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Designing inside a shell and outside the box…

Designing inside a shell and outside the box… Rebuilding the Franklin House

I will not apologize for the cliché title… because it is very fitting to this project. I am not too sure what drew me to this house, maybe it was the history of it, the neighborhood, or maybe it is the amazing diversity of the Olde Towne East residents and their aspirations for the future. This part of Columbus, Ohio is America at its finest. It is awesome to see so many subcultures mesh together in a community that is rebuilding.  I wanted a challenge and a learning experience, and this house sure has delivered thus far!

The fact that you could not just walk into this house and update the cabinets, knock down a couple walls, paint, and flip it, intrigued me. A mess for a floor plan in a dense urban environment requires designing inside a shell and outside the box. The Franklin House has been in existence for one hundred and thirty one years. Originally built in 1884, it is older than any living human being on our beautiful planet, and I think this is something that needs to be respected. There should be something said about the understanding of sustainability. There should be something said about the Zeitgeist. But for now I will try to remain on topic. In the following paragraphs, and images, I will summarize the design process for the reconfiguration of the existing floor plan into a plan for a house that can be functional and beautiful for a family in the year 2015.

1026_Franklin_EXT 1st&2nd FL PL


The images above show the existing floor plan of the first and second levels when we acquired the dwelling. When I completed these drawings I knew at that moment there was a need for drastic changes. If you have been following the blogs my lovely wife Geri has been posting you could probably see in the before, and demo, pictures that there was a lot of work to be done. I have heard from several people that have moved into the neighborhood that they looked at possibly buying the house but it needed too much… I will tell you after gutting the place and starting to level the floors no one saw the half of it…. let me get back on track. So the house had two staircases, two main spaces, I guess two kitchens; though Geri and I go back and forth whether a kitchen was shared; strange halls leading to and from the bathrooms, all around the place had been modified in so many ways, into a duplex back to a single family to multi-room apartments, we would tear out a wall and find an old renovations. Even the back section of the house is an early addition on rubble foundation with a crawl space… probably added for a kitchen with servant’s quarters above. To say it simply there was no possible way to make this floor plan work.

So, how do you create order from chaos? This is a great question… if you know the answer we would love to hear it. Though as a question of design there are a couple ways to create function and intrigue. What I did was draw several diagrams outlining the overall geometry of what was given (the shell). I abstracted the programmatic elements then played with the relationships between the spaces. Once there is a clear vision of the interior space, I then asked myself what the best way to move from one space to the other, and what are you going to see along the way? After making a few sketches it was clear both staircases had to go… The staircase in the back of the house leads up to what I would call an extra-large laundry room…what? The main staircase in the front of the house goes west to east then east to west with a five foot by five foot space off of a single step landing. I have heard a room of this nature is called a “Sew Room”…for crafts or something. But who knows? There is a window in the sew room that had a lovely view at the neighbors siding, it did bring in some good light and I could see it being a nice library or meditation spot. But… You must step outside that box.

The creation of a main core for circulation is necessary in order to organize the path between programmatic elements. Since the second floor plan was the worst arrangement of space I have ever seen, it held precedent over the first floor, which I wanted to remain as open as possible. The best plan I could come up with was to feed each room with a corridor. With this corridor it was then obvious… A new staircase had to be constructed parallel to it!

1026_Franklin_1st&2nd FL PL


The new floor plan hinged on relocating the staircase. Now the fun part… Section drawings! Can I meet or exceed code requirements if I run the stairs south to north, as well as having a wide enough corridor to feed the program? The concept is solid but now how to make it fit? I was already sold on the fact that the corridor and staircase can run parallel to each other straddling the main load bearing wall. I also wanted to keep an open floor plan on the first level. Luckily for me some HVAC pro in the past hacked through the main load bearing wall and beam, over time creating massive sagging… so it had to be replaced. In section drawing you can see that there are three load bearing points for the central load points of the structure, continuing to the foundation and footers. As I said before the room on the north side of the house was an early addition over a crawl space, so it can be considered a separate structure at this time. After compiling the existing measurements and calculating the rise and run of the new staircase, the solution came when realizing the necessity of installing a laminated veneer beam to span the load bearing points and support the second and third floors This solution allowed for a large enough landing at the top of the stairs to make a one hundred and eighty degree turn to access the corridor comfortably.




A couple other interesting things came up as a result of relocating the staircase. Raising the level of that semi-useless sew room on the old staircase became usable space for both the first and second floor… I must digress right here to say that I love my wife! She gets the credit for seeing that move before I did. You know that point when you have been staring at CAD for hours and need to come back to reality? No? Well at that point I normally like to walk away from the computer and sketch. While sketching Geri hit the nail on the head. Then the question became, what fits in our new found space?  On the first floor it gave me the ability to shift the kitchen, create an open line of sight from an eat in kitchen to the living room, and create a large enough walk in pantry to house the refrigerator, in turn creating the appearance of a minimalist kitchen. With the shift the new usable space moved to the addition where I placed the mud room and half bathroom. Finally all those times playing Tetris pays off! It was one of our original intention to create a master suite when re positioning the program, and the additional floor space on the second floor allowed for a walk in closet at the end of a corridor from the master bedroom through the master bath… sounds easy. Right?



One of the downfalls to trying to optimize the space on the first level is that I left no access to the cellar from the inside of the house. Really though, the cellar is mainly for utilities and at a height of 6’6” to the bottom of the joists, we should be happy you can stand up in it for a house this old. And there is no possible way to meet code for a staircase leading down there. So… under the new staircase leading to the second floor became a broom closet and storage, and if you trip a breaker in the winter you will need a coat and boots to go reset it.



 The third floor has been left for an oneiric space, or a room to dream and grow. Not much has changed to the layout other than rebuilding the staircase from the second floor, in order to bring it up to code, which took a little square footage… but it is a lot safer to access the third level now! We conditioned the space with forced air and furred out the rafters to allow proper ventilation of the attic and a higher R-Value. The location of the windows were not only dangerous because it was not tempered glass four inched off the floor, but everyone had to duck to see out of them. So that was fixed as well!

It has taken a while for me to compile all of these thoughts about the house and the newly designed floor plans. At this point in time on the project we have passed all rough inspections, which has to be one of my favorite points in the process. Mainly because the structure and utility systems are fully exposed, still it is hard for the average person to visualize the finished product.

Folks it is all about the finish details… they can make or break all of the hard work to get to the point of finish. Yet, one could install the most lavish finish materials and fall short if the frame is not structurally sound and the utility systems installed improperly. Finish materials get replaced over the life of a house, but once the drywall goes in you do not want to have to change any utility or structural issue.

So let’s talk about finish materials for a brief moment. One important note… Mid-century modern architects viewed finish materials as something that could be adapted over time. For example Frank Lloyd Wright’s ideas on the Usonian House was to be finished with the structural cinder block walls exposed in order to keep the cost of the house down as well as give the home owner the opportunity to face it with brick or stone in the future as these materials became affordable, or as they so pleased. We all know that in this day and age of the HGTV thirty minute to completion shows and the internet, there should be no flaws in any finish materials, and because most people do not have the vision, or interest, to adapt their space to their taste. If you had to pin down a style for the Franklin House it would be a “Queen Anne Victorian meets an Urban Contemporary Industrial.”

These design techniques are one solution of many. The key with any design is that you must have “style” when creating unique spaces. Some of the most interesting spaces I have seen were created from simple, or reclaimed, materials. So I will leave you today with a quote from Le Corbusier “You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces. That is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: This is beautiful. That is Architecture. Art enters in.” At the end of the day it should still be a fun experiment! Stay tuned for more updates on the progress of the rebuild… Thanks for the support!

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