Lake of the Isles Home Makeover
Nobody said it would be easy. “Ingenious” is the word that comes to mind. The young family yearned to remodel the stately 1915 Georgian brick home anchoring the southwest corner of Lake of the Isles Boulevard they’d purchased in 2008. Okay, that’s not so tough for a construction firm like Vujovich Design Build Inc., which specializes in renovating architecturally significant homes in South Minneapolis and Edina. But—an addition? The home lacked a comfortable kitchen/family room space and a functional connection to the freestanding garage, plus modern-day necessities such as a mudroom and powder room that weren’t part of the picture in 1915. Oh, and a new bedroom for their infant daughter. And an exercise room. And an indoor pool. But how, and where? All it takes is plans and money—if you’re living somewhere in the ex-ex-exurbs, anyway. If your city lot, with its exquisite, and precious, formal garden completed in the backyard in 2008 (and therefore sacred), is constrained (city streets, alley, and neighbors mean no wiggle room), that means creating a dream within an existing footprint. And that’s a whole new challenge. The owners first called on architect Joseph Metz, principal, SALA Architects, who figured out the ‘what.’ Metzler recommended Vujovich—on the same wave length, they’d partnered successfully many times in the past—to accomplish the ‘how.’ “Either Joe could design it, or we could,” says co-owner and General Manager Ed Roskowinski. “Initially there were a lot of meetings to learn, to get up to speed, to see what it’ll take to create what’s on paper. (Of course, many things change along the way, based on timetables.)”
Vujovich has always had its own requirements, too. No tracts, no flips, no blah. A project (and its clients) has to be “fun,” insists Ed. The building team and owners, he says, have to be on the same page: “How does it feel? We all sit down around the kitchen table and talk about needs, wishes, what’s comfortable. Everybody brings up questions. “Lots of times, people focus on the price. But we’re less about price. We explain that you may pay a little more, but you’ll get far better value. We’ve been around 38 years; we stand the test of time, share a sense of community. The thing you must look for is trust. Clients want to know you’ll stand by your work, show up on time, do things right. Also, this should be fun for them, too,” he reinforces. “It should be a positive experience, so they need to decide if we’ll be fun to be around.” “Next, tell us—not your ideas” he stresses, “but rather, your list of needs—like, in this Lake of the Isles house. Originally it was a very formal home, with a large living room and dining room. But here’s a family with young kids, wanting a family space: that’s a big part of what they’re looking for. Plus the existing open walkway to the garage: we needed to solve that.”
“The challenge regarding that walkway was, according to Minnesota laws on frost footing, we couldn’t actually attach it.” But who wants to trek that distance from the home itself—no treat in the best of weather, but particularly nasty during a long, cold Minnesota winter? So Vujovich constructed an open-sided—but covered and significantly shortened—eight-foot walkway, with steps down to the garden, to meet the legal requirement of separation, then, using the remaining space, added the yearned-for mudroom and powder room to the back of the existing house to create a footprint for these new features as well as lessen the outdoor commute. These rooms led into the new family room-cum-informal kitchen—a renovation rather than addition. “It was hard to get an open concept into the existing home, so we changed it dramatically, creating a separate, informal pod,” Ed explains. Planned with an open, relaxed and airy feel with lots of windows amid white walls and cabinets, the former kitchen was gutted and revamped to better suit a 21st century way of living and the needs of the owners—a cozy, comfortable sanctuary for family life, yet big and well-equipped enough for caterers to function when the couple entertained formally.
Each of Vujovich’s projects has its own designated project manager, and this point person guides the client in choosing design features. “We take them to showrooms where we have relationships with their various professionals, who sit down with them and discuss, say, how they use their kitchen on an everyday basis, and with guests. While we gutted the kitchen here, we kept some of the cabinets and gave them a new, white finish. We added a large center island, which can function as a buffet station for guests but also has seats for the family. They chose stone countertops and stainless steel appliances, including a commercial gas range, and a farm-kitchen, cut-out sink. We refinished the hardwood floor to match the original white oak in other parts of the house. “An odd existing feature was a large chimney that went from the basement to the roof and right through the kitchen. We removed it, replacing the boiler and mechanicals in the basement, making room for more kitchen cabinets. The adjoining new family room features white built-in bookcases and a gas fireplace. “A really big part of our job,” Ed continues, “is to organize the design features. For instance, when they pick out a knob, we document the color, size, and brand in case they need the information for replacement later on.”
So, the basement now features new HVAC materials. But it also showcases what, to an outsider, looks like a hotel gym, complete with a huge resistance swimming pool, whirlpool, and hot tub, with an interior window connecting them visually with the exercise room. Natural light filters in via three large window wells. But to get all that large and heavy equipment below ground was no easy matter. That indoor pool itself weighed in at 3,500 pounds. And remember those city lot constraints? Right. It had to be lifted by crane over the formal garden, past mature oak trees, and down into its own newly constructed basement space. To gain access to the lot’s work area, Vujovich came up with the logistical solution of building a ramp over the formidable retaining wall facing Lake of the Isles Boulevard to permit trucks to deliver the big stuff from the street. (A small section of the formal garden was removed and later replaced by the original landscape firm, Southview Design.) No one said this would be easy.
Along with the new bedroom for the new baby added on the second floor, a new laundry room was created near it by converting an existing room. Upgraded from the basement, the new (and much more accessible) laundry utilized a former stone kitchen countertop as well. Oh, and the bricks from that dismantled chimney were blended with new ones to cover the new exterior walls, an aesthetically—as well as environmentally—sound decision. Speaking of the environment, Vujovich prides itself on thinking green “as a part of our company culture,” says Ed. “Many ‘green’ things we do, the client doesn’t even have to be concerned about—for instance, using low/no VOC paint and hardwood floor finishes and no products containing formaldehyde. We use ‘green’ suppliers like Marvin Windows & Doors, which recycles everything; they use every part and piece of a tree. “There are lots of other ways to save, too,” he continues. “Save money by contributing appliances to be salvaged. The homeowner gets a tax write-off, plus there’s no disposal fee. Plus, after that 20 percent saved by salvaging, we recycle 80 percent of the remains, like plaster and sheetrock. There’s very little to cart off to the landfill if you’re progressive.”
Bottom line: “We try to focus on the experience of the client. Construction,” he says, “is the easy part. Managing a client is tougher, and it’s the most important part—and something other companies may not stress. Simply creating a beautiful space is easy,” he reiterates. But with Vujovich, it’s not enough. “The client lives here through the whole process. We like to create ways they can maintain their life patterns in their existing home—for instance, we set up a temporary kitchen, moving their appliances and stuff to another room during construction. Sure, we have quality craftsmen and project managers and great systems for managing the selection of products and a well-honed process for building and remodeling, but our passion and pride come from building relationships—before, during, and after the process. We know it’s stressful, especially the first few days when no one can find their hats and mittens, when there are strange loud noises, and the dog is upset. But we spend time preparing homeowners for the emotional rollercoaster by talking about how the remodeling experience might feel and how keeping the communications flow open can help.” The TLC pays off. The owners called in Vujovich once again when they wanted an outdoor kitchen built. To date, the company has completed five projects for this client, who clearly cherish their work.
Thinking of Remodeling/Adding On? Here’s How the Process Works “Our business usually comes from referrals, says Vujovich’s co-owner, General Manager Ed Roskowinski. “They know who we are and have seen us around. So, it’s not a challenge for us to justify what we can do. We start by getting together in the client’s home, meeting with all the decision-makers for an hour or two, focusing on goals—not necessarily on the plans themselves. Those goals include things like what they like and don’t like about their current house; the timing and budget of the project; and how they want to experience the house—all to make sure it’s the right fit. The first consultation is always free of cost. Then it’s time for us to start the design process, or consult with their architect (either way is fine with us). Typical questions:
- What’s the minimum [job/fee]? “We get asked that all the time. They assume that we deal only with large projects (which is a lot of what we do), but there’s not a minimum: it can depend on the type of home; the neighborhood. The average project runs $100,000, with kitchen remodeling being the most popular project. We like to deal with historic renovations in architecturally significant homes. If it’s a new home, then one with architectural detail.”
- How long from that first meeting to the shovel in the ground? “Usually about four months, which is actually the time it takes to design a project.”
- Any help securing loans? “We can assist with that. We partner with a broker in Edina, who finds the best mortgage rate. And it’s challenging! In fact, it’s the biggest challenge in our industry, because appraisals are so low right now—lower than the cost of materials, so there’s a challenge in bridging that. We sit down with the appraiser and show images and ideas to relay that it’s not just based on square footage.”
- My neighbors are going to hate this. “We consider them our future clients, so we want this to be a good experience for them, too. We send letters asking them to call us with any issues because we certainly don’t want to create any animosity. “ And Vujovich doesn’t like McMansions any more than you do. “We’re big proponents of ‘building right.’ Our philosophy is, build smaller but build better. An addition isn’t always the right answer. We’ll visit and ask, ‘If you have any unused space, why add more?’ Maybe the formal dining room can become the family room rather than adding an extension.”
- Do you offer warranties? “The State of Minnesota requires a two-year warranty on construction defects and 12 years on equipment. We go beyond that because we’re focused on relationships. We’ll come back in five, ten years if something didn’t hold up as we’d expected.”
- The Recession hurt most builders. What about you? “Fortunately, we have groupies; that’s exciting, and that’s part of what we do—build relationships. So when business fell off a bit, we’d send out an email blast to former customers letting them know we had a few time slots available in case they’d been thinking about a project. And we got a very good response. Being really good friends with our clients is part of the fun, watching their kids grow up. Then those kids buy houses of their own and call us.”