In this in-depth interview with Jim Acheson, founder and president of Acheson Builders, Lucy Ann Lance discusses the 2016 Remodelers Home Tour, the Acheson Builders design style, and a particularly challenging older-home remodeling job at 2037 Winstead in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This traditional 1970s home harbored a claustrophobic dinette and u-shaped kitchen until Acheson Builders gave it a new life.
In undertaking this very large remodeling project, Acheson Builders had many challenges. One good example: we didn’t want to block a feature window that is at the front of the house while adding a new staircase to replace a vintage narrow straight run set of steps (see part one of this series for solution). The homeowners also asked us to create a coat-closet space for that part of the house.
To accomplish this, we designed the new stairs with a turn midway up, so that the upper section of stairs along the front wall could be above the feature window. We were then able to fit a small coat closet under the upper stairs, while adding a bonus hidden storage area under the lower section of stairs. All done in period detail.
When it comes to working on older homes such as this that are considered historic, contractors such as Acheson Builders must hue to the call of the Historic District Commission of Ann Arbor, Michigan. One governing rule of the HDCAA specifies that additions to classic homes in its purview look different than the historic parts of those houses. For this 1840’s home, there were four different styles incorporated, each from a different design era. Although required to have the addition look different, Acheson Builders and the home’s owners didn’t want it to look drastically different — we wanted some continuity, a sense of a unified building after integrating the new with the old. Part of our solution was to use existing ornamentation, seen in the taller front section of the house, as inspiration for the embellishment used on the rear addition.
One somewhat painful decision that the owners had to make involved losing an outdoor sauna. Acheson Builders replaced a badly deteriorating old deck and sauna with a new deck (but no sauna) built on the sunnier side of the house, which also allowed for a larger addition, while at the same time including value-added maintenance-free Azek PVC materials.
One challenge with using Azek materials for the deck and railing, was that Azek does not make a top handrail for stairways that qualifies as “graspable” under the building code. We were able to solve this issue by custom-fabricating, using Azek stock, a top guardrail for the steps that conformed to the code but which also matched the profile of the manufactured top rail used along the level guardrail sections. To fabricate this required handrail, we glued Azek stock pieces together, then milled them for the desired profile. This type of work is quite sophisticated and is only done well by highly skilled carpenters (such as ours)!
Some Design Process Considerations for this job:
Deck Height: House sits high relative to the backyard; deck needed to be just a step or two down: this allows for a better view of the yard from inside the house while taking minimal space away from the deck
Embellishment: New entryway to deck and backyard from Kitchen and Family Room creates a stunning look as seen from both interior and exterior perspectives; it is a highlight and new rear focal point, with inspiration from other portions of this historic home
Addition and deck size: allow for good furniture layout, walkability, storage (both interior spaces, and on deck itself)
Width of deck stairway: wide design allows for traffic flow to yard, room to sit on steps
Additional features and thoughtful design: one of the skirt panels below the deck opens, so the space is accessible for storage under the deck
. . . and on and on, so forth and etc.; there were a myriad of other issues, both interior and exterior in this the complex design and remodeling process, especially for issues relating to an historic home. Challenging and satisfying — for the homeowners and for Acheson Builders!
This most fascinating older home on Ann Arbor’s “Old West Side” embodied several eras of style:
A Greek Revival settlement-era original from the 1840s, combined with a mid 19th century (1860s or 1870s) practical-but-poorly-built addition, a showy 1890s Victorian era addition, and a 1970’s update on the cheap.
While possessing lots of charm in the details, and a lovely front elevation, the home was awkward and limiting to live in.
CREATIVE, THOUGHTFUL DESIGN SOLUTIONS BY THE ACHESON BUILDERS TEAM
Acheson Builders’ design team (l-r): Kimble Wright, Lauren Schaefers, Jim Acheson
Renovation ideas from two different designers hadn’t met the owner’s goals, before the Acheson design team was called in. Creative problem solving, attentive listening, and abundant experience enabled the Acheson team to meet both the homeowner’s goals and local Historic District requirements, as well as Acheson Builders’ high standards of functionality, refinement, and classical esthetics. Relocating and improving the main stairs (see below) turned out to be one of the keys in re-configuring this home to meet a growing family’s needs, and this stairway became an elegant focal point for the newly created foyer area by the front door.
Graceful and sophisticated custom staircase
Gorgeous walnut flooring throughout main floor, tying in to original
Addition (partially two story) encompassing new Kitchen, Dining and Family Rooms
Newly created bedroom space on second floor, with enlarged 2nd floor bath
Loads of classy custom cabinetry and custom built-ins and unique storage in Kitchen, Family Room, and bedrooms
Interesting ceiling lines and custom mouldings add great charm
Circular stairway to lower level; wall displays some original 1840’s stonework
Fully finished bright Basement with bedroom
MAIN STAIRWAY: DRAMATIC BEFORE AND AFTER!
The original stairs from the 1840s Greek Revival part of the home went up to a second floor which was formerly a large sleeping loft, with no original partitions and no bathroom (they used outhouses back then).
The stairs were incredibly steep and unsafe — with tall risers, narrow treads. and barely 24” of width so that a broad shouldered man would have to go up the stairs at an angle.
The home’s living room was located right inside the front door. It had no coat closet nor enclosed vestibule to block the winter cold. It was also a major pass‐through room to get to all other points in the home. As you can imagine, it was a very awkward location for a living room. By placing the new stairway in this area, these main stairs became part of a newly created foyer space, and the back three‐quarters of the home was then freed up on both levels to reconfigure for more functionally pleasing living spaces on both floors.
Washtenaw Remodelers Council 2014 Keppler Award for Remodeling Achievement
Jim Acheson has been honored with the 2014 Keppler Award for Remodeling Achievement — Photo: Peter Nowakowski, Marketing & Communications Director BRAG Ann Arbor
The annual Builders Association Banquet was the setting for the presentation of the Keppler Award for Remodeling Achievement. This year, the award went to Jim Acheson!
Jim Acheson Wins Keppler Award for Remodeling Achievement
Here is the full text of the presentation:
It is an honor to present the Keppler Award for Remodeling Achievement, which was established in 1992 in commemoration of Steve Keppler, an outstanding professional and remarkable person who made an indelible mark on our Association, our community, and the lives of everyone who knew him. Like its namesake, the purpose of this award is multi-faceted. The award recognizes an individual with extraordinary remodeling skills and business accomplishments who has also enriched our Association and lifted us all to a higher level. In addition, this Award celebrates a generous person, devoted to improving the lives of others, and the very fabric of our community through giving and volunteerism.
2014 Keppler Award for Remodeling Achievement
As we pondered these qualities, one such person emerged as a clear fit of this distinguished profile. With unanimous admiration we decided the 2014 Keppler Award belongs to Jim Acheson.
Some 25 years ago, Jim brought us the vision of creating a special event which came to be known as the Remodelers Home Tour. His idea took off, and grew into a vital marketing tool for our members. This year an average of 650 people came through each home on the Tour.
All these years later, it speaks volumes to see Acheson Builders’ very own work featured among these premier remodeled homes. I’m sure many of their clients would share our enthusiasm for the phenomenal work of Jim and his team. In every one of their projects, you can see that the details really matter.
BRAG Ann Arbor CEO Maureen Sloan (right) and her colleague (left) present Jim Acheson (center) with the 2014 Keppler Award at Builders Association Banquet November 4, 2014
In Jim’s personal life, you can see that, too. He’s proactive when it comes to engaging with local governments, striving to improve the way our community operates. He leads by example as a frequent volunteer serving meals at The Hope Clinic to those who can use a helping hand, a hand that he is willing to lend. All the while, Jim has always been there for his family and friends with all of his heart.
We thank you, Jim, for all you’ve done to help build BRAG Ann Arbor* into what it is today, and for so much more. Ladies and gentlemen, I present the 2014 Keppler Award to our esteemed colleague, Jim Acheson. Congratulations Jim!
Acheson Builders recently completed a major kitchen remodeling project for us. They work very hard to avoid surprises (some surprises are inevitable when remodeling an older house) and to stay within budget. The quality of the design and the work itself are exceptional. We are very pleased with the results.
Jim and Marilyn Acheson are great people to work with and the men who worked on our project, Kevin and Ben, are terrific people whom we would welcome into our house any time.
This most recent project is the third time (over a period of about thirty years in three different houses) that we have worked with Jim on a kitchen remodeling project. We have never been less than satisfied.