A Chevy Chase, Md., family rebuilds after a devastating fire
The family evacuated and called the fire department, who showed up about six minutes later. At first it didn’t look so bad. “It felt like a little fire to us,” says Jason, a 49-year-old attorney. As the event began, reality set in. “They had to pick our son up in an ambulance because he had burns on his hands and feet,” says Tamara, also 49. “He spent 48 hours in the hospital with heavy smoke inhalation and was delirious for a day.”
The effects of the fire and smoke damage rendered the home uninhabitable. An insurance adjuster met the family at MedStar Washington Hospital Center and wrote them a check on the spot. “The reviewer told me at the beginning, ‘This is a marathon, not a sprint,'” says Jason. “It kept coming back to me throughout the process.”
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The family moved to a hotel in Friendship Heights, where they stayed for two weeks while they looked for a place to rent. They bought a “makeshift wardrobe” at Target. Per their policy, their temporary home had to match the one they were evicted from, but mid-size rentals are hard to come by in Chevy Chase.
They ended up in the penthouse of an apartment building in downtown Bethesda, where they would live for almost two years.
The Rademachers had no plans to renovate their home prior to the fire. They bought it in 2013 for $623,000 after moving from Bowie, Md. In order to get their lives back on track, they had to file a claim for their lost possessions and determine the cost of rebuilding the home.
Claims proceedings began, the house was boarded up, the fire investigation began, and the homeowners began seeking advice. They called Lou Balodemas, a director at Balodemas Architects in DC who they found on Houzz.
Part of the claims process was figuring out what had been lost in the flames. “We basically had to draw the house,” says Balodemas. “At the same time we designed the new building.”
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At first, the homeowners didn’t want to change anything. “We wanted to know what it would cost to rebuild the house the way it used to be,” says Jason. “We just wanted our old house back because we liked this house. But then we thought, doesn’t it make sense to explore the other things you can do?”
The determination of the renovation costs and the assumption of costs in the event of a fire is a continuous process. Drafts have to be coordinated, plans finalized and offers obtained. To facilitate the process, the insurance company sent an appraiser. The homeowners hired a separate contractor to get a second opinion. After the basic design plan was finalized, the bids were opened and Jason Hebeisen, owner of Heb-N-Co Construction based in Boyds, Md., was the winner.
“I often deal with insurance companies,” says Hebeisen. “I recognize that the adjuster is doing his job, which is to keep the claim from getting out of control. So with a write-off like this, it basically came down to, “Well, you’re renovating the house and making it a little bit bigger. We don’t pay for that.’ And they shouldn’t. But you are forced to update the house to the current code.”
Most insurance policies, including Rademacher’s, have limits on what they pay for code upgrades, which made financing the rebuild even more difficult. Late in the process, the homeowners discovered a tab on the policy that increased their cap, which helped.
The design team was also able to reallocate renovation funds by opting to install drywall rather than replacing plaster walls. The home originally had steel framed windows which were exchanged for replacement timber framed windows – more money savings.
The fire burned so hot that parts of the foundation were damaged. After evaluating the numbers, it was decided that it would be cheaper to cast new bases outside of the original foundation than to dig up and replace the entire slab.
“It was also an opportunity because it allowed us to add two feet to the ground floor,” says Veena Shahsavarian, a partner at Balodemas. “It’s not the typical addition you would make, but we needed those two feet in the kitchen.”
As the numbers continued hashing, it fell to Tamara, the family homemaker, to focus on design decisions. “I chose a low version and a high version of almost everything. It was like a real job and I haven’t had a real job in a while. And you are doing all this while grieving the loss of your belongings.”
The entire process took 23 months and ended a month before the claims settlement deadline. Originally, the homeowners asked the architect for their old home back, but things have changed over time.
The design team suggested moving the home’s kitchen and dining area to the lower level with access to the backyard. At a recent design meeting, Jason asked the architects about a butterfly roof that he had seen on one of their other projects. Three minutes later, with a little help from a computer-aided design program, the roof smashed in the blink of an eye.
The effect of the newly designed roof can be seen in the new front door of the house. Large circular skylights carved into the high ceiling flood the space with natural light. The living room is on the right – in its original location. The original fireplace has been reworked with wild west green granite and honed limestone. The room is lit by large windows with Douglas fir frames. A custom lattice wall, also made of fir by Hebeisen’s crew, separates the living room from the foyer. All floors on the first level are oak.
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In addition to the living room on the ground floor, there is a study and a laundry room to the left of the front door. The house then splits up eight steps into a landing, a guest bathroom, her granddaughter’s bedroom, another bedroom and the master suite. The master bedroom overlooks the backyard and houses a teak frame bed. The design team also worked on a wood-burning fireplace in the bedroom with green ceramic tiles laid out in a wide hexagon pattern on top of the chimney and a limestone stove.
The master bath has a two-headed, curb-free shower. There’s also a freestanding bath and a sophisticated vanity that offers a sink and quartz-covered makeup area. Additional circular skylights provide natural light. The floor in the master bathroom is a mix of large format quarry tiles and smaller square tiles with a matte finish.
The home is also divided from the main level into the kitchen, dining area and family room which are laid out in an open plan with expansive views of the backyard. The kitchen includes an island with a sink and seating for three. The top of the island is hickory rendered in a butcher block configuration.
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The fridge is a Sub-Zero, the cabinets are a mix of open shelving and lacquered maple cabinets. The hob and wall oven are both Blue Star. The counters are stainless steel with a ribbed navy blue edge. The dishwasher is a Bosch. A pantry offers more storage space. The floors on the lower level are cork and the dining table is custom made with an acacia wood top.
The unique appearance of the house attracts photographers – a phenomenon that has not escaped the design team. “I love the colors and the different finishes that we all developed together,” says Balodemas. “I like that you can’t classify it. I like how it’s laid out on the street.” Adds Shahsavarian, “It’s the anti-trend. You can’t point to anything like it.”
The insurance settlement ended up paying about 70 percent of the total project costs, which remain private. The homeowners paid the rest. The Rademachers are happy that the long journey has found a largely happy ending, but they are still reconciling the trauma of the past.
“We love the house and we love living here, but I don’t think you could build a house worth what we went through to get it,” says Jason.