Redesign of First Avenue loft preserves view and open floor plan

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Barbara Johnstone believed the stars had aligned when the Downtown loft she had admired years earlier came on the market at just the right moment. But it took designer Kevin Kulesa to make it the home she had wished for.

"Kevin came over and started literally thinking outside the box," she said. "It didn't occur to me to change the box."

The box she's referring to is one at the center of this nearly 2,000-square-foot unit on First Avenue. In 1997, developer Eve Picker turned this early 1900s paper warehouse into eight loft condominiums, each with exposed brick walls, heavy beams spanning high ceilings and postcard views of the Monongahela River and Station Square.

To preserve that view and an open floor plan, Ms. Picker placed the kitchen and bathroom in a central box, with the kitchen facing toward the river and the bath facing the bedroom on the city side. It was a fairly practical arrangement -- except when the owner entertained.

"You had to enter the bathroom from the bedroom," Ms. Johnstone said.

She found Mr. Kulesa, whose Ross kitchen won the small category of the PG's Renovation Inspiration Contest in 2012, through his mother-in-law, a neighbor in this building. Ms. Johnstone wanted a bathroom with easier access for her guests and a kitchen with a functional island. During the loft conversion, contractors had left space for a kitchen work table but no way to run gas or electrical lines to an island. Ms. Johnstone, a Carnegie Mellon University linguistics professor who specializes in Pittsburghese, knew it needed fixed. She just didn't know how.

Mr. Kulesa had the solution: cut a 3-inch-deep slot in the polished concrete floor. Then he began creating a space that is so much more than a static box.

"I like open space and natural light. I like to put things in that maybe don't belong but have some character to them," he said.

In the renovated kitchen, a cantilevered canopy juts out above a 12- by 4-foot island topped with ECO composite counters and a gas cooktop. Unique design elements include sustainable bamboo cabinetry by Rick Riberich of Custom Wood Products and a glass backsplash painted bright red.

Longtime Home & Garden readers might recognize the eye-popping yet economical backsplash from Mr. Kulesa's own award-winning kitchen in 2012. It certainly caught the eyes of contest judges, who chose this kitchen redo as a finalist in this year's Renovation Inspiration Contest. Mr. Kulesa entered Ms. Johnstone's kitchen in the large residential category (over $50,000). But there's much more to like here than just the cool kitchen.

Check out what Mr. Kulesa, Mr. Riberich and contractor John Paul Lucas did with what had been a dark, claustrophobic bath on the back side of the kitchen. While keeping the ventilation ducts and sink and bath drains in the same locations (saving money), they moved the door away from the bedroom, exposed the lofty ceiling and created a functional bath with a standing shower and a soaking tub.

It perfectly fit Ms. Johnstone's desire for an urban loft with a slight Asian accent, and it's even better than the one she saw in the newspaper 17 years ago.

"I thought, 'Someday, I'm going to live in that building.' But I never thought it would be this exact unit," she said.

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• Custom Wood Products — cabinetry: 412-271-8427,

• John Paul Lucas — contractor: 412-600-4625,

• Kevin Kulesa — designer: 412-721-3752,

Kevin Kirkland: or 412-263-1978.


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