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Inhabit: A remodel that makes room for two

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By Nancy McKeon
Friday, March 18, 2011; 11:42 PM

Gina Farina faced a remodeling challenge with her small two-level Arlington condo: It would be easy enough to open up the space to seem larger, but how could she make it feel more expansive while accommodating a new roommate - and allowing privacy for both of them?

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Answering that triple-sided challenge was Georgetown architect Ernesto Santalla, whose solution involved elimination of some walls, visual tricks to suggest an expanded space and multifunctional furniture and built-ins to provide genuine comfort and privacy.

Farina, 58, and Norma Samson, 72, retirees from the International Monetary Fund and longtime friends, hoped that sharing Farina's home would be a practical living arrangement. Samson could no longer navigate the stairs in her own two-level condo down the hall and no longer wanted to live alone. But the women sought to maintain some of the privacy each had enjoyed while living solo.

Before the move, though, the women had to tackle how best to combine their households. Samson gave away some of her larger belongings, such as an electric organ, to make the process easier. And Farina looked for ways to make the main level accommodate Samson without interfering with her own use of the living room, dining area and kitchen.

Farina had seen a room done by Santalla (pronounced san-TY-uh) at a decorator showcase at the Washington Design Center in Southwest Washington and liked his contemporary sensibility. He quickly sized up the situation.

"The space was small and very chopped up," Santalla says. The entry foyer served as a dining area. It was cut off from the kitchen by a wall with a pass-through, and cut off from the living room by a "wing wall," a short section of wall that jutted out between the kitchen and the living room, built to incorporate and therefore hide a structural column. The women had further enclosed the dining space with a freestanding shoji screen. "You start to add these things up and it makes for a space that is . . . not optimal," the architect says.

Santalla's charge, to create living quarters for Samson, could be accomplished by repurposing the tiny room at the rear of the living room that Farina used as an office and catch-all space. As luck would have it, it already had an en-suite bathroom. But even the preexisting room required thought to make things "more fine-tuned to my needs," as Samson puts it.

One issue was the size of the room and the super-comfortable adjustable Tempur-Pedic foam bed Samson wanted. Santalla was able to snugly fit a twin-size bed lengthwise against the side wall of the room, where it basically filled the space, then built an upholstered back and arms around it so it took on the look of a daybed. An upholstered panel that runs across the bottom front hides the adjusting mechanism - and the diminutive Samson steps on it to climb up into the high bed.

A flat-screen TV is mounted on the wall at the foot of the bed, and the upholstered arm at her head flips open to hold the remote control. Samson delights in the sleek floor lamp near the head of the bed, which provides general light and has a tiltable shade to direct the beam of a reading lamp.

Samson's bathroom had a bathtub, which not ideal for someone with mobility issues. Now it boasts a walk-in unit with a hand shower and a flip-down seat at one end.

Even after "de-accessioning," Samson said, she needed storage for clothing and such. The little room had a walk-in closet, but it was awkward. "Not all storage is good storage," Santalla says, "especially if you start to stack things in front, to the point where you can't get to the stuff at the back. Some things are designed to fail."

Instead, the back wall of the bedroom is lined with two handsome wardrobes from Ikea. The frosted-glass doors were painted on the inside "so I don't have to look at my clothes all the time," Samson says with a giggle.

From the beginning, the women agreed that the arrival of Samson in the condo presented an opportunity to take a long, hard look at the whole space.

First to go was the chopped-up look. Down came the upper portion of the pass-through wall separating the kitchen and dining foyer. That meant losing the upper cabinets on the kitchen side. To compensate, Santalla made the counter deeper, extending it into the dining area and incorporating semi-custom cabinets with a satin lacquer finish below.

With the kitchen in full view, Farina and Samson began the by-now-standard quest for glamour appliances, in the land of black and stainless. In order to save money, no appliances were rearranged, but the women delightedly point out a Miele-brand wall oven that bakes and grills and a tall, skinny (24 inches wide) refrigerator that doesn't overwhelm the small space. ("Two people don't need a 48-inch refrigerator," says Santalla. "As we move toward living in smaller spaces, we can have creature comforts, but we can live differently.")

Now the kitchen counter was part of the formal living space, so Santalla topped it with composite quartz and extended the counter material down the side of the end cabinet, giving the unit a look that was less kitchen and more furniture. Drawer pulls on the kitchen side are stainless steel from Hafele, while the pulls on the formal living side are from Du Verre and have a more hand-crafted quality, the architect points out.

He extended the quartz-and-cabinet treatment along the wall into the living area - to gather the women's TV and electronics - but to do so meant pulling down that irksome wing wall between the foyer and living room. That left the structural column, which of course could not be touched. It's not the best of all possible worlds, but Santalla had the column sheathed on all sides with mirror. The result of this sleight of hand is that it does virtually "dematerialize to a certain extent," as the architect puts it.

Another visual trick was to extend the same flooring throughout the main floor. The continuity, Santalla explains, would make the space look larger. And it was an opportunity to replace an inexpensive-looking Pergo-type floor laminate with handsome taupe ceramic tile that now runs from the foyer, into the kitchen, through the living room and up the wall of the shower in Samson's bathroom. It was cheaper than laying new hardwood, Santalla points out, and quite handsome.

But sometimes Santalla wanted to stop the eye. Above the round dining table in the foyer, he hung a Tolomeo suspension lamp from Artemide as a focal point. "When you walk in, it gives the eye a place to rest," he says. "You don't take in the whole space at once and realize how small it is."

When she hired Santalla, Farina told him he had to work with three carpets and that she liked color. The dining chairs are red, but a visitor looking at the neutral colors of the living room and bedroom beyond might conclude that Santalla ignored his client's desire for color. But sit in the living room and look back toward the front of the apartment, and a different picture emerges.

The dining table, one now sees, rests on a vibrant red rug, one of three carpets on the main level. And the front wall, including the front door, is a rich red, somewhere between tomato and scarlet, taken from the red in Farina's rugs. Even the trim around the doors is painted red, unifying the wall. "People think trim has to be painted white, but why call attention to a closet?" says Santalla.

The women are clearly delighted with their shared nest. Samson is now Farina's renter ("Ooh, and my rent is late," chirps Samson early in February). The only problem is that Farina now wants the same level of attention and quality of finishes in her upstairs bedroom and bath. For the moment, she's letting her checkbook cool off, but that's the next phase of life in this Arlington condo, now made for two.


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