This December, JLC paid a visit to Andrew James Gregor, a trained architect and the owner of Blue Dog Construction and Renovation, based in Lafayette, California. Gregor is an expatriate Englishman, raised in the Middle East, who ran his own architecture office for 15 years in Germany, designing millions of square feet of commercial and residential projects.
When he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area almost ten years ago, Gregor decided not to practice architecture in the United States. Earning his license to practice here would have required him to serve years of apprenticeship under a U.S.-licensed architect — a step backwards for an experienced professional. Instead, Gregor stepped sideways, starting his own building and remodeling company. Now he's keeping himself and a skilled crew busy with custom-built homes and remodels.
JLC caught up with Gregor on site in a Berkeley neighborhood known locally as "the 500's" (because all the turn-of-the-century bungalows in the area were originally built with about 500 square feet of living space). Gregor's task is to roughly double the living space of one of those little bungalows — while the family is living there.
"Their choice was whether to build out into the back, where they have about 800 square feet of yard (and chickens), or build upwards. So we opted to build upwards. There were a couple of houses here that have done that already, and it was no problem with the City of Berkeley. So we're building two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs."
While the permit was no problem, the structure was an issue. For a project of this scope, Blue Dog has to upgrade the building to the existing seismic code. This meant extensive work on the foundation (accessible via a crawlspace barely a foot high), and the creation of effective shearwalls within the existing first floor framing. "We've put in shearwalls and hold-downs," says Gregor. "And we re-did the entire foundation, basically." To support the second floor structure and the new roof, "we put in a system of posts and beams," says Gregor. "We didn't have to remove the first floor walls, we just doubled up the studs in between." Then the crew had to frame in a new second floor structure and second story walls, and finally frame a low-slope roof that would shed water while remaining below the allowable building height. "The whole structural system is tied together all the way down through the foundation," says Gregor.
Because the family planned to stay put throughout the process, Gregor couldn't demolish the existing ceiling. Instead, he blocked up the wall structure at the sides of the house and framed in a new top wall plate, then a new floor frame and deck, entombing the existing ceiling below the new second floor structure with its heavy engineered-beam skeleton. Then the crew started in on new second-story walls and got ready to frame a low-slope roof with parapets and scuppers.
But Mother Nature decided to add another plot twist. After the second-floor deck was started, a rare storm blew up in the Pacific Ocean and threatened to slam Northern California with high winds and torrential rains.
"While we were going through permitting and planning, we had six months of drought here," says Gregor. "And then we started to build, and then it started to rain. And this family really needs the job to be finished, because they're expecting a baby. So we were stuck in a situation where it was raining, but we had to take the roof off."
"There wasn't a choice about it," says Gregor. "At some point you gotta take the plunge. It might stop raining in 2020, I don't know. And so we took the roof off, and then it really started coming down."
"When we heard about this storm coming," says Gregor, "we bulked up the crew and got the outside walls framed. Then we made a temporary roof, and we had two giant tarps. And we threw blocks of wood with ropes all the way across the building, and we had 7 or 8 guys and we yanked the tarps, so the tarp just enveloped the whole house. We had to attach battens, because the tarp was ballooning up like an airship. I was imagining that the next thing was that the whole second floor would go flying over Berkeley with ropes hanging down."
"There's two tarps, one over the other," says Gregor. "And it worked. I sat up all night watching the weather on TV and staring at my cell phone waiting for a text: 'Andrew. We have a giant leak somewhere.' But it didn't come. Rain came down in buckets, but it stayed bone dry. "
In January, the crew removed the tarp system and framed in a permanent roof. Then roofers applied a double-coverage roll roof. Despite all the excitement, Gregor and his crew haven't missed a beat. "We'll be done in March," he says.