As first-time home buyers and recent architecture school graduates, Apurva Pande and Chinmaya Misra got a lesson in real-world construction when they remodeled their own 1,600-square-foot midcentury bungalow in the West Adams area.
At architecture school — he went to UCLA and she to the Southern California Institute of Architecture — the couple learned about light and flow and how to conceptualize space. They excelled in abstract thinking. But their talents were detrimental at times during the building phase of the $100,000 whole-house project.
“Construction,” Pande said they discovered, “requires timelines, budgets, prioritizing tasks and communication skills.”
During the project, which turned a derelict eyesore into a sleek study in modern tranquillity, the education of the two young designers came slowly and painfully.
“Often the smallest detail would hold up traffic,” Pande recalled. “We would often both be working in a chaotic stream of ideas, sometimes wastefully, on the same task.
“But all the contractor really wanted to know first was whether to use a 2-by-4 or a 2-by-6.”
Their learning experience started in 2003 when the couple began looking for a house to buy. With perfect credit and $10,000 in savings, it still took six months of rigorous house-hunting, and getting outbid on three properties, before they found their match — a dwelling so sad-looking and termite-damaged that it had sat on the market for months.
But although others had been put off by rotted interior walls, ruined parquet flooring, stained carpeting and rancid fish ponds, Pande and Misra saw what lay beneath their $383,000 purchase — a sturdy cinderblock frame, on a concrete foundation, with wide eaves and a low roof that reminded them of a vintage Palm Springs home.
“It had a really nice feel,” said 29-year-old Misra.
Immediately, the couple started mentally reconfiguring the interior space, removing walls and raising ceilings. At first, they planned a simple and limited upgrade that would take several weeks and cost $10,000. But as their ideas spiraled, so did the budget. Using a fistful of credit cards and cash from four refinances as the property gained equity, they ended up spending 10 times their budget over about a year, from August 2003 to September 2004.
Leaving the exterior walls intact, the couple removed the termite-eaten interior walls that had originally defined the entry hall, dining room, living room and den and added supporting beams where required. This left a large, flowing space that gave them the openness they wanted. They also eliminated all interior doors. Architects thrive on access and openness, explained Pande, 30. The guest bathroom, however, does get a door — a full sheet of plywood that slides on an industrial metal track.
Overhead, the couple exposed some of the living-room roof rafters, and for underfoot, they spent around $6,000 to have the concrete floors smoothed and polished to a glow. Although they had hoped to keep the cinderblock walls exposed on the interior, because of cracking they opted instead for an unusual finish of smooth-troweled plaster, which has less sand and a softer look than ordinary plaster.
For the kitchen and master-bathroom counters, the couple had wood frames built around the cabinets and faced with stone. The kitchen counters have a tall, stainless-steel backsplash, which adds to the modern feeling.
The home’s most striking feature is an abstract skylight between the living room and kitchen, which Pande described as “an intersection of various geometries.”
The home has very few pieces of furniture. The couple, both natives of India, prefer rugs and pillows on the floor.
To get the work done, they hired a contractor for the main construction, various subcontractors for the finish work, and they did some of it themselves. Because certain unique angles of the interior design were difficult to draw on paper, they created scale models out of paper and tape to communicate their desires to the carpenters. To aid their own conceptualization of the new space, they used the Adobe Photoshop computer program to make mock-ups and then inserted images of themselves into the scenes to see how the space would relate to a human form.
Coming to an agreement on the design brought about some lively debates. “[But] we don’t mind arguing,” Pande said of their collaborative style.
The main conflicts were about the speed of the construction. Pande wanted to take it a little slower while they raised funds to finance the project, while Misra wanted to push ahead. “It was a huge adrenaline rush,” Misra said.
Although the couple are now self-employed designers, they each held full-time jobs at architectural firms during the remodel, he in Frank Gehry’s office and she with the Jerde Partnership.
Pande said he is proud of their work record. “We didn’t take a single day off.”
Misra explained why: “We couldn’t afford to.”
In the end, the couple are happy that they undertook “this madness,” as Pande calls it.
“I think we learned from mistakes with the most difficult client,” he said, “ourselves.”
Design: Apurva Pande and Chinmaya Misra, Chacol, Los Angeles, http://www.chacol.net , (310) 254-4377.
Smooth-troweled stucco: LaHabra Stucco, Anaheim, http://www.lahabrastucco.com, (714) 778-2266.