Spring Home Design: Everything’s looking up in this lightened, opened and expanded Exposition Heights home

FILLING IN THE BLANKS of this story’s “before” will require imaginative leaps into thin air, because substantial components of the roomy, light, life-altering “after” now exist where once there was only sky.

Lily bought this sweet 1,800-square-foot split-level in Exposition Heights (nestled northeast of University Village) in 2002, after landing her first job out of college. It was the right size at the right time, and it worked well … at the time. But then (now-husband) James moved in, and then they got Penny the pup, and then they had their first child. The basement ADU (accessory dwelling unit), once used as a rental, filled with the stuff of a growing family — “glorified storage space,” Lily says.  

Time and life were changing. And space was shrinking. Especially with the impending arrival of baby No. 2.

“It was too tight,” Lily says. “We tried to buy, and it was crazy at the time, and we decided we really liked our location, so we thought maybe it’s a good investment to try to remodel.”

Given the tiny lot — and a gigantic, officially designated “exceptional” cedar in the front yard — there was nowhere to go but up.

“We knew immediately that we couldn’t touch that tree,” says architect Allison Hogue of Floisand Studio, who worked with intern architect Sam Arellano and Plum Projects LLC.

Everything else, though, blossomed and flourished through thoughtful touches, starting with the tricky hidden entry and ending, spectacularly, with five distinct elevations (the unstuffed ADU, where Lily’s parents now live; the new garage; the main floor; the new family room above the new garage; the all-new bedroom level) and a gorgeous, grounding, relocated central staircase that’s as exceptional as the towering tree outside.

That tricky, skinny side entry (“Most people mistook the entrance to the ADU as the main entrance,” Hogue says) moved to a clear-as-day, “right this way” streetside niche. The old shadow-casting garage disappeared, creating a sunny, south-facing play space in the backyard. The totally redesigned, open main floor now flows with cascading light from all directions: through a skylight over the stairs, floor-to-ceiling windows, clerestories — and even one special doggy lookout at precise Penny height.

“The split-level feel of the house stayed,” Hogue says. “There’s a little bit of geometry, calculations to make all the different floor heights work. We ended up doubling the size of the house.”

And infinitely improving its function — in important, tangible before-and-after ways.

“One of the big things I like is the open plan on the main floor,” James says. “Before, the house was kind of chopped up, but now we can be in the kitchen, and the kids are playing, and we can still talk to them. And before, for the backyard, you had to go to the front door to get there, but now having the slider, for the dog and for the kids, that’s a nice thing, too. It’s more connected in that respect.”

“We definitely utilize the whole house now,” says Lily.

And not a minute too soon. (You know: COVID.)

“It’s worked well for us, especially since the pandemic,” Lily says. “We’re not on top of each other. We’re both working remotely, and so we have to be on calls, and also, with my parents moving in, we wouldn’t have had the space for them the way the house was before.

“We’ve been able to spend so much time here — a lot more time than we expected.”