In this Backstory series, preview the loft renovation that will be the My House story in Dwell's November issue—our first-ever online sneak peek. Here, Emeryville, California, architect Peter Benoit shares the process behind customizing the San Francisco Bay area loft he shares with his wife, Lynda. Catch up with Part 1: The Way it Was here, and keep reading for Part 2: Drawings and Demolition.
After we moved in and had a chance to live in our new home, the first thing I did was draw a master plan of the entire place with detailed field measurings of the existing layout. We needed to add some material, some warmth, some wood, some texture—it was all dull before that. Then, I made a bunch of master plan options. One of the options was very involved—it would entail opening a big hole between the kitchen and living area. I scaled that back and we decided to open up half of the living room so we could get the loft back and redefine the area. I looked at a lot of different schemes: Originally, I considered a series of built-in bookshelves, or treating the entry way with different materials—even lacquered panels at one point. I kept playing around with it for weeks. In the end the space really called for a volume, and I started seeing the unit that housed the bedroom as a box rather than two different walls. Then I imagined it as a uniform material, which really simplified everything. Next I moved on to construction drawings.
This shows the main elevation of the wood box from the living room side; the bedroom is within and the loft is above, with shelves along the facing wall and stairs adjacent to the right. There are three typical details: the head/top (with the integral lighting), the base detail, and then the plan detail (which ran through any one of these verticals). Originally I thought that I was going to do butt-jointed boards (which means you’d be able to see the joint as you turn the corner), but I changed that idea to a more seamless mitre joint when I started construction. It actually turned out to be so much nicer, but the process was a LOT longer and a lot more labor intensive.
This section and elevation shows the side of the wood box with the stairs. I drew this so I could figure out how I would be framing the stair. The challenge was to make sure that no one would hit their head on the existing beams as they ascend to the top of the space. I looked at a handful of configurations, and opted to make a landing one step down from the loft, which happened to work out perfectly—with an inch of space for a 6’2” person (which is me). We also knew we wanted to have a closet beneath the landing. I used this drawing all the way through construction, which is why it’s so beat up with so many notations and stains.
This is the original section detail that shows the cavity for recessed lighting on top of the bookcase in the loft. This fixture provides indirect lighting for the living room—it pumps up onto the ceiling and reflects down, but you don’t see the light source from the living room. Because we were up there every morning and night getting dressed, I planned to put a frosted lens over it so its beam wouldn’t be too bright. I wasn’t sure what kind of light fixtures to use in the beginning, but I found some fluorescents that worked well.
This is a concealed hinge door detail for the double door at the closet under the stair. We bought a standard 1-3/8” solid core wood door panel from a lumber yard, clad it in 1x4 Douglas fir, and used Soss invisible hinges. I ended up hiring a carpenter with more experience to hang the door because it was out of my comfort zone to get it plumb.
This shot shows the existing loft, halfway down. It was mostly all framing with a little bit of electrical wiring so it came down pretty easily with the sledgehammers—but it was a total mess. I had to pull the deck down myself, which was tricky; I ended up cutting it into manageable pieces and letting them hang down so their own weight would guide them to the floor.
This was a very satisfying day. Here’s the entire loft smooshed into the back of my Isuzu. Removing the demo material was actually pretty easy in our building because we have a massive freight elevator that used to lift cars, so I rolled the materials down the hall and packed the shit out of the Trooper. I took it to the Berkeley Transfer Station; you get charged by type of vehicle and the weight you’re carrying, so it behooves you to make as few trips as possible. I made it in two.
One of the few days I got Lynda to help with demolition! Here she is removing drywall from the wall separating living room from bedroom.
This shows the space opened up, breathing again, with all of the loft demolition down. You can see all the tarps—we would bunch all our furniture together and tarp everything off, tarp up the loft where our clothes were, and tarp of the passage to the kitchen. I did my best to stack up the demo-ed wood neatly, and I took a lot of break. It was slow going, trying to sweep up all the dust and keep stuff from blowing into the living room and making more of a mess. You can see the Seafoam green color of the floor that predated that terrible vinyl. You can also see the footprint of the original stair, which really chopped up the space.Stay tuned for the next step in the renovation process and see the finished loft in Dwell's November Small Spaces issue on newsstands October 4th!