Remodeling from the Top Down
The phrase "flipping a house" means something entirely different to one Minnesota architect and his family
When we think of flipping houses, we usually think of a quickie remodel, the real estate market, or a few television shows devoted to the practice. But, the flip in this story is more of a literal flip—as in the main living spaces moved up to a second-story addition while the bedrooms remained downstairs. What inspired such a flip? Upon their return to Minnesota after a year and a half sabbatical in San Miguel, Mexico, architect Michael Roehr and his wife, Elisa Bernick, wanted to recreate the open-to-the-sky, breezy space they had enjoyed in San Miguel. Easier said than done, of course. Luckily, the couple documented the transformation of their “sad, little bungalow” so we could glean a few takeaways from their experience.
To learn more about their home’s transformation, read The Upside-Down House from Fine Homebuilding issue #203 (Houses, 2009) pp.44-47.
Michael Roehr is a partner at RoehrSchmitt Architects in Minneapolis (www.roehrschmitt.com) and Elisa Bernick is the author of The Family Sabbatical Handbook.
Photos: Courtesy of the authors
The back of our sad little bungalow within a few days of beginning to tear it apart. With the jungle gym and a chunk of our deck in the foreground, you can see the only other addition we’d made to the house: a 3 1/2-sq.-ft. bump-out covered in black asphalt shingles to accommodate our modern refrigerator. If we’d known at this point how much work was ahead of us we would have…well, we would have gone through with it anyway. The dream had taken hold of us, and there was no turning back.
Once I started driving around and digging holes in the backyard with the Bobcat, Elisa finally understood why we couldn’t just work around her garden. I believe she stood there for several minutes with her hand over her mouth, nodding as the realization sunk in. The glee with which I wielded that little backhoe didn’t help.
We put everyone to work. Here, I’ve got my 70-something Dad hauling building materials up from the street, which was actually a break from some hot, sweaty, dusty demo I had him doing on the interior. Thanks, Dad!
With a foundation in and some walls up, the work site was beginning to look almost organized. It started to look like we were getting somewhere, but of course we were just playing around the edges of the project, preparing for the main event: tearing the roof off the house.
Having established the new deck for the second floor, we began to tentatively work toward establishing the new walls, which would transition from typical stick-frame walls to a steel roof system. We had to temporarily support the roof supports, sandwiching the steel posts in wood and then infilling with typically framed walls. It was a cumbersome process, but it allowed for the uninterrupted clerestory windows that are central to the design.
Now we’re getting somewhere. The shape and scale of the new house are beginning to emerge. The temporary bracing remains in place pending the arrival of the open-web steel joists that will free-span the entire second floor.
Finally, a shot from the front of the house! With all the trees in front, it was always difficult to get a good picture from the street. That windbreak of trees on the northwest corner of the site was a strong influence on how we thought about the building site. I’m sure we would’ve designed a very different house without it there.
Crane day! This was the most highly choreographed day of construction, having to coordinate the arrival of the truck carrying the joists and roof deck, with the hiring of a crane to unload and lift them into place atop the house, with the team of volunteers who received and installed all the joists as they were lifted into place. Within a mere couple of hours, we had a roof structure!
We finally got a lid on this thing. . .and a tarp to protect us from the worst of the late-summer storms. Windows are not far behind, which is a good thing because it’s pretty chilly at night in September. We had been hoping to get back in the house by October, but that is clearly not in the cards.
The raw shell before windows, electrical…before anything else. I loved it this way, and if winter weren’t coming, I could’ve just camped in here like this for a while. I used to just sit in here alone and quiet at the end of the day and let the light slowly leak away.
Windows! And snow not long after.… At this point I had taken the floor back up and was weaving a mile of PEX tubing through it for a few weeks while the other subs worked patiently around me.
The rocked and primed space with all the parts and pieces jostling to find their rightful place in the scheme of things. If we hadn’t already come as far as we had, what remained would’ve felt overwhelming. At this point, though, it just felt like we had to wrap up a few miscellaneous details: installing flooring, a kitchen, a couple of bathrooms, and a fireplace.
The interior takes shape. We were living in the south half (third?) of the space while I installed the MDF floor and tiled the entry and bathroom in my spare time. The tablesaw was to remain a significant piece of living-room furniture for several more months.
The infamous day I decided to try to sandblast the stucco myself. It was sunny and 98 degrees before I put on all the gear that day, and fortunately not long into the process, the compressor failed and I was able to return the entire rig, but not before burning a few holes in the stucco and embedding some abrasives in my thumb. This was the only DIY effort that defeated me. The thousand bucks I ultimately paid to have the job done was about the easiest grand I ever spent.
Sometimes, you just gotta take a break and play a little blues…
The basic form of the house is there, awaiting zinc panels and a cedar corncrib entry enclosure…and spring. I couldn’t have done it without my trusty, and rusty, old F-150. It lasted until the end of the job and not a week longer.
We survive until spring, only to have to begin installing the zinc panel siding (which I did over the course of three summers) and begin wrestling with putting the yard and garden back into shape.