When Beverly O’Mara and Mark Uriu converted their loft in Jersey City, NJ, into a living-work space in 2015, they envisioned an airy, open-plan apartment where Mrs. O’Mara could have an art studio and Mr. Uriu could work. occasionally away from home.
They added elements that made sense at the time and installed shoji screens that provided privacy and light, but no sound barrier. And for a while it worked beautifully.
Then Covid changed everything. Suddenly, the couple found themselves working from home full-time and trying to come up with makeshift solutions for a space that had already undergone a $250,000 renovation.
For millions of Americans, the pandemic ushered in an era of remodeling as they used time at home to redesign kitchens, bathrooms and living areas for a more homely lifestyle. (According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, home renovation spending increased more than 9 percent year-over-year from the third quarter of 2019 to the third quarter of 2021, to $357 billion per year.) You’ve renovated before the pandemic – and spent a lot of money on it – and now you had to do it again to reflect a new reality?
Like many others, Ms. O’Mara, 66, and Mr. Uriu, 65, found themselves head over heels for the limits of a design conceived for a prepandemic lifestyle and wondering what possible adjustments would make their home more functional.
“We’ve seen these interesting new demands being placed on our spaces, and they are definitely a byproduct of the changing lifestyle,” said Jeff Jordan, a Rutherford, NJ, architect who designed the couple’s renovation and sees a shift in how homeowners feel about renovation.
For those now considering remodeling, Ms. O’Mara and Mr. Uriu’s project offers some useful lessons. The creative, cost-effective strategies they adopted early on, such as choosing affordable building materials, are now even more valuable, as material and labor costs are high. But other decisions they’ve made have proved problematic.
This is what afterwards, born of a pandemic, taught them about renovating.
Creating a functional living-work space
Ms. O’Mara and Mr. Uriu purchased their 2,800-square-foot apartment in 2012 for $837,000, moving from a Victorian building in Montclair, NJ, where they had raised their children. The Jersey City loft, on a leafy street in the Hamilton Park neighborhood, was dark, as the only windows were along the south wall. Interior walls closed off the back of the space, blocking natural light and making the kitchen, master bedroom and upstairs rooms dim and a little claustrophobic.
The apartment, with its dark wood floors, copper-colored fixtures and cherry wood cabinets, had a sombre “90s New Jersey banker” aesthetic, said Mr. uriu. But they could see its potential.
It was on the first floor of a 19th-century building that once housed Wells Fargo stagecoaches, and it had ceilings nearly twenty feet high, spanned by steel beams. One still had the words “No smoking” painted on it in large block letters.
“You could remove everything, you could turn it into a completely empty box, and you could build anything you want,” says Mr. Uriu, an owner of Uriu Nuance, a Manhattan firm that installs interior finishes in high-end renovations.
First, the couple had to decide how much space to spend on work and how much on life. Mrs. O’Mara, an artist working in mixed media with materials such as paint, paper pulp and ceramics, needed a studio like she and Mr. Uriu had built on their property in Montclair. Mr. Uriu needed office space so that he could sometimes work from home. And they had children who lived nearby.
“At another point in my life I would have said ‘a third living space, two thirds working space,'” said Ms. O’Mara. “But since we have a family and visit them, and grandchildren, we wanted it to be gracious and welcoming to our family and friends.”
They decided to dedicate about a third of the space to a studio and to reserve the rest for family life. They tore down walls and divided the ground floor with a partition, with Mrs. O’Mara’s studio and master bedroom on one side and a living room on the other. They turned the upstairs loft into two spaces: a guest bedroom and a home office for Mr. Uriu.
What they learned: Dedicating more space to family life proved to be a far-sighted decision during the first year of the pandemic, when the grandkids often visited and used the open-plan living area as a playroom, a break from their small, cramped Brooklyn apartment.
Other decisions didn’t hold up so well, especially placing Mr. Uriu’s office directly above Mrs. O’Mara’s studio, with no wall to act as a sound barrier. Desperate for more space and serenity, he changed the 1.2-by-2-meter closet in the guest room in his office. To get in, he has to duck under a beam.
Two years after the pandemic, he works in a space that Mrs. O’Mara likens to the dwarf 7th floor in the 1999 film ‘Being John Malkovich’. When seated, Mr. Uriu can look out from under the beam and over the apartment and looking out the windows at the street below. “When you sit,” he said, “you don’t feel like you’re sitting in a closet.”
Lots of light, not much silence
Another purpose of the renovation was to bring light into the apartment through the windows along the facade. “We determined early on that if we wanted this place to work, we had to figure out how to get the light from this one facade all the way back,” said Mr. uriu.
They added two 4-by-4-foot windows above the front door. But interior walls still blocked light to the back of the apartment, and “the upstairs rooms felt like graves,” Ms O’Mara said.
Mr. Uriu, who is of Japanese descent and wanted to incorporate a Japanese aesthetic, considered translucent shoji screens, which could provide privacy and filtered light. In collaboration with Mr. Jordan, he designed screens that would open along a track behind a balcony railing of thin cedar slats designed by Mrs. O’Mara. Close the screens and the rooms are private, with light filtering through; open them, and someone upstairs has a panoramic view of the apartment below.
“If you’re standing on the floor in the main room and the lights in the room above are on, it’s almost like a street scene,” Mr. Uriu said. “It reminds me of intimate streets in Kyoto, where you literally have screens for light to come through. You have the feeling that another life is going on.”
In the center of the apartment, they added a partition of cabinets that ran the length of the space from the entrance to the back of the kitchen, dividing the apartment in half, but letting in light above.
They also lightened the feel of the space by installing new lighting and finishes, painting the steel beams light gray and the ceiling white, and bleaching the wood floors. Mr. Jordan added an LED strip to the joists for uplighting and used extension rods to hang track lights from the high ceilings.
What they learned: Those shoji screens and partitions provided light, but at the expense of noise reduction. With no sound barriers, the couple has spent the past two years desperately seeking peace and separation.
There were days when Mr. Uriu was on the phone trying to save his business, which collapsed during its initial shutdown (it has since recovered), while Mrs. O’Mara tried to grab the attention of kids while teaching art classes on Zoom, featuring nothing but shoji screens separating them.
“Suddenly noise became a problem. He couldn’t yell about the PPP loan – not that he yelled, but he was really intense,” she said as she sat in the middle of the class.
There is a solution, but the couple hasn’t committed to it yet. They could replace the screens with translucent glass and acoustically detailed sliding doors with a latch or gasket to reduce sound transmission, said the architect Mr. Jordan. “The beauty of the shoji is its transparency to light, but you can’t see through it,” he said. “The downside is that it’s paper thin, so you hear everything.”
The search for affordable materials
When Ms. O’Mara and Mr. Uriu designed the space, they kept the budget low by preserving the original floor plan, repurposing some of the existing materials, and finding affordable new materials—inexpensive finishes in keeping with their modern, minimal aesthetic.
They kept the high-end kitchen appliances, including a wine fridge and Viking stove with a water filler, but replaced the cherry cabinets with plain white ones from Ikea. They bought a stainless steel sink for Mrs. O’Mara’s studio from a restaurant store in Manhattan’s Bowery. They built the bookshelves, cabinets and partition from AC plywood, a construction material not typically used for finishes. “It’s a workhorse material,” said Mr. Jordan, but “when it’s thought differently, it can turn out really nice.”
The pair went to a lumberyard to select the plywood, looking for a cut with an interesting grain. The one they chose had “a soothing, psychedelic rhythm,” Ms. O’Mara said.
If they had renovated during the pandemic, when timber prices rose, Mr Jordan said, they might not have opted for plywood. (Timber prices rose nearly 90 percent during the year ending April 2021, the biggest jump in 12 months since January 1927, when the data was first collected, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.) But the couple’s readiness to choose unconventional materials allowed to find savings where others may not.
For a few splurges, they enlisted the help of friends in the design industry. Art in Construction, in Brooklyn, designed the pigmented plaster waterfall counter on the kitchen island and the veneer plaster sink in the master bathroom. An ironworker friend made the banisters for the two staircases.
Mr. Jordan looked for creative ways to add storage space to the open space by installing built-in bookshelves on the stairs, along with a Putnam escalator. Other playful embellishments included a hammock, a pulley system for storing bicycles, and a mesh seat that dangles from the railing on the landing of the studio staircase, creating an unexpected spot for reading.
What they learned: Almost seven years after the renovation, the plywood and cabinets have held up well. And while the couple’s tastes differ from those of the previous owners, they have come to appreciate the elements they’ve retained, including the two bathrooms with traditional paneling and glass mosaic tiles.
Despite the frustrations of the past two years and the mistakes they made, the overall design has served them well during a difficult time, Ms O’Mara said: “The truth is, it’s a great house. It’s a great house. I love that it’s a living-work space.”
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