Making a Large Opening in a Narrow House

When my clients purchased this four-story row house a year ago, the existing interiors were in rough shape, though not without charm. Fairly elaborate plaster molding was run throughout the upper three floors and there were…

…four marble fireplace surrounds, two on the first and second floors (left). There were a few water-damaged walls and the floors were noticeably out of level, by as much as 2 inches over the building’s width of 14 feet. The interior space felt congested and gloomy, especially in the center of the house (right), which is typical of these narrow row homes. We were tasked with bringing as much natural light as we could into the living areas on the lower floors, while saving as much of the ornate plasterwork as possible.

We have replaced many existing window-door configurations with three-panel sliders, usually opening on the first floor in the kitchen area from the back of the house. But because the walkout from the existing basement (or “garden-level,” as it’s commonly called here) is at grade in this house (left), we could entertain the idea of removing two floors of structural brick (right). This would bring light into both the planned basement living room/kid’s playroom and first-floor kitchen/family-room areas.

This is the first time we attempted to remove two stories worth of brick, but we expected the process would essentially be the same as past projects (see October 2014 JLC). The existing first-floor windows and wall framing were removed, exposing the three-wythe brick wall on the interior side. Next, we carefully removed enough of the outer brick course to fit the first structural steel channel for what would eventually be a built-up steel and 2-by flitch-beam assembly.

With the outer steel channel in place, the remaining two brick wythes were gradually removed from the inside, allowing us to install the 2-by stock and a second steel channel for the flitch-beam assembly. The assembly was bolted together, completing the flitch beam.

The finished masonry opening was roughly 10 feet wide by 17 feet high (left). The under-slab prep work consisted of running the storm run-off and wastewater lines in two separate, parallel lines with check valves to the street as required by the city. We joined them together just before they exited the basement into one line to the city sewer—the storm and sewer lines are still one and the same in Hoboken. With the plumbing rough-in complete, we prepared to pour a slab by installing compacted gravel, a vapor retarder, rigid insulation, and welded-wire mesh. When it was time to pour, the concrete was off-loaded onto a temporary, site-built shoot (right). We had to close down the street for a day to do this, and hire an off-duty police officer to keep the peace.

In the row homes we work on, the existing floor framing runs parallel to the front and back walls and is pocketed into the side party walls. At stair locations, the joists are mortise-and-tenoned into a header for the stair box-out. This header is usually undersized and ends up splitting along the pocketed mortises. To remedy this, we typically have to install a new LVL header and re-attach the existing joists with hangers.

We needed to frame out the masonry opening to receive the new doors. Rather than infilling with a bunch of 2-by stock, we decided to install a couple of LVLs. We ripped the LVLs to match the existing joist depth, taking off about ¾ inch. We weren’t too concerned about compromising their structural integrity; in this case, the LVL was essentially acting as blocking. However, the clients are thinking about adding a deck off the kitchen in a year or so. The LVL will provide good anchoring for a ledger, if they choose to do this.

We installed steel angles to support each end of the LVLs, securing the angles to the brick with lag bolts and shield anchors (left). We then sistered the inner LVL to the existing floor joist and fastened the LVLs together with structural screws (right).

Starting at the garden level, we began installing the sliders. We had to contend with the out-of-level first floor during the installation, as can be seen in the decreasing series of cripples above the door. Normally, we build everything as close to level and plumb as possible. But in this case, the clients were willing to live with the settled floors because they wanted to leave as much of the existing plasterwork in place as possible.

With the garden-level door installed, we moved on to the kitchen slider. The first-floor ceiling height allowed for an 18-inch-high finished transom above the door, which helped bring in more natural lighting.

With doors and transom shimmed, we began framing out the opening, which will get boxed out in drywall and trim (see next slide).

On the first floor, we removed an existing hallway and closet separating the living room from the kitchen, which contributed to the congested feel in the center of the house. We opened up this area, installing an archway at the kitchen entry.

Most of the new plaster crown was installed in this central area, though there was quite a bit of patching and rebuilding of existing molding sections throughout the house. The sections of crown were butt-joined together and fastened with drywall screws. The seams were filled with joint compound and sanded. Plasterwork usually runs us anywhere from $100 to $150 per lineal foot.

Our plaster sub makes crown molding on site in 3- to 4-foot sections.

To form the crown molding, our sub either pours plaster into molds (as he does for more complicated profiles like these with egg-and-dart trim)…

... or he works by hand, extruding the plaster with a knife cut to match existing crown profile. He does this extrusion work on an 18-inch-wide by 6-foot-long table.

To finish out the exterior, we installed an applied “lintel” over the masonry opening to match the existing window heads. The lintel was made from a two-coat stucco application. We used a Portland-cement-and-sand-mix scratch coat, set in mesh, and a tinted finish coat. Also, we installed a temporary Juliet balcony, which serves as a guardrail until we build the deck off the first-floor kitchen next year.

The slider unit makes the garden-level kid’s room a bright and inviting play space. We installed light-colored engineered-wood flooring (gluing it to the slab) to further add to the brightness.

We sanded and finished the existing plank flooring throughout the upper floors, including the kitchen. The existing fireplace in the kitchen is not functioning. However, we did convert the fireplaces in the master bedroom and living room to gas-fired units, which we vented to the roof, installing fresh-air intakes, as well.

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