WRITTEN BY REBECCA TEAGARDEN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
Diary of a Mad Housebuilder
In fits and starts, through terrors and tears, an ideal urban home rises
Paula Whelan's art is a lot like the artist “ bright, bold and enthusiastic. The pieces at the top of the stairs and on the right are from a series she did using traffic signs. Seen through the stair treads is "Tit for Tat," a piece made from a pair of swim fins and old-fashioned roller skates. The stair treads are recycled rafters from the old building.
"MY MOTHER IN Texas thinks I've lost my mind. She tells me, 'Paula, you must be crazy!!' "
The daughter, seated on the couch in a one-bedroom Westlake-area apartment more than a year ago, just laughs and slaps her knee. Hard.
Paula Whelan laughs easily, and that's a good thing.
When she hung up from that call to her mother, Paula Whelan and her husband, Milton McCrum, were just beginning their latest home-building adventure, a real "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" of a project to turn an ugly commercial building on Lower Queen Anne into an urban-contemporary home-office beauty. They'd serve as their own general contractor, doing much of the work themselves. They had done it before and survived to tell the tale. Surely they could do it again. Whelan would keep a diary.With nesting instincts that would put any other creature to shame, they sold their Lane Williams-designed 1996 AIA Home of the Year on top of Queen Anne, bought 166 Roy St. for $550,000 and budgeted $340,000 for a remodel. Then they stuffed themselves into the Westlake rental and began what would be a year and a half of home-building fun — or hell, depending on how you look at it.
For Whelan and McCrum, it was both.
"I started crying the other night in a restaurant. Told Milton I couldn't take any more of this. This has been the hardest thing I have ever done. It feels as if it will never be finished. I look around, this place is small, which is fine, but how could this small place take thousands of hours of work?"
This is not typical Paula Whelan. Paula Whelan is strong and funny and easygoing and creative. This is Paula Whelan 16 months into the remodeling of 166 Roy, a project McCrum thought would take six months and Whelan figured might take eight. McCrum had done this twice before, and Whelan once, for their award-winning Queen Anne home.
Building a house is not a job for the weak. Marriages are sometimes lost; sanity snaps. It happens.
"Nineteen years ago a woman I did a remodel for had a nervous breakdown," Williams says. "She'd call me crying, 'There's dust everywhere, every time I clean there's more dust!' "
McCrum and Whelan take a lunch break on the subflooring in the living room. Whelan sits in front of the bones of the living-room fireplace.
Whelan and McCrum have come to loathe their boxy one-bedroom apartment. When she lost it over dinner, they were baseboards and electrical outlets away from transforming the former Brenneke School of Massage to into a 1,700-square-foot edgy, urban dwelling where they will live upstairs and McCrum will treat optometry patients downstairs. They've rebuilt the place from the bare walls and added a third floor. An old beer bottle, a battered horseshoe and a black-tiled shower are reminders of the building's past.
Whelan's an artist who teaches printmaking, and McCrum, the optometrist, is a frustrated architect-builder. This house is her palette and his passion.
"I like the idea of living right in the city," Whelan says. "But I didn't want to share walls with people."
Their story is a tug of wills between born-to-build and what-were-we-thinking? Their vision was easy urban: working, living and creating all in one place. Turning McCrum's commute to Everett from an hour of freeway frustration into a quick trip downstairs; giving Whelan an artist's studio over the garage. Parking the cars and leaving them parked.
Grocery and drug stores sit across the street; restaurants, coffee shops, book stores and dry cleaners around the block. The Space Needle is so close it feels like the Jetsons live next door.
But an urban life on Lower Queen Anne for a couple in their mid-50s is not the manicured world of big trees, tended gardens and well-kept homes it is on the hilltop.
A bar next door spits out patrons late into the night. Chuck, the homeless guy, was sleeping under the back stairs. Seattle Center events send throngs past their doorway.
Whelan's Mini Cooper goes perfectly with McCrum’s new office sign on the southeast corner of their home/office. Sheet-metal siding highlights the new third floor.
"The gritty, urban look translates to, 'We're stuck with utility polls and a web of wires spooling across the front of the house, so we're going to play into that look,' " says Williams of Lane Williams Architects. He checks on the project every week or so, but otherwise Whelan and McCrum are on their own.
Williams designed for them angles and edges, a contemporary canvas for Whelan. She cloaked it in a deep charcoal gray with a wide, lipstick-red mouth of an accent across the front.
"The painting was done on Sunday. I showed up Monday morning. Both guys, Joe and Greg, two friends working there who usually always make a big deal greeting me, said absolutely nothing — dead silence. I finally said hello. 'Hi,' they said. I said, 'You must not like the colors.' The silence is deafening. Greg said, 'Haven't you ever heard of earth colors? I said, 'Greg, I'm doing a kick-ass cool building, not the same old thing!' About a week later both guys said they had changed their minds and really liked it after all. Some things grow on you."
McCrum begins taking out the half wall of the old building, which had no third floor. A walkway connected the original building to its neighbor.
An urban home/office is born from the old Brenneke School of Massage on Roy Street in Lower Queen Anne. Bold color, strong lines and interesting angles play into and yet rise above the gritty landscape.
January 2004: Whelan and McCrum have been sledgehammering away at 166 Roy since October. They await the building permit and a variance to convert the building from commercial to mixed use. This is a critical time for Whelan, who will choose the home's surface materials.
She's been trekking through design stores, tearing up magazines, eyeballing her friends' kitchens. Judging, discarding, coveting. The cabinet choice haunts her. It's one of the few things she was not happy with in their previous house.
"I want fun, classy, understated. This will be one of the strongest material statements in the house. I don't want anything traditional looking.
"Spent the afternoon looking at flooring — woods and tile. It usually takes me forever to choose something like this . . . but if I stay with this merbau I must decide this weekend before they sell all their stock. This we can install ourselves, which will really save thousands.
"I'm such a visual person. I would choose exercise equipment based on looks. If I don't like the way it looks — forget it.
"I'm so tired of looking at wood flooring I could scream."
On the 22nd, Whelan dumps a bag of wood samples onto the conference table in Williams' office. Computer renderings of 166 Roy are taped to the walls. It's all finished, clean, smart, slick up there. The samples on the table are a jumbled mess.
Whelan’s difficult choices blend easily when the home is finally complete. The merbau floors serve as a rich base for the anegre cabinets with Richlite counters. The microsuade couch and chair are from Crate & Barrel, and the leather-and-chrome bar stools are from Design Within Reach. All the surfaces here were treated with a nontoxic finish from the Environmental Home Center.
Whelan is meeting with the architects and cabinet maker, Mark Mayer. Williams wants to nail down the finishes and book Mayer's time. The cabinet maker has six other projects to juggle.
Cabinet choices include quartersawn ash, sliced maple, rift-cut oak, MultiPour Plus, an overlaid concrete form, and plywoods. Flooring is between mountain ash and merbau.
Whelan weighs it all: look, durability, price. Ash is out when Williams tells her it makes a beautiful statement — when you've got $50,000 to $100,000 for cabinets.
For the floor, Whelan is leaning toward the merbau, a wood from Southeast Asia, but Williams thinks it might be on the "do not buy" list. Whelan finds a dealer who will guarantee her in writing that his flooring is farmed from Thailand. It's unfinished and, at $4 a square foot, is half the price of the finished.
Aluminum windows and metal railings are set. But the countertops, backsplash, cabinet fronts, bathroom tiles, floors, plumbing and lighting fixtures are not. Williams nudges Whelan the home owner to choose, because Whelan the general contractor needs to keep moving.
Lane suggested I use navy-blue sinks in the master bath to match the countertop. Spoken like a man who never cleans the sink!
Whelan tries to trim her choices for the cabinets and floors during a meeting at architect Lane Williams’ office in January 2004. Surrounding her are Williams staff member Henry Lo, left, Williams and cabinet maker Mark Mayer. The walls are lined with the plans for Whelan and McCrum’s house.
She picks rift-cut oak cabinets, Richlite countertops, a ground fiber-resin product, and merbau for the floors. Every cabinet has been changed from the original drawings. At the end of the meeting Williams mentions cabinet pulls. Whelan stops short. Here's how it went:
"Let's plan on the the Doug Mockett cabinet pulls everywhere right now," he says.
Mayer blanches. "They look cool, but sometimes my clients don't like them because they're hard to hold onto.
"He's talking heavy drawers," Williams says. "And we don't have any to hold onto."
"This is terrible, and I should have thought of this before," Whelan finally says. "But I really like those big drawers. I'd like to have at least two for pots and pans."
Williams suggests turning one bottom cabinet into two big drawers, using big handle pulls on them and the Doug Mocketts everywhere else. She nods.
"OK, we've got our surfaces," Williams says, emergency averted. "Let's set up a meeting with the electrician next."
And that's how a house is built. In fits and starts. Hurrying and waiting. Planning and precision. Accident and hindsight. And hundreds of trips to Home Depot.
February 2004: Most of the building's two floors are cleaned out. McCrum figures they halved the $7,500 tear-out cost doing it themselves. "Thank goodness there's a pub down the street," he says. While waiting for the building permit and variance, they visit McCrum's daughter, Sarah, in London. But there is no getting away.
"Whenever you start a project like this it is always in the back of your mind. When we were in London I was looking at the stairway in the Tate Modern thinking maybe we could use a similar application on one of our stairs."
They find that they will be granted the variance, but because they are their own general contractors they must buy $1 million in construction insurance.
The end of the month Whelan is back in the architect's office for lighting and plumbing fixtures. Cabinet angst becomes lighting angst. A light she likes very much for the dining room is one Williams calls "gorgeous, but their prices are heart-stopping." It's out. She chooses a Flos she calls "the most fun." (Turns out, the "most fun" didn't fit, and Whelan sent it back.)
Whelan points out a square pedestal sink from Ann Sacks for $2,200, and Williams lets her have it.
"I think we ought to lighten up a little bit," he says. "Your house is not that formal. I could see it in one of those million-dollar houses in the burbs.
McCrum, dressed for distress, takes a whack at the east wall on the second floor during a rainy February morning in 2004. He and Whelan had already been working weekends on the demolition since October 2003. "We really get to work out any rrrrrrr here," Whelan says.
"Is there anything wrong with a simple cabinet and undermount sink so you can have room for the cleanser and the extra roll of toilet paper? We could have fun with the cabinet — it could be a found object, maybe a laboratory cabinet.
"If we start rethinking here it'll probably lead to changes all the way down to the front door.
"Paula, it's interesting to see the evolution of your thinking about your house. The more time you spend thinking about this place the more you gravitate toward the elegant."
Whelan sits for a minute, snapped right back into the land of gritty urbanity, because that truly is what she's after. It's Williams' job to keep her there.
March, April, May 2004: The building permit and the variance finally come, and McCrum's work begins. He labors alongside the framers on the third floor that will be the master suite and deck.
June, July 2004: The ceiling is alive with the rat-a-tat-tat of building. Orange extension cords, the lifelines of construction, snake everywhere.
Lumber slams to the floor overhead. Neither Whelan nor McCrum notices. They just holler louder. They're a bit shaken after Department of Labor and Industries compliance officers discovered third-floor workers not wearing harnesses or hard hats. A citation is expected.
The project is going more slowly than planned. The framers are working two other jobs, and owner-contractors often are not the priority client, Whelan and McCrum find.
A crowbar groans.
Working in the room that will be their office/guest room, Whelan cuts the merbau flooring to fit; at the same time, McCrum was pounding boards into solid floor in the living room.
By McCrum's schedule, the framing should have been finished May 7. He waves his arm across a huge spread sheet and says, "I've redone it so many times I don't print them out this big anymore. We should have ordered the cabinets April 19. We're off a little bit," he grins.
At least they've still got their sense of humor.
"Ask Milton what all the contractors call the architect's drawings," Whelan says.
"The funny papers!" he says. He loves that one.
No matter what's happening, McCrum has that look, like a kid with a really cool toy. And Whelan laughs easily. McCrum spends most of his work week in a darkened room up to his eyeballs in eyeballs. But on Fridays and Saturdays, he's up early in dusty work boots and jeans that eventually will require duct tape over the knees.
Whenever Milton works, all the guys work much harder. They don't want to be embarrassed by the owner.
McCrum's got a another one. "The joke with the framer is, 'When you gonna be done?' 'Two weeks.' 'When you gonna start?' 'Two weeks.' " He doesn't love that one so much, but laughs anyway.
September 2004: The third floor is on, the fireplace in and the exterior stucco applied, but subcontractor delays continue. McCrum finally got the heating and air-conditioning guys out by sending roses to the company secretary.
After the framing inspection it's on to insulation and drywall. Can they finish by the end of the year? "It's possible," Whelan says.
There has been another design change. The Space Needle cannot be seen through cutouts for the windows, so Williams calls for a long, narrow corner window to frame it. They've also changed their tile choice and the cabinets.
Meanwhile the rough plumbing for the sink is in the wrong place. Mayer, the cabinet maker, discovers the error. "We have him check everything. The cabinets determine everything," Whelan says.
Whelan descends the stairs from the master suite into the living room/kitchen. She chose a Dacor stainless-steel range with an electric oven and gas cooktop for the compact-but-open kitchen.
October 2004: The Trex decks are almost done, insulation is in, but the heating sub is still holding up the project. The framers' delays, due to their busy season, backed into the heating guys and their busy season. A chain reaction of delays and frustration.
The roses only helped for a while. The heating guys are driving me crazy.
"I finally asked Milton, 'Was this a really low bid? And he said, 'Yes.' I said, 'I knew it!' You pay for it one way or another.
"We're behind. You try to plan for things going wrong because things are always going to go wrong. But this is more than we thought."
The project also failed the mechanical inspection. There's a small gas leak, which is found and repaired. Also, the signature window in the front of the house doesn't fit. They don't have time to wait for a new one, so they'll frame it in.
The cabinets are almost finished. And they've painted the building's exterior. They now hope to move in January 2005.
On Saturday went to take a weekly load to the dump. Sarah was helping and hit me in the nose with a 2 by 4. Wow! That hurt. My nose was bleeding. Guess this is a real dose of humility . . . scab and all.
And how are other family members dealing with their project? "They're gettin' to where they don't call," Whelan says.
McCrum balances precariously about 30 feet over the front door on the day he spray-painted the interior in late November 2004
November 2004: It's month 13. Drywallers give shape to the interior, leaving piles of mud like albino cow patties. The big front window is in, and the big black letter "E" for McCrum's office sign is on order. So are the metal stair railings. The front and back doors have been installed. The gas fireplace works. The cabinets are ready for Whelan's oil-wax coats.
I woke up at 3 a.m. thinking the house was on fire, since we had to leave a propane burner on to dry the Sheetrock. Couldn't quit thinking about it. Got dressed, drove over. Everything was fine.
McCrum and Whelan have had one surprise, a difference between residential and residential-commercial construction; smoke-fire dampers between the commercial and residential floors. They must buy and install seven of them.
It's cold, crisp and clear on the 19th when McCrum is taping the windows. Whelan comes in carrying a quart of paint.
"I told Paula she had to know the colors today. She's having an off-white freakout," McCrum says. His thumb is a white stump of bandage after an encounter with a table saw.
"There are about 50 shades of off-white!" she says.
On a gray, drizzly Thanksgiving morning, McCrum pounds merbau floor boards into place. They are reddish and rich. They've never laid floor before, but they're not worried.
"We watched a video about it last night," she says.
"I watched it twice, so I'm a real expert," he says.
On New Year’s Eve 2004 McCrum was determined to have their first party in the new house, finished or not. Just hours before, though, he watches the drippy result of a leak near the big angled window on the third floor. But the leak was fixed and the party was on.
December 2004: It's downright cold on the 3rd, the day the steel railings arrive. The bathroom is half tiled. McCrum hurt his back this morning. His thumb is still bandaged.
It's pitch dark out by 4:15 on the 17th. The gas furnace is on, and it's toasty inside. The floor is down, and the smell of the oil-wax finish fills the air. Whelan and McCrum are worn out but cannot stop.
He's determined to install a toilet by New Year's Eve so they can have a party. Whelan's not wild about the idea, but she could use a party, frankly. The appliances arrive on the last morning of 2004, and McCrum reports that the framer was cited for the violations last summer.
While they did take Christmas off, they are hard at it on the 31st. The list of chores before they can move in includes finishing the railings and countertops, the electrical, plumbing, fireplace, hanging and painting the doors, installing baseboards, shower tile and external railings. Boxes of cabinets sit on the floor.
Sometimes I think Milton and I are competing in the "Who Can Work the Hardest Contest." He's winning in the physical arena, me in the mental.
Meanwhile, there's a leak near the tilted window. A worker sprays it to find the source. Inside there's a steady drip, drip, drip into a bucket.
"Oh damn," Whelan says.
McCrum is never completely out of enthusiasm. Ever. "The back brace is off, my finger is unbandaged, I got new jeans. It's almost a new year!" he says.
That evening they're back with drinks in their hands and a few friends, including Williams and his wife, Midge, milling about on the paper-covered floors as wiring snakes from electrical boxes. Hors d'oeuvres are cheese doodles and popcorn. But they are having their first party, by God.
At midnight McCrum holds his wife as they stand in the mist watching fireworks arc from the Needle. The frustrations of 2004 give way to visions of move-in day 2005.
January 2005: It's the beginning of the end of the rebirth of 166 Roy. Whelan will coat the fireplace with a composite cement-and-glass surface, and kitchen cabinets, now anegre, not among the original choices, are in.
All that cabinet angst has paid off.
In February 2005, Milton McCrum stretches to clean the window that perfectly frames the Space Needle “ McCrum and Whelan's new neighbor.
"I told Peter, the guy who actually built them, these are the most gorgeous cabinets I have ever seen! He said, 'These are the most gorgeous cabinets I've ever seen, and I'm jealous.' That's pretty good when the cabinet-maker's jealous!
"I thought, I'm going to be happy with the cabinets come hell or high water, and sure enough, I am!" she laughs.
Sometimes two weeks just slips away with little progress. Then a lot gets done in two days.
By the end of January a lot has gotten done, all of it for $10,000 over budget, and Whelan and McCrum are set to move in before another month passes.
Would they do it again?
"You never know what you're gonna do next year," McCrum says with a grin. "You never know."
Rebecca Teagarden is assistant editor of Pacific Northwest magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
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