countertop template made. We then had time to create a seamless transition in the ceiling from the dining room to the kitchen, as well as frame out and finish the new opening. Once the countertop was installed, it was time for the backsplash, paint, appliance install, under-cabinet lighting and final touch-up.

Our clients had a beautiful wedding and wonderful honeymoon. I was pleased to hear how much their family and friends loved the new kitchen and dining room. And I was very happy that we weren’t still working when they got there.

View photos from this project.