A Down-to-the-Studs Home Renovation

Rhode Island Home & Design

April 2011

By Ivor Hanson

From the outside, Joe Haskett’s and Kirsten Murphy’s 1901 light yellow two-story home in Providence’s Fox Point neighborhood is a quintessential New England clapboard structure.

Apart from a triangular corner notch above a diagonally set first floor bay window and a rough-hewn wood porch, the unassuming residence doesn’t stand out from other buildings on the street, except that, yes, its exterior could use some TLC.

Stepping inside, however, presents a decidedly different home.

On the other side of the front door, a transformation has brought about an elegant, modernist, light-drenched space for the couple and their young son, Finn.

The Haskett-Murphy home recently underwent what Haskett, a Providence-based commercial and residential architect, calls a “deep energy retro-fit” which also involved a “to-the-studs” gut renovation.

The then 1,532 square-foot home, which had not been updated since it was built by the previous owner’s father – the place still had its original lead pipes – had been on the market for a year before Haskett and Murphy bought it in late 2009.

“When we walked into the house,” says Murphy, a graphic designer, “even though it was divided up into all these small rooms, we could just picture what was possible.”

In other words, the first floor’s maze-like eight rooms were on their way out.

But not everything old was given the boot.

From the outset, Haskett and Murphy wanted the new and old to define their home.

Believing it didn’t make sense aesthetically or financially to squander the building’s character and history, they planned and budgeted accordingly.

Before taking down all the original doors, baseboards, and window frames, they meticulously labeled and numbered them for later re-installation.

They also kept the original pine floors throughout, enjoying especially the planks that now sport filled-in round holes where the old pipes passed through, with Haskett marveling that the plugs came courtesy of sliced-up baseball bats.

Most strikingly, Haskett and Murphy left in place in the living room an original twenty-foot-long load-bearing wall. Stripping it down to its original wood timber, this reminder of the home’s past has arguably become a built-in “found” sculpture; architectural art, as it were.

“We want to let the materials tell their story,” says Haskett. “We want the house to have its say.”

At the same time, where new flooring proved necessary, they installed the pine perpendicular to the existing wood to offset the new from the old: the new speaking for itself.

Similarly, in terms of the new, Haskett took advantage of the openness and flexibility full-on gut jobs allow.

In the kitchen, for example, he designed the architecture around the cabinets, and not the other way round, meaning they got, as Haskett puts it, “the look of ‘custom’ for the price of ‘stock’”.

And, indeed, the Ikea kitchen cabinets do appear more than standard issue. That said, Haskett is quick to point out that he did have a carpenter add a bit of framing trim to some of the cabinets to make them thicker and stronger, and also unique — an instance of minimal customizing.

The resulting discrete kitchen doesn’t disappear completely, but does tastefully recede into the background. Glimpsed at across the room from the living area’s turquoise mid-century sofa, only the faucet’s upward curve asserts the kitchen’s presence; a similarly subtle door-less nook of an office space that glows in the afternoon sun is just off the main room.

On the sunny second floor, what had been six rooms became five: the master bedroom/bath suite, Finn’s room, a bathroom with the original clawfoot tub, a guest room, and a reading room.

The formerly raw space of a basement was turned into a Finn rec. room/family media room, adding 712 square feet of space, bringing the home’s new square footage total to 2,244 square feet.

“A small home can be spacious,” says Haskett, reflecting on the difference between where they live now and their previous home, a 3,000 square-foot loft in Pawtuckett’s Schaffer Furniture Building. “Rooms don’t have to be big to feel big. It’s all about scale — and knowing you don’t need all that room.”

To make the Haskett-Murphy home re-do a reality, Haskett took his plans to Josh Brandt, a partner and founder of Stack Design Build, a three-year-old Providence-based sustainability-focused commercial and residential construction firm.

Haskett and Brandt had successfully worked together on Providence’s Box Office, an innovative office complex comprised of reworked shipping containers that opened last year that Haskett’s Distill Studio designed and Brand’s Stack built.

Haskett and Brandt also took the same approach used at the Box Office of bringing all the players together from the beginning.

“Collaborating upfront just taps all the potential that exists between the client, the architect, and the builder,” Brandt says. “You don’t want to blow that opportunity for creativity and cost savings.”

Regarding the energy retro-fit, the house got new Marvin windows, a Samsung “Quiet-Side” mini-combination boiler for hydronic heat and domestic hot water, spray foam insulation, as well as recycled 2” XPS (extruded polystyrene) and ¼” cementitious back-up foam from the firm Insulation Depot.

The renovation’s “square-foot-cost” would have been $58, but “sweat equity” – Haskett and Murphy installed the replacement windows; reinstalled the baseboards and window frames; and did all the painting – lowered the figure to the even more impressive $50 per-square-foot.

“What I’m most pleased with is the stuff you can’t see,” says Stack’s Brandt, referring to the insulation, along with the reengineering and rethinking of the space. “That house is a poster child for blending new with old.”

“What we’ve got,” says Haskett, “is a hybrid of the single-family home and a loft space.”

“Downstairs, we’ve got our big, open space,” adds Murphy. “And upstairs we’ve got our little hideaways.”

The Haskett-Murphy home epitomizes what an owner and builder can accomplish when they know exactly what they want, and how they are going to get it.

“You’ve got this pie in the sky,” Haskett says, smiling as he looks around his living room “and you have got to land it.”

Their next pie? Constructing a deck-topped carport, redoing the porch, and restoring that clapboard exterior…

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