San Francisco Chronicle | From ranch house to modern gem

By Anh-Minh Le

Photography by Sharon Risedorph

August 15, 2010

HOME Designer's budget-wise strategies turn a ranch house into a modern gem

It was an all too common problem: WaiChee Khoong wanted to increase the square footage of his San Jose home, but didn't have the budget to expand.

So he enlisted the help of interior designer Chad DeWitt, who devised a not so common solution: a new door.

Not just any door. DeWitt proposed replacing the standard sliders between the dining room and deck with a system that's part door, part wall. Called the NanaWall, it looks like a series of fixed floor-to-ceiling glass panels, but a hidden overhead track allows them to open and close, much like an accordion.

"WaiChee wanted to add on to the house," said DeWitt "but it was going to be too costly. So the next best thing was to create an outdoor room."

The house measures 1,300 square feet, with the deck adding 400 square feet of living space. DeWitt worked with landscape designer Patricia St John to give it a face-lift, flipping the original planks and giving them a good high-pressure water cleaning. The old trellis was made into steps for the deck, and a retractable sunshade now offers protection on those scorching South Bay days.

Although French doors were also considered, they don't accommodate indoor/outdoor living the way the NanaWall does. When the glass panels are pushed open, the dining table, on casters, can easily be rolled to the deck. "Why buy two tables - one for inside, one for outside - when a single table can work for both spaces?" DeWitt said.

The lightweight plywood-and-chrome dining chairs are ideal for either space as well. The outdoor suite, which consists of several seating options, was a bargain plucked off of eBay.

Reinventing the ranch

DeWitt and Khoong were equally resourceful when it came to the interior of the 1950s abode. "Before, it looked pretty dated - country style, both inside and out," recalled the homeowner. "Not much was done from its original condition."

The goal was to reinvent the ranch house as a modern gem. The exterior sets the tone, with stucco applied to the board-and-batten siding for a streamlined surface. The nondescript front door was ditched in favor of an inexpensive door with a reeded glass front. "A few coats of red paint and - poof - it looks modern," DeWitt said. Planter boxes filled with rocks and reeds, as well as brushed stainless steel accents (house numbers, door handle, mailbox) add to the contemporary feel.

The kitchen and two bathrooms were gutted but the only structural changes to the dwelling were the removal of a wall between the dining room and kitchen, and the relocation of the fireplace.

Initial bids for the project topped $450,000. The designer and client asked around, including at the hardware store, and were eventually referred to R & Y Construction. The firm charged about 50 percent less than some of the others, but required closer supervision by DeWitt, who also collaborated with architect Alice Hwang on the project.

"I had a strict budget," said Khoong, "so the strategy with Chad from the get-go was getting the best bang for the buck. We tried to save by keeping the hardwood floor, and using semi-custom kitchen cabinets and a prefabricated granite countertop."

For each room, DeWitt adhered to a simple rule: "Buy one thing that's expensive and make it the focal point."

In the dining room, the big-ticket item was the NanaWall, a $15,000 purchase. In the living room, the original wood-burning fireplace was removed. Now there's a contemporary gas box that features an elegant ribbon of flame; it was installed on the same wall as the NanaWall. The surround and hearth are tiled with a mix of three Geologica designs - all from the same collection.

In the kitchen, the high-impact pieces came with low prices. For the backsplash, DeWitt took standard 12-by-12-inch marble tiles - which cost $15 each - and cut them in half for a custom look.

The kitchen island base is comprised of baseboard material, which can run as little as a dollar per linear foot. It's topped with the same black granite used for the countertops. The material was treated with water jets for a leather look - a matte finish that provides visual and textural interest.

DeWitt further kept the budget in check by balancing pricey elements with more affordable ones. For example, being a self-professed lighting snob - "it's like jewelry," he observed - he installed Artemide fixtures along with cable lighting from Home Depot.

In the guest bath, the Phillipe Starck wash basin was purchased at a showroom sample sale. Because DeWitt is "big on texture, not on color," he went with all white. The floor is covered with 24-inch square porcelain tiles with concentric ribbing. The shower features waves of undulating tiles. Both are manufactured by Porcelanosa.

The master bath, in contrast, is predominantly black. "The cheapest way to create two distinctive and stylish baths is to make one white, the other black," DeWitt said. The walls and floor are covered with a Geologica porcelain tile that mimics ebonized wood. The sink also tricks the eye: Though it appears to be concrete, the Porcelanosa basin is made of porcelain.

Updating with paint

Paint provided one of the easiest and most inexpensive ways to update the interior. DeWitt covered the walls, trim and doors with the same shade of gray for a modern effect.

The remodel spanned one year, but it was well worth the hassles. "The end result more than made up the stress and inconvenience of living here during the construction," said Khoong. "For a couple of weeks, the only thing working was the shower. I had to rent a portable toilet. My friends thought I was crazy going through all this."

Now, upon stepping into the renovated home, they get it. "The interior has caught friends and neighbors by surprise," he said, "especially those who saw the house before the renovation. The clean lines of the kitchen cabinet, the openness of the great room and the backyard are the favorites."

The budget constraints made the transformation - indoors and outdoors - that much more rewarding for DeWitt. "While the client didn't have unlimited funds, he showed a sense of trust in my abilities," said the designer. "Trusting me was worth far more than a big bank account."

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