Plaster-Weld: A Remodel in the Spanish Tradition

Plaster detailing seamlessly blends new and old as an architect resolves a poorly organized floor plan.
—by Jerri Holan

Reprinted with permission of Fine Homebuilding, September 1996.

The great Oakland, California, fire of 1991 started a mini building boom in the Bay Area. But not everybody who lost a home built a new one. Some folks chose to take the insurance money and but older places in nearby neighborhoods. My clients, Lauren Leimbach and Leon Sompolinsky, decided that this approach was right for them. They liked the charm of older homes, and they wanted to be in a part of town that still had its landscaping in tact.

Their search turned up the almost perfect house. Built in the 20s, their new home is a well-preserved example of the eclectic Spanish style that flourished in California during the 20s and 30s. Its original flavor was intact, with wrought-iron work, leaded windows, a painted wood beam ceiling and a third floor veranda. Unfortunately, the house had a befuddled floor plan.

First, the 20s floor plan reflected 20s activities, when meals were prepared in virtual seclusion behind closed doors. The kitchen and dining room were separate, connected only by a doorway, and they were a half-floor level below the living room. With the ascent of cooking as a social activity, contemporary couples almost always want the kitchen, the dining area, and the living room closely connected.

As if to punctuate the irony of the misplaced kitchen, a long narrow study occupied the space adjacent to the to the living room. The two rooms were isolated from one another by a wall of bookcases in the study. Dimly lit and awkwardly proportioned, the study was a kitchen/dining room just waiting to happen. The space even had a pair of French doors leading to the backyard patio.

Freeing the space occupied by the original kitchen would make a perfect place for a guest bedroom. And we could add a shower to the little half-bath off the old kitchen, creating a guest suite without altering the footprint of the original house.

Plaster detailing ties the new work to the old house. The layout of the new kitchen/dining room divides the former study almost exactly in half lengthwise. To emphasize this division, we placed a beam across the ceiling at the imaginary boundary between the kitchen and the dining room. The beam serves no structural purpose. It’s there to stake out the border between the rooms and to provide a prominent stage for the curved plaster corbels that tie the beam to the walls. Architectural features such as the rounded corbels in hand-tooled plaster occur throughout the house. They provided us with a rich heritage of detail to duplicate in the remodeled rooms.

For example, the wall between the dining room and the living room includes an arched passage that echoes the original archway in the entry hall. The new wall is 2 ft. thick, providing us with ample room for plastered niches within the new arch. A wall this thick gives the impression of adobe masonry, which was the intent of the original builders of the house. Like the original builders, we made the new wall out of studs, sheathing and plaster. What’s not apparent in this remodel is that our contractor, Bashland Builders, used a variety of plaster techniques to achieve the wall finish.

to patch the original plaster in the living room and to create the arched passageway, they used traditional three coat plaster. This process requires a solid substrate followed by a layer of expanded metal lath and then three applications of plaster. this traditional way of applying plaster is labor intensive, but it’s the best method for matching original work and for creating curved surfaces.

The crew used a modern, timesaving bonding agent to speed the plastering of the dining room walls. Before applying a skim coat of plaster to the old walls, they primed the walls with Plaster-Weld®, a bonding agent made by Larsen Products Corp. (800-633-6668). This product ensured that the new plaster bonded thoroughly to the painted surface of the old plaster.

The ceilings of the kitchen and dining room were made with blue board and skim-coated plaster. Blue board is essentially drywall with a porous paper surface designed to grip plaster. The blue board gives the plaster its strength, and a single 1/4in. thick troweled-on layer of plaster provides the hand-worked texture.

A recycled window overlooks the backyard in a bay window bump-out. It was Leon’s idea to reuse the old window. It had to come out of the old kitchen when we put in a pair of French doors to the backyard, and because it came from the shaded side of the house, the window was still in pretty good shape. The downside? The window was warped, and it was too tall to fit in a conventionally framed wall. The window was to go over the sink, which meant that its sill had to be at least 8 in. above the finished counter height.

Contractor Jeff Rexford and his crew placed the new header beside the old rim joist instead of under it. That move saved us the depth of the header, giving us the 4 in. or so of wiggle room that made space for the window. Fortunately the joists were running in the same direction as the header, so Jeff’s crew didn’t have to lop off a bunch of joists while temporarily supporting them. Accommodating the warped window meant that Rexford and crew had to plane the window and set the stops accordingly.

The window fits into a 2×12 box supported by four plywood brackets equally spaced below the windowsill. A row of terra-cotta barrel tiles, which match those atop the house, cap the bump-out, and the sides and bottom are stuccoed to match the rest of the house.

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