Detached Structures Come of Age
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Detached Structures Come of Age

How a local builder transformed a squashed Arlington garage

It's a revealing sign of the times that the "detached structure" has emerged as both a homeowner preoccupation and a remodeling industry specialty. Once upon a time, a "detached structure" had only two connotations: a) an outbuilding, guest cottage or pool house found on the grounds of a spacious estate, or b) a garage or garden shed situated on a modest tract, typically ignored in a property valuation.

With local residential real estate now approaching a decade of steady appreciation, homeowners are seeing capital improvement potentials all over their lot, regardless of its size. The aesthetic and functional relationship of the home's interior to it's decks, porches and outdoor "built environment", for instance, has become the passion of almost any owner whose been in residence for more than a few years. So, too, the pools, ponds, gazebos, waterfalls, landscapes and hardscapes that are now seen as de rigueur to properly "setting" a home.

So it's not surprising that a whole class of formerly overlooked "little buildings" have been elevated to the status of real property, nor that the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) has developed a category for judging the best of such structures in its annual "Contractor of the Year" Awards.

No, the only surprise may be in how committed homeowners are to better utilizing every square inch of what they've got, and in how fervently, and inventively, contractors work to satisfy the demand.

On this score, consider the recent resurrection and refurbishment of an Arlington garage destroyed two years ago by Hurricane Isabel. The property's ownersa couple with two teenage children surveyed the tree-demolished, 60-year old outbuilding and saw, not a disaster, but an opportunity.

"They'd been thinking about some kind of multi-use structure for years, but just couldn't get around to taking action," says John Schmitt, vice president of Kingston Custom Builders, the firm hired to construct the new facility. "Then Isabelle revived a lot of long dormant plans."

The plans, as it turned out, were plentiful. The new structure would, foremost, have to architecturally complement the existing house, a two story contemporary that had been augmented by a now ten year old two level rear addition. Moreover, the new structure's accessibility from the house needed to be dramatically improved with a new system of walkways that better negotiated the bumpy intermediate terrain.

Functionally, the structure would strike an ideal balance between "playroom and storage facility˜with special considerations given to accommodating five bicycles, two kayaks and a generous array of garden supplies.

The building also needed to be well-lighted (preferably with lots of natural light)-- yet the size and scale couldn't disrupt what was seen as appropriate for the neighborhood. And, indeed: given the critical need not to threaten the root systems of adjacent old stand trees, the footprint of the new structure had to remain pretty much the same size as the old.

So, fit a square peg in round hole? No problem.

"We're asked to substantially increase capacity without building anything that would appear outsized," Schmitt recalls. "Obviously, this was an interesting creative challenge."

From the outset, it was understood that the design of front and side elevations would be the key to "scaling down the mass" of a somewhat larger, two-story structure. In lieu of going straight-up, the floor plan calls for a 8‚ x 10" 2nd level loft with full headroom and its own roof.

To keep the structure from appearing too high, a five window recessed dormer was designed. Though the space has yet to be finished, it is ideal as an auxiliary home office or library.

Downstairs the first floor has been transformed into a family play room, complete with ping pong table. Specially installed racks keep the kayaks and other sporting equipment secure. The garden shed at the rear not only provides snug cubbies for the family groundskeepers, but designated spaces for each of five bicycles.

Architecturally, the trim and other design elements perfectly complement the previously modified existing house.

"It all comes together as a piece," Schmitt says, "and creates a kind of courtyard that gives added definition to the old stand arbor and backyard gardens. It will really be special in the Spring."