John and Connie Dennis spent $350,000 remodeling their 1980s west-side home. For that they got a truly great “great room,” a top-to-bottom new kitchen, energy-efficient windows, heating and cooling, and even moved the front entrance and gave it a classy alcove.
But it was the view, revealed by raising the ceiling from just under eight feet to nearly 10, that took their home to an entirely new realm.
They now enjoy spectacular views of the city, framed by the Santa Catalina and Rincon mountains. And thanks to good fortune – the county bought acres behind them as an open-desert preserve – their unfenced property appears more like a desert estate that extends indefinitely.
For as long as many Tucsonans can remember, the long and low look dominated local residential design, whether variations on the ageless rambling ranch styles popular throughout the area or the square miles of slab-sided, earth-tone boxes that sprang up on the booming east and northwest sides of town from the 1970s on. Large overhangs on the plain boxes served a purpose, creating some protection from solar heat gain, but they further worsened the cramped feel created by relatively low ceilings.
The Dennis home had even more to lose from the standard-height ceilings than many of the houses built in the 1980s. The dwelling had belonged to his parents and offered an amazing view — if they stepped outside. It wasn’t visible from inside because of low windows in the rear wall and the standard-height ceilings, which extended outside as a low patio.
Enhancing the view wasn’t even on the couple’s initial list of goals when they decided to remodel. The home was more than 25 years old, John Dennis said, and its sunken living room, in particular, stuck out as being from another era. Eliminating it also fit in with their desire to make their home safer, as they edge toward retirement, to age in-place. The relatively narrow walkway between the sunken area and the dining room wall was also a safety concern.
Improved energy efficiency was another priority. The aging HVAC system was in need of replacement, and the single-pane, metal-frame windows weren’t helping in terms of energy conservation or aesthetics.
Lastly, there were what Dennis called “a couple of foibles” that they wanted to correct. “We wanted to move the front door because when you walked in you didn’t see the view. You were greeted with a view of the furnace-room door.”
The couple hired a remodeling company. “They had some ideas,” Dennis said, obviously pulling a punch. “The ideas weren’t great, and all I saw was the bottom line, and it was too great. And to meet the budget they wouldn’t replace the single-pane, aluminum-frame windows. We parted ways with that company.”
They considered selling and moving to a home more to their liking, going so far as to call a real estate agent. The message was disheartening, Dennis said — they couldn’t get enough for the house to buy what they wanted.
“She came out and walked through the place and said, ‘This place needs a lot of work, but I can’t touch the place for anything near what you want to pay,’” Dennis recalled. Instead, she suggested a contractor they could work with to get what they wanted by remodeling the house.
That was a turning point.
When that contractor, who no longer does residential remodeling, saw the view from the patio he told them they ought to start there and work their way back. The contractor suggested architect Leo Katz and interior designer Tamara Scott-Anderson of Contents Interiors. The ideas and the chemistry with the new team worked well, Dennis said. “We’re still friends.”
Unlike many remodeling projects, space wasn’t what they needed. The 2,900-square-foot home grew just 100 square feet in the remodeling, and that was only because they enclosed a former Arizona room.
While they didn’t spread out, they did move up.
Working with Katz, the decision was made to remove the old roof for the area of the house that would make up a great room — joining the spaces of the old kitchen, dining room and living room — and replacing the old roof with a pitched steel roof that continued over the patio. That involved tearing the central core of the house down to the slab and raising the ceiling in that area.
Oddly, the most dramatic result came from something that isn’t visible. The great room’s new higher ceiling is supported by thick, laminated wooden beams — known as Glulams — that ride on the walls surrounding the great room. The bright and spacious effect of the higher ceiling, combined with the openness of the nearly continuous glass wall and the patio’s new, higher exposed beam ceiling, is dramatic. The stunning views are now visible from nearly anywhere in the house, other than the bedrooms and bathrooms.
Seven-foot high, and nearly wall-to-wall, Pella wood-frame sliding doors and windows on the back wall of the house also enhance the view. The patio now has a higher roof — supported by three simple columns, each made up of four four-by-four steel posts with a rust patina finish.
In keeping with the original set of goals, the project eliminated the sunken living room, replacing it with a level faux-finish concrete floor by Rogo’s Finishing Touch throughout – including onto the patio.
The original fireplace, in the middle of the side wall of the former living room, was removed and replaced with an efficient gas-fired unit in a corner of the great room. The new continuous floor blends that space with the rest of the great room.
The new kitchen is also more open with a granite-topped island replacing a hanging row of cabinets.
New windows, double pane on most of the house and triple-pane thermal windows on the side with the most sun exposure, help with energy efficiency. A high-efficiency natural gas HVAC unit provided the other half of that solution but required the couple to introduce gas service to the home. That would also turn out to be a benefit when they switched to a gas stovetop in the kitchen.
The bedrooms remained mostly the same beyond window upgrades and the replacement of an aging Jacuzzi-style bathtub with a walk-in shower in the master bathroom.
Other less visible improvements include a tankless gas water heater and recirculating hot water system.
The home’s former formal dining room was converted to an entertainment room, adjoining and opening up on the great room.
And while the remodeling was expensive, enough to buy another house without their view, he said the result was virtually a new home, and one that is not overbuilt for the neighborhood.