The second floor of Sara Brazil and Jerry Lefkowitz’s 1913 bungalow had enough space for Sara’s office and a sitting area. It also had some drawbacks.
It was dark and cold, and felt like a cave. The only natural light came from windows in the dormers on opposite ends of the house, one much larger than the other. A pair of crawlspaces beneath the roof were insulated, but only on the floor, so cold air penetrated the roof and the room. To watch TV up there, Brazil and Lefkowitz often had to huddle under blankets.
Brazil’s office setup left barely enough space to pass between the desk chair and the wooden railing that surrounds the stairwell, which opens through the center of the floor.
The southwest Minneapolis couple wanted a more workable, comfortable, light-filled space. They engaged Hanson Building and Remodeling, a small Minneapolis design-build firm, whose lead designer, Donella Olson, saw potential for making it more usable without a major expansion.
Rather than raising the roof, the builders opened up the center of the 6-feet-4-inch ceiling to the roofline. They reused existing load transfer beams to help keep the roof from spreading out and add architectural interest. Interspersed among those beams, the company installed a pair of small skylights.
Olson also designed a larger dormer and window for the rear of the house to mirror those in front. To give Brazil more room to work, Olson suggested a 2-foot-deep cutout into one of the crawlspaces, just wide enough to accommodate a desk and file cabinet. A 19-inch cutout on the opposite wall, holds the couple’s media cabinet, with compartments to hold the TV, a stereo system with turntable, and their record collection.
The office cutout “made a huge change,” Brazil said.
The wood floor was a patchwork of fir, birch and maple in widths that varied from 2-¼ to 3-¼ inches, depending on the era during which each portion was installed. It was also splintery and stained a dark, reddish-brown, Lefkowitz said. Rather than replace it, the couple decided to have it refinished and patched further.
“We could have changed to a new floor but I actually think this looks better,” Brazil said. “It looks like an old house.”
The remodel gained them storage space as well. The builder removed the crawlspaces’ in-floor insulation and had new insulation blown along the roofline. The company’s lead carpenter, Eric Pierson, made and aged a sliding cedar barn door and a second smaller door to grant access to the main crawlspace. The couple refers to the smaller door as “the Hobbit door,” because their nieces love to open it up and play inside the newly finished space.
As with many an old-house remodeling project, this one yielded a few surprises. A chimney that the couple had hoped to save for its exposed brick turned out to be crumbling and had to go, but only from the second floor and above the roof. However, that meant that the house’s gravity or “octopus” heating system needed replacing as well, a project that they had hoped to delay.
“We knew that there were things that we needed to be flexible about,” Lefkowitz said.
To supplement the new heating system and add a bit of Scandinavian style to their updated sitting area, they decided to add a Malm retro gas fireplace in a custom color — mint green. They had the chimney cut to fit the sloping ceiling line. In the rear, they added a mid-century English sideboard beneath the dormer window.
Less noticeable but adding to the space’s style are the crisp lines in all the new ceiling’s many new corners angles. The drywall installer used lasers to make sure the lines all looked crisp, according to company owner and general manager Dan Hanson.
At 370 square feet, the new livable space is not much bigger than the old, Hanson noted. But the ceiling now measures 7 feet 1 inch at the beams and 9 feet at its peak. The additional 750 square feet of usable crawlspace is a “huge asset to that space,” he added.
“We use it a lot more now,” said Brazil of the bright, stylish, temperature-controlled space. “It’s so much more comfortable.”
Hanson Building does all the design work, planning and cost calculations before work begins, according to Olson.
“For the most part, we know what’s going to happen,” she said. “It makes remodeling a joyful experience, and a lot of people are surprised by that.”