in remodeling her own rambler, an architect practices what she preaches
Pacific Magazine, Seattle Times, Dean Stahl,
August 25, 2005
“I like increasing values both monetarily and personally for all my clients, and to make good use of resources,” Kraft says. “Remodeling makes sense. If you are working with what you have, you are not expanding to use treed land.”
From the beginning, Kraft saw the potential in her house. The Wedgwood neighborhood has wide spaces between homes. Ramblers such as hers tend to be single story, and have open floor plans, large rooms and an informal quality that accommodates change. And generally, “There’s an all-wood frame that is easy for remodelers to work with,” she says. “Rooms flow together.”
Well, at least most of the time. When she moved into her circa- 1953 house in 1985, the kitchen was a dark cramped mishmash, embellished with sparkling Formica counter tops from a 1960s-style remodel, and yellow wall paint. To make matters worse, three doorways into the tiny, galley-style arrangement made congestion a problem. After taking care of more pressing repairs and refurbishing the bedrooms and bathrooms, Kraft hired herself, as architect to change all that.
The first task for Kraft the client was to define her kitchen goals, which included ease of cleaning, more natural light, a place for everything, and a separate eating area. She also wanted to play with a modern look, but not clash with the rambler’s traditional charms. Finally, since everyone gathers in a kitchen anyway, she hoped to add space for entertaining and just hanging out.
“I was responding to things needing change,” she says. “Typically, I find it easier to work with clients on a remodel if they can articulate a functional problem as well as a stylistic preference and realistic budget. Being my own client was pretty thrilling, but I had to answer the same sorts of questions.”
Since the kitchen would remain in the back of the house, Kraft’s view in the new space would stay east-facing, toward the mostly steep rise that she cleaned up and planted with hundreds of perennials, shrubs and small trees. She knew any new construction needed to be higher to capture light and to forge a stronger sight-line relationship between house and garden, yet she didn’t want to disturb the fabric of her neighborhood of mostly older, single story homes on a quiet street..
She says point-blank she’d never construct anything that would loom over her neighbors.
Likewise, she was compelled by aesthetic and financial guidelines to marry any new exterior details to existing materials, to extend out just three feet from the foundation and to work toward a strong symmetrical procession in roof lines.
Fortunately, Kraft’s house is tucked into its lot in such a way that she was able to build up for a 17-foot-high, sunlight-seizing kitchen and still not block any neighbor’s light. For a cost of about $75,000 to tear down and build up, she gained a two-for-the-price-of-one residence. There are practical, pleasing spaces for domestic living in the traditional part of the house and, secreted behind a pocket door, a mood-elevating kitchen plus entertainment area.
Kraft’s project daringly changes the character of the rambler, but with the pocket door closed, it is her little secret. Spend a few minutes in the kitchen, especially on a gloomy day, and the wash of light from windows high and low cannot help but lift the spirits. “The kitchen is where I live,” she says.
Awning-style windows on the south side open for fresh ventilation and cooling. Gray porcelain-tile flooring is colored throughout, so it won’t show chips. Deep, plastic-laminate counter tops have a stainless-steel back wall. With built-in shelves and cabinets, everything has its place — including the cats’ food and water bowls, which slide into built-in cubby-holes away from human feet. Two stylish and economical hanging fluorescent fixtures bounce light off the ceiling, as do lights tucked in the tops of one bank of cupboards. A few steps away are a dining table and chairs, a lounge chair and an easy chair. Double doors open wide onto a patio.
It is hard to imagine a more practical solution than Kraft’s. Though the kitchen/entertainment area lus been extended by barely 45 square feet, the volume feels expansive, thanks to all that headroom and light colored walls.
Earlier, she had converted the main-floor bathroom and gained storage space in the master bedroom and guest room by moving walls and sacrificing a tiny third bedroom. She relocated and replaced bedroom windows for privacy and visual balance, then replaced doors and hardware throughout the house to tie the interior together visually.
Kraft can speak with authority on ramblers. About half her clientele have come from her ZIP code, which is deep in rambler country. Satisfied clients tend to tell their neighbors, she explains. Otherwise, she designs in a broad range of house styles, and does new construction as well as remodels.
For her own last major fix--it project, in 1995, she converted the basement into an art studio, where she spreads out tarps and works in oil paints on canvas without worrying about mess. An accomplished artist who includes travel as part of her greater design, she has sketchbooks filled with drawings, watercolors and photographs to accompany handwritten narratives.
Kraft earned her architecture degree at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, then packed up and drove to Seattle in 1980 to begin her professional life. She was employed in various local firms before going back to school in 1993 for a master’s degree. She has worked as a one-person architecture shop since then, and revels in being free to use the design methods that best suit her.
“I really love to draw,” she says. “The process is enjoyable, and you are not zoomed in so close, as you are with a computer. There is a certain liveliness to hand-drawing. The designs, for me, are more intuitive. If I find that I’m struggling terribly in one area, I know there must be something there to look hard at.” Becoming her own boss was the realization of a dream, she says, the payoff after many years of planning and work and patience. She looked hard at her life and created what is, for her, the ideal design.
Dean Stahl is a Seattle freelance writer. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
LOOK BEHIND their front doors, Laura Kraft says, and you’ll see that most architects who own homes struggle with the same issues as anyone else. Not all architects have deep pockets and unlimited budgets.