A 1920s Attic in Pelham Showcases a New Topper
A remodel of the top-floor gives a family everything on their wishlist
Kusum and Dave understood that renovating their 1920s attic would be challenging. They planned to add a new bathroom—in a crawlspace—located on the top-floor of their Westchester, New York home that held all the bedrooms. After several non-starts with multiple architects and having trouble finding contractors to execute the job, they posted their project on Sweeten, a free renovation platform that matches homeowners with licensed general contractors and tracks their projects.
They found a partner in the Sweeten contractor they chose—guiding them through a complete overhaul of the third-floor attic (it had started with just a new bathroom), newly-required sprinklers by town ordinance, and more knowledge of hip-and-valley rafters than Kusum ever wanted to know. Read on about the ups-and-downs of an old-home attic remodel that ended on the upside.
Guest blog post by Sweeten homeowner Kusum
My husband, Dave, an information security professional, and I, an ICU physician, moved to New York after I had just finished a clinical fellowship at Yale. We dragged our two young kids to a 1920s two-family house, originally a boarding house, which we gave an initial surge of renovations.
Fast forward five years later, my daughter was in her last year of elementary school, and we were really struggling with only one bathroom in the upper unit where we spent most of our time. (We had originally lost a half-bath after finding out about leaking sewage on the building inspection). Dave and I knew the time had come to renovate the third floor—a quirky, converted attic space of approximately 700 square feet, which contained our three main bedrooms.
Informed by local recommendations, we contacted four architects and a few major general contractors. Unfortunately, communication was disjointed, estimates were wildly different, and we kept hitting dead-ends. I was also weary of having contractors’ preference for discussing things with my husband, instead of me, the project’s decision-maker. This whole project was turning into a major headache, and we were discouraged.
Enter Sweeten. A fellow MOP (Mom of Pelham) and Sweeten’s CMO, Randi MacColl, had posted one of Sweeten’s recent projects on Facebook, and I messaged her with my saga. We were stressed we hadn’t found an architect and then a contractor to execute the plans.
Randi’s patience with my vent was amazing, and her solution was even better. Sweeten’s team literally addressed every frustration we had been facing with this third-floor renovation project. They immediately walked me through setting up a profile to be matched with vetted contractors and supported the entire “dating” process to bring life to our vision of the space.
That vision was complicated. Space was tight. Storage was minimal. The designated space for the bathroom was a crawlspace but would envelop Dave’s closet to maximize the square footage for a full bath. We also had always dreamed of having a master bath in our bedroom. We requested contractors through Sweeten for just the bath project. In our minds, however, we hoped for so much more—new floors, built-ins, millwork, etc. My husband’s wish list included dealing with a perpetual leak (despite two roofers’ attempts to fix), insulating cold spots, reinforcing weak floorboards, and new windows. And little did I know that he was thinking about exposing the dry-walled chimney.
They also had to work with an angled ceiling and what was behind it. Fortunately, our Sweeten contractor was all over this.
We met with a very manageable list of contractor/architect pairs and got bids. In the end, we chose our Sweeten contractor because of their enthusiasm, experience, innovation, and forthrightness in what they knew and did not know. The project quickly evolved from a single bathroom addition to a full-scale third-floor overhaul, inside and out, with a reworked floor plan to accommodate two new doorways. Our contractor suggested some innovative built-ins in the master bedroom and the stairwell to maximize our floor space. Storage for all our clutter led us one step closer to tranquility!
Hiccups and crises along the way were numerous (as with any renovation to an old house), but both Sweeten and our contractor supported us through each stressor with patience and transparency. A big uncertainty was whether we could fit a bathroom with adequate height clearance that was compliant with building codes. They also had to work with an angled ceiling and what was behind it.
Fortunately, our Sweeten contractor was all over this. A huge skylight helped to create the appearance of height in the space. We installed a custom medicine cabinet with a sloped recessed cabinet, a sink console with an expertly trimmed corner, and sconces from the U.K. to accommodate the hip wall. (I now know more about hip and valley rafters than certain diseases.)
We faced another problem with sprinklers, which were required for any third-floor living space renovation. Cost estimates ranged from the manageable to the exorbitant. Our start date was pushed two months late, but our contractors put together a timeline for completion that seemed doable considering we were still living in the space.
During the renovation, we moved to the first-floor apartment for six weeks, after which Dave and the kids left for the summer. Adding to the chaos, I was working in the ICU for a lot of the renovation period. Thank goodness for a wonderfully dependable contractor and Sweeten for doing check-ins when I did not have the bandwidth to deal with anything non-clinical.
Now, the third floor has turned into a coveted space for our family. There is so much light! With the floors redone, light painting, recessed lighting, and new windows, the entire floor is welcoming and relaxing. My son’s elevated bed allows for plenty of storage bins underneath to organize his toys and a reading nook. My daughter has the perfect tween transition room, including a desk, privacy, and a creative space. We got a zen master bedroom and an entrance to our “own” bath.
As I stated earlier, the project started with a much more limited scope, but because of code regulations requiring the sprinkler system and the decision to splurge of a significant amount of millwork, we went over budget. That being said, we as the homeowners made that decision, and were able to do so without pressure because of our Sweeten contractor’s transparency and strong communication. Both Dave and I were able to get all of the items on our wish list!
Reflecting on the project—as it’s been over a year now since we started the search for someone to do the third floor—I offer the following recommendations to other homeowners: a) set very clear expectations of each person’s roles, timelines, and constraints; b) establish a mutually agreed upon vehicle/format of communication and a minimum frequency of contact—endless email threads are the worst; c) hire your own cleaning team, as your standards of cleanliness (especially with young kids) may be much more stringent than the contractors; and d) personality match between the contractor and the homeowner is super important to make a project successful and enjoyable.
This essentially makes this major renovation project #6 for us as a family. To be honest, I think we have at least 2 more to go (just don’t tell Dave). We’ll just call Sweeten.
Thank you, Kusum and Dave, for sharing your attic renovation with us!
BATHROOM RESOURCES: Retrospect Ceramic sink console: American Standard. Niche tiles in Oceanside Sanctuary and Summer Storm; one-inch white glazed hexagonal floor tiles; 3×6 white subway wall tiles; sky blue penny rounds shower floor tile: Westchester Tile & Marble. Purist hardware & bathroom accessories in chrome, Awaken Hydrorail shower fixtures in chrome, Veil toilet: Kohler. Magnifying mirror: Simple Human. Astro-0274 Tube Wall Light: Ideas4lighting.com. Shower glass doors, medicine cabinet, built-in wall cabinet: Custom by general contractor. Paint in Silver Cloud: Benjamin Moore.
MASTER BEDROOM RESOURCES: Paint in Gray Owl, paint in Sea Haze on backs of bookcases/millwork: Benjamin Moore. Bedside sconces: Rejuvenation. Brayden Studio Dailey 3-light semi-flush mount: Wayfair. Built-in cabinetry: Custom by general contractor.
CLOSET RESOURCES: Paint in White Wisp: Benjamin Moore.
LIVING AREAS RESOURCES: Cantilever shelf & HVAC door: Custom by general contractor. Early American floor stain: Minwax. Paint in White Cream: Benjamin Moore. Trim (all spaces) in Chantilly Lace: Benjamin Moore.
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