In 2007, Lynda and Peter Benoit bought a 1,100-square-foot unit in the historic Besler Building, a former steam-engine factory in Emeryville, California. The San Francisco Bay Area loft was suffering from a case of poor planning; a previous owner had broken up the open area with an ill-conceived elevated storage space directly over the entryway.
Over the span of two years, the couple—she’s a communications specialist at Lucasfilm and he’s an architect at Melander Architects—lived and breathed a clever overhaul, transforming their once-dim home into a sunlit space housing Peter’s masterwork: a completely customized 16-by-17-by-10-foot wooden box that accommodates a bookcase on the outside, a bedroom on the inside, and a dressing-room mezzanine above.
Lynda: The day after escrow closed, we came over and pulled up this cheap vinyl that was on the floor. It took us 45 minutes to get it all off.
Peter: We knew there would be concrete under there, somewhere.
Lynda: We wanted to sand down the floor but that was too expensive. Instead, we had it painted blue before we moved in. Then we waited about five months before we did any real work, which gave us time to appreciate how we used the space and to figure out what changes would suit us best. And I was terrified about putting holes in walls.
So we started small. The first real mark we made was to cut a square pass-through from the kitchen to the living room, which just happens to fit beer and wine bottles perfectly. I was resistant, so Pete did it while I was away for a weekend. I came home and said, “Okay. This is really amazing.” After that, the demolition began.
Peter: Our main goal was to open the space up to the light. We have a 13-foot-high ceiling and an entire wall of windows, but the previous owner had built a lofted storage structure that stretched across the entryway, essentially dividing the living room and blocking most of the view.
Half of the elevated unit had to be dismantled. A friend came over and we tore away the drywall with sledgehammers over a couple of days. Once the drywall was gone, I began to cut apart the frame, piece by piece. I thought this was going to be done so fast…
Lynda: But it took eight months just to knock it down. It got very, very dusty. Pete set up sawhorses, the washer-dryer doubled as a workbench, and everything was out in the open. We did a lot of tarping.
Peter: Once we got into the groove, it became second nature: Put the tarps up on Friday night, turn on the saws Saturday morning, and work through Sunday. Then we’d clean up, mop the floor, vacuum, and get it livable for the week again. We’d stack all the materials and equipment by the front door, out of the way, but we were living in a construction site.
Finally I was able to start on the wooden box itself. I got the plywood framing up—which I learned how to do when I worked for a carpenter in college—and took down the stairs. Lynda told me I had 48 hours to build them again, because she didn’t want to climb a ladder to get to all our clothes.
Lynda: About that time we also decided to tile the kitchen. We went to Heath Ceramics and bought boxes of overstock based on the square footage and the green color we liked. Laying out all the tiles was the most fun for me. I organized them into batch one, for the high-visibility areas; batch two, which I knew I’d have to cut a portion off of; and batch three, for ones up high and not as visible. I used a cheap plastic brush from a drugstore in Mexico as trowel teeth, which gave the thinset mortar just the right kind
Peter: I clad the box with Douglas fir because it has a nice, clear vertical grain and it was inexpensive. I cut all the boards in our place—even the framing, which was a royal pain in the ass to maneuver because of its size.
I started paneling at the floor, went all the way across, and just kept layering up. Things slowly started to take shape. I had originally planned to cover the entire box, but my friend Joe came over and suggested cutting a few windows in the frame to get light into the bedroom. I was a third of the way done and thought, “A week later that wouldn’t have been possible.” In the end it was the best idea. If you stand on the bed you can see straight through to the hills.
When the entire structure was done, we had a carpenter install the bookshelves.
Lynda: We taped up where they’d go multiple times to figure out the right spacing.
Peter: I think in lines, and I like things to be rectangular and architectural. Lynda is….
Peter: And I love that. Her taste grows; it has life; it takes over places. So Lynda has always been in charge of the shelves, organizing the books and mixing up what we display: a lips phone, rock collections from our travels, molds of her siblings’ teeth, a giant Styrofoam bust of Mr. T.
In the end, even though building the box drove us crazy and took forever, it’s added so much texture to the place. There was no texture when we moved in here.
Lynda: It was so unfinished for such a long time, but now I love it. I love looking at it every day.