By Gretchen McKay

Renovation inspiration

Categories : Uncategorized
Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

It’s often difficult to pinpoint the one design detail that sets the course of major home renovation. For Tom and Hannah Hardy, it started with figuring out what kind of lights would best show off a planned remodel of their North Side kitchen.

“He called under the pretext of lighting fixtures,” architect Peter Margittai recalls, laughing. “But once I was there, Tom was like, ‘What do you think about this, and what about that?’ and I was like, ‘Well, maybe we could take that wall out …’ ”

It’d be an entire year before that conversation in 2004 materialized into a formal game plan detailing how to transform a cramped and dated space into a wide-open modern marvel. The project, finished in 2005, was a finalist in last year’s Renovation Inspiration Contest, small project category (less than $50,000). The entry deadline for this year’s competition, sponsored by the Post-Gazette and Community Design Center of Pittsburgh, is Friday.

With its vibrant marriage of contrasting textures and colors and cutting-edge materials, the Hardys’ kitchen is contemporary enough that visitors could easily forget they’re standing in a Queen Anne-style row house built in the mid 1880s. But it’s not so far out that it feels out of place in the historic Mexican War Streets neighborhood, one of the city’s oldest.

The custom maple cabinets by Dwight Palmer of Works in Wood in Glenshaw, for instance, are stained a warm cherry to mirror the hues of the original woodwork. The colorful pendants that shine light on the bar separating the cooking and prep areas from the dining area reflect the home’s original stained glass.

Even the unconventional crisscross of metallic tile on the kitchen’s far accent wall — handcrafted in Mexico from recycled aluminum — arguably have their roots in the past, as they’re reminiscent of the sterling filigree that was so popular during the Victorian period, says Mr. Margittai.

As environmentally responsible as they are beautifully “green,” the 4-by-4-inch squares of metal would have provided a shiny foil to the cabinets when lined up square. But when the first samples of Alumillenium arrived, the architect quickly realized that if they turned the tiles 90 degrees, they’d catch the light just so. Hence the quirky checkerboard pattern.

Alumillenium tiles Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

“We wanted a hint of something special when people walked in the door,” says Mr. Hardy, principal of Palo Alto Partners, a real estate consulting firm for nonprofits and private businesses.

The fine flakes of aluminum milling scrap fabricated into the composite countertops (a material called Alkemi) also are unexpected, not to mention pretty much unheard of in the Pittsburgh area when the Hardys chose them, after months of research, back in 2005. (It’s now available locally at stores that sell green products, such as Artemis Environmental in Lawrenceville.) The commercial-grade porcelain floor tiles, discovered at Architectural Clay Products, measure a whopping 18 inches, so they have fewer grout lines.

The floor plan is generally open, but it also includes a few dedicated spaces. There’s a built-in desk next to the fridge that doubles as a sideboard during parties. And the family, which includes 3-year-old Ezra and 5-year-old Galen, can choose eating at the long breakfast bar (perfect for a quick bowl of cereal) or big table in the windowed dining area. The remodel also included adding a small center island.

At least one of Mr. Margittai’s ideas took a little finessing: To make sure the “floating” shelves he planned for the kitchen’s back wall could hold objects, Mr. Palmer of Works in Wood built mock-ups and weighed them down with sandbags.

The couple was luckier than many in that they didn’t have to live in the house during its renovation by South Side contractor R.W. Ripley & Sons Construction, whose workers repaired plaster in every room and replaced the wood floors. Mrs. Hardy, program manager for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, grew up in the neighborhood, and her parents who lived nearby were willing to rent them an apartment.

In fact, renovating the three-story home’s interior wasn’t the couple’s first undertaking; they started by building a garage and patio behind it. The War Streets are often lauded for walkability — Downtown is just a 10-minute jaunt — but who wants to circle the block again and again in search of street parking?

Other projects included a new gas fireplace and custom oak mantel in the living room, which opens onto a small deck, and a new hearth for the original marble fireplace in the front parlor. Separated by working pocket doors, they are more traditional living spaces with honey-brown hardwood floors, tall baseboards and elaborate crown molding. The couple also opted to take off fake stone cladding and an aluminum awning, revealing the home’s original red brick exterior.

All that’s left to be done is, well, nothing.

“We’re really happy with the way it turned out,” says Mr. Hardy. “We got everything we wanted.