Debra and David Livingston needed more living space. Debra is a landscape architect, and her drawing table was taking up space in front of the living room window. David's computer and other gear for his consulting business were taking over the dining room.
"Our dining room table became our everything table," said Debra Livingston.
They started looking at other houses but couldn't find anything that they liked in their price range. They wanted to stay in Parkfairfax, so they started looking at larger units, but Livingston said, "No other unit had the garden space we had."
So, like many other Parkfairfax owners, they decided to look to their neighbors. Their neighbor's house that is. The unit above them had been vacant for several years and they had mentioned to the owner that they would like to purchase it. The owner had declined, but when they made a formal offer in writing, their offer was accepted.
"It was an emotional appeal," said Debra Livingston. "This was a dream come true for us [to get the upper unit]. The two units were easy to combine, all we had to do was cut a wall down."
With the purchase of this unit, the Livingstons could stay where they were, not giving up the work they had done thus far in their original unit and keeping their lovely gardens.
Once the wall to the upstairs was taken down, there was a seamless flow between the two units. They then converted the upstairs dining and living room areas into a study. They moved their bedroom upstairs, and when their daughter, Ellen, was born, they gave her the downstairs bedroom. They used the second kitchen for storage. Livingston said that they would have made it their laundry room if they hadn't recently installed their laundry appliances downstairs.
THE LIVINGSTONS ARE NOT ALONE. Many other Parkfairfax owners have doubled their living space. Matthew Natale, president of the Parkfairfax Condominium Unit Owners Association, said that they have 71 total combined units. Of those units, the developer combined 52 during the conversion from apartment to condominiums in the late ‘70s. Owners have converted an additional 19 units.
Greg and Andrea Drone have a combined unit. Their unit was combined during the renovation mentioned above. Somewhere along the way, however, it was separated back into two units. When the Drones purchased it 12 years ago, there were two separate units. Now they are combined again.
A nice renovation opens the kitchen, making it much more accessible to the adjacent dining room. Tile floor was installed in the dining room, making a nice segue onto the flowering patio with new stone wall. The living/dining room area on the lower floor remains pretty much intact, but the downstairs bedroom serves as a TV room. Upstairs, the kitchen has been converted into a laundry room and the living/dining room area into bedrooms, giving the Drones three bedrooms.
Melissa Bridges lives in a unit that was combined shortly after the conversion, but not by the developers. She believes that the owner was one of the lawyers who helped with the conversion process. He combined two units and created a hallway to the upstairs unit similar to the Livingstons’ plan. The lower unit was left unchanged, except one of the doors to the kitchen (most units have two) was closed off.
The upper floor has been changed quite a bit. The small bedroom is intact, but the living/dining room area and the kitchen were gutted and combined to make a very large master bedroom. Bridges said that her aunt uses that for her bedroom and has a 6-foot-by-13-foot walk-in closet.
Bridges uses the bedroom on the first floor as her room and uses the smaller bedroom on the second floor as a studio. She said that her aunt has lived in Parkfairfax since 1961, and at some point Bridges' sister, father, brother, and another aunt and uncle, have all lived in Parkfairfax. A brick multilevel patio was built behind the unit, and Bridges said, "We're tucked into the hillside. It's nice and secluded."
ALEXANDRIA CITY COUNCILWOMAN Claire Eberwein and her husband, Greg Vogt, have taken the combination process two steps further. They have quadrupled their living space.
"I didn't want to start all over again, and I didn't want to give up our view," said Eberwein. Unlike the Livingstons, who started out with one unit, the Eberweins had purchased a combined upper and lower unit in the 1980s. Over the years, they expanded the kitchen and renovated the bathrooms. The upstairs kitchen had been totally gutted and was used as a study. The upstairs living and dining room area became a bedroom for their children, Amara and Caleb.
This worked fine for many years, but about four years ago, Eberwein decided that they needed more space.
"We had two reasons for expanding," said Eberwein. "We wanted to give our children more space, and we had spent so much time renovating that we didn't want to move."
Since they already had the upper section, they had to look sideways. They had hoped to purchase the adjacent lower unit. Their neighbor owned the two adjacent units and at first wanted to sell only the upper unit, but in the end agreed to sell if Eberwein and Vogt purchased both.
They did and rented the upper unit, using only the lower unit to expand their living quarters. They knocked down a wall, enlarging both the dining and living room areas, both of which have commanding views of a patio and tiered garden. The downstairs bedroom became a study, and they converted the third living/dining room into a family room, separating the dining area with shelving to make that space usable for a toy closet. The cabinets were left in the third kitchen, but they removed the stove and oven to make room for a washer and dryer.
And then they decided that they needed even more space. When their renter left, they assumed control of unit No. 4. Now there was even more room for the children to spread out, as well as an area for a game room, project area and more storage. The fourth kitchen would remain intact and be used only for storage. This way, it will be easier to convert back to a single unit should they decide to turn it back into a rental.
Eberwein figures that when all is said and done, they have approximately 2,800 to 3,000 square feet. Not a bad way to add and subtract.
Eberwein has a degree in architecture and spent some time working for the Office of Architecture and Urban Design in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was also involved in a historic renovation project done in Cincinnati. Now her days are taken up with family and responsibilities as a councilwoman, but she still enjoys designing her own home and has created some nice effects.
"I look at a space for a long time and then think of a bunch of ideas," said Eberwein.
When she expanded the kitchen, she had a soji screen created to make a soft transition between kitchen and living room. She's designing a vaulted archway between the living room and study and has renovated two bathrooms thus far. The molding, or lack thereof, around just about every door and window has been replaced, much of the work being done by Eberwein and Vogt themselves.
THESE EXPANDED UNITS don't come without headaches. Although the units are combined, they still require separate mortgages, separate condominium fees and multiple electric bills.
"It's a good deal for Parkfairfax because there's less stress on the common elements," said Eberwein. "Even though we have four units, we put out less trash, use fewer parking spaces and consume less water than if there were four separate families living there.
There are restrictions. Owners are not allowed to change any of the exterior surfaces, including the doors. They can block the doors from the inside, but they must leave the surface of the outside door intact. In the Eberwein's case, they have four outside doors but use only one for access.
When owners decide to sell, they either have to sell as is or re-configure units as separate entities. Attic space can't be used for expansion purposes. One owner had tried to create a loft area, but this is not allowed as it would affect the structural integrity of the units.
The upside for these owners is that they don't have to move, and living in a condominium development, all their outside maintenance, lawn cutting, tree removal, exterior painting and snow plowing are taken care of. Children attend the Charles Barrett Elementary school district and have plenty of room to run and play, as well as the use of multiple pools and tennis courts.