On Generation Renovation, one of the many spruce-up-your-house shows on HGTV, the premise is that Gen X-ers have endearingly quirky yet fascinating methods of home refurbishing. So how lucky we are that the show chose the 'Burgh's own Kristin Hughes and her Victorian house in Friendship as a subject for a segment (which will air again May 15 at 6:00 p.m.). But Hughes' project gives lie to the show's formula. Gerard Damiani of Studio D'Arc Architects, who designed the renovation, doesn't even appear on camera ... yet he and Hughes formed a noteworthy collaboration on this project that both insist was key to its success.
When Hughes bought the house from Friendship Development Associates three years ago, it had been renovated at least once. Still, it "was a disaster," she says, with a confused, clustered interior. She encountered Damiani because he had renovated a kitchen next door. Much more importantly, though, he had both the aesthetic sensibilities and meticulous approach to match Hughes, who teaches design at Carnegie Mellon University. "We ended up hitting it off," Hughes says. They needed to, because both had grand ambitions for the renovation and its comparatively modest $65,000 budget.
Damiani wants to democratize good architecture. "How do you get people who can't afford it to afford it?" he muses. One answer is to have clients take on as much of the work as they can ... not simply in hands-on tasks, but in management as well.
Of course, this also leads to more work for the architect. "The process was like teaching her a class in being a construction manager," Damiani explains. He did separate drawings for each building trade, which simplified the task of managing the different subcontractors. With electrical fixtures, for example, he "set it up for her to go out and shop for lights and supply them to the contractor."
Hughes was comfortable with the added responsibility because of her experience managing large projects to produce books and exhibitions. "I don't know if everybody's cut out for this," Damiani cautions.
In this case, however, the results were outstanding. Both client and architect began the project with a palpable sense of manipulating forms in three-dimensional space. "Point, line and plane ... working with them in space to create these really interesting juxtapositions," Hughes explains. "It's a very smart use of form."
Although there is no real indication of renovations from the exterior, the inside of the house is transformed. While a living space and kitchen define the front and back respectively of the 20-by-40-foot house, much of the drama comes from the center dining area, which has been opened to two stories in height. A catwalk to the right side joins the study and bedroom spaces above. The stairway to the right, defined by a wall of translucent polycarbonate panels, emphasizes the vertical nature of the space and creates an artful counterpoint with the smooth white walls. "The best part of the project is that it changes the spatial paradigm of the typical Victorian," Damiani says.
Part of the brilliance of the renovation is that both Hughes and Damiani seem to know where to economize and where to spend money effectively. The kitchen cabinets are do-it-yourself from a major retailer, but the counter, Damiani says, "is a really nice laminated birch plywood." Likewise, Hughes points out a long list of features, including the polycarbonate panels, that she installed herself. Damiani emphasizes, though, that they "got good craftsmen to finish the details that really matter."
Damiani describes the resulting space as one of his favorites, which is notable because it is similar to his own studio and residence on the South Side. Hughes' home is "just as spatially ambitious," he allows. "She got a lot of house for her money." Hughes, meanwhile, calls Damiani "a rare talent."
Neither of them seems to mind that he does not appear on Generation Renovation. The show's producers should, though: They missed out on a crucial aspect of this great project. Which just proves that it's better to turn off the TV when you're doing your home work.