stairway to heaven

November 2016 Newsletter

the building arm of a design-build firm

For everyone who works at building Lab, 'building X design' is more than just a marketing soundbite. We take pride in being able to deliver a seamless process from concept sketches to construction details driven by our interest in modern design. If you are an architecture fan, you probably already know that the cleaner and simpler it looks, the more complicated and time-consuming it is to achieve it. Just like the efforts required in creating that perfect moment in a stage performance, our behind-the-scene work involves both the vision and millions of artistic and technical decisions. To shed some light on this mystery, we turn to our long-time lead carpenter Marciel Dornelio who has tackled some of our most challenging projects.

stairway to heaven

In a radical remodel of a multi-story residence in a narrow hillside lot in San Francisco, flights of stairs form a spine that connects all four levels of living spaces . The original staircase to the upper floor was located at only a few feet from the street level front entrance. Behind this was another flight of stairs that went down to the basement. All of these were removed and the new stairways were flipped to the opposite directions. The new layout allows a viewer to enter slowly into the home, pausing at the entry foyer a bit, passing a guest room and bath on the left, while encountering a smooth and shiny stairway flying upstairs on the right, and arriving at a threshold where one can either stroll into the open living area, or turn to go up to the second level bedroom floor, or down to the mezzanine and garden level. 

In our September issue, engineer Nate Williams described how this marvelous floating stairway was designed. Marciel explains that he and his team was responsible for crafting the new treads to match the existing Brazilian Cherry floors. He also coordinated the scheduling and assisted in the proceedings of different special trades who fabricated the parts. Bob's Iron made all of the steel elements. After their crew assembled the stringer plates and the suspension rod, they had to leave the assembly loosely bolted. Then, Marciel and his team had to take off the outside plate, helped inserting the glass railing and gaskets (with precut slots to accommodate the bolts) inside and re-positioned the plates and tightly bolted the whole assembly. For a final touch, a 1" strip of black painted wood was inserted in front of the steel rod and also along the underside to cover the gap. 

celebrating the thresholds

Besides the irresistible stairs that compel one to go exploring up and down this house, Marciel wants to point out other special features that celebrate transitions from the public to the private realms. As the viewer heads upstairs from the main level, he will be facing the street side of the house. When he turns and approaches the master suite, he will pass a guest bath and a guest bedroom, both simply and elegantly furnished. An oversized pivot door is swung completely open to greet him. The door is bolted down to a receiver on the floor (with a wood cover plate stained the same color as the floor) and it can be swung open in both directions. Marciel explains that much care was taken to ensure the walls, the floor, and the ceiling were perfectly aligned. When the door is closed, it looks like this part of the corridor is magically sealed with no visible gaps.

Next is a small foyer where one can enter the master bath on the left, or enter the master bedroom on the right. Guarding the latter is another floor-to-ceiling door: a sliding one mounted on a special track that offers soft close at both ends. That means you can push the door real fast, and it still closes gracefully without slamming into the wall. 

where materials interact and trades intersect

When dealing with a remodeling project, homeowners sometimes wonder if the hardwood floor should be installed before the walls and baseboards. And what about painting? It's a mystery how different building trades can be orchestrated without one's work destroying another's. Here, at this entry to the master bath, Marciel reveals to us how things were put together. First, they had to make sure all the sub-floors were prepared such that the tiles and wood floorboards would make an even surface. Then, the wood floor was installed with the floorboards left extending into the bathroom. The area near the border was sanded. At the same time, the pale grey hexagonal tiles were installed. At the border, the hexagons were placed on top of the floorboards and their outlines were traced onto the wood. The floorboards were cut in place to make a perfect match. 

In the rest of the room, sheetrock was nailed with a 3" gap from the floor. The floorboards were installed and a 6" border around the perimeter of the room was sanded. After our trademark invisible baseboard (flush with the wall) was put in place and plastered smooth, the whole floor was then sanded. At this time, only a light bluffing was needed in the area close to the baseboard and the tile floor. The floor was then finished with multiple coats and the walls were painted last. 

the man from brazil!

Marciel moved to the Bay area from a small town in Brazil twelve years ago when he was only eighteen. After a stint in demolition work, he met Stephen and has been working for bL ever since. Marciel remembers fondly that in the early days, Stephen trained him in carpentry mostly with hand gestures and sketching since his English was not proficient. Marciel would get up at 5am every day to get ready. Stephen would show up in his pickup truck with his dog and the two would head to the lumber yard and then the job site. Being a quick and enthusiastic learner, Marciel always finished everything well at the end of the work day. Working from the ground up literally, Marciel did everything from shoveling, hammering and nailing, and eventually leading a whole field crew. He is getting married this December in Brazil. Non-stop partying is being promised and you are all invited!
Photo captions L - R 
Profile image: Stair railing detail 
1. Floating stairs   2. Looking down to main level landing and lower levels 
3. Steel plate stringers, suspending steel rod, and glass railing   4. Underside of stairs showing metal tread supports
5. Pivot door   6. Sliding door at master suite 
7. Entry to master bath   8. Brazilian Cherry flooring and invisible baseboard 
Profile, #1 and #2 by Scott Hargis Photography

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