Our Modern DIY DC Condo Remodel: Designing a Space We Love 🏰
“This is why we live in DC!” says my boyfriend David, standing on the bedroom balcony of our newly renovated Dupont Circle condo, a minimalist-verging-on-brutalist structure overlooking the bustling energy of 17th street. It is clear he feels rejuvenated by the fact he never needs to leave his favorite 5-block radius in his hometown. He and I have spent the past six years dreaming up the reality of the place we now have together. We love sharing our experiences and craft put into creating our ideal home with our local friends and family — so with this piece, we hope to be able to share our experience with those who can’t see it in person.
Our DC condo renovation began with the search of our new home. Like most homebuyers, we had opinions of where we wanted our house to be, what we wanted it to look like, and the features we wanted it to have.
Location: We knew we wanted to live in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, walking distance to the metro, our offices, and central to the liveliness and excitement of the city.
Aesthetics: We definitely had to figure out how to communicate what we like and dislike regarding our tastes and how to meld them together.
At the point we were searching for a new home together, we each had our own places furnished with our own individual style.
- My style: I would describe my interior design tastes as Hollywood Regency with a contemporary twist (think luxe fabrics, lacquered finishes, mirrors, bold patterns, and minimalism).
- David’s style: His preferences are strictly modern, favoring crisp clean lines, minimalist touches, and a neutral color palette. In hindsight, we are very pleased with how our tastes came together.
Feature wish list:
- Fixer-upper: We wanted a place we could tear down and make our own.
- Space to entertain: Open floor plan, outdoor space, balcony, pool.
- Bedrooms/Bathrooms: Two bedrooms, more than 1 bathroom.
- Laundry: In unit laundry.
- Kitchen: Induction stove, ample counter space and storage.
- Parking spot: I require a parking spot because I’m a stubborn person and refuse to give up spontaneous road trips, being able to visit family on a whim, and my early morning figure skating lessons in the suburbs.
Finding our fixer-upper
Before we settled on this house, there was actually another house we found, became very attached to, and our offer was outbid (interesting experience trying to negotiate with an incarcerated seller, but that’s another story). Although we were devastated for a couple months, it obviously wasn’t meant to be because it paved opportunity for us to find our current place, and it’s been such a great experience.
Design and planning
David and I designed and executed the work ourselves, with help from our contractor Israel. By profession, I am a designer and David is an engineer, so it just worked out that our natural tendencies for how we approach and solve problems ended up complimenting the other very nicely. Generally, I drove the design-related aspects of the renovation. David was the magic behind bringing everything to life, from the tiny nuances of how things were implemented all the way through being on the ground managing the quality of the workmanship.
Step 1: 💥 Everything!
The first step was to gut the condo to remove everything we didn’t need, from walls, to kitchen cabinets and large appliances, flooring, and other fixtures. I was disappointed to learn that aggressively attacking a set of kitchen cabinets with a sledge hammer isn’t as satisfying as it is on TV, when the cabinets are solid wood with glass inserts instead of particle board.
As we removed the carpet from the upstairs, we discovered the original parquet underneath glued directly to the cement, which ended up being very labor intensive to remove. We found the downstairs hardwood flooring was glued with an even stronger adhesive to the cement, and as it was chiseled off the planks completely disintegrated and also pulled off the crumbling cement as it came up.
I was very insistent on having floors with a dark wood finish, a plank width of more than 4 inches, and with minimal grain and texture — little did I realize how visibly my blond hair and dust would contrast against the dark finish. We had gathered dozens of samples from local stores and online, such as Lumber Liquidators and many other flooring companies, but inevitably settled on the bamboo flooring from Cali Bamboo in Coffee wide plank because the quality of the product was far superior to the other click-together flooring options, it was available in the timeframe we needed for construction, and it was priced reasonably.
When we pulled apart the kitchen, we found a number of unpleasant surprises lurking behind the original late-1960’s harvest gold painted drywall. Although there were a number of challenges to work through with the kitchen, I would say some of the biggest were determining where to vent the negative intake vent, the placement of the electrical box, the recessed lighting, and choosing appliances that fit within the dimension of the cabinet options available while settling on the overall shape and layout.
Sink: The original sink was once in the very back corner of the kitchen, which is where the plumbing comes into the wall. We did not want the sink in the corner because of the placement of the electrical box and the options we had available for the stove and refrigerator. Additionally, our lazy susans in the kitchen are valuable pantry space. The plumbing has an elbow joint that runs down to the existing placement of the sink, but this limited us to what we could do in selecting kitchen cabinet options.
For kitchen cabinets, we both agreed we wanted a glossy white set of cabinets with a white mixed glass and stone backsplash. We considered a number of custom options, but opted to use Ikea’s Akurum kitchen system, which has since been replaced by the Sektion kitchen system. Ikea has great kitchen options for a fraction of the price as custom designed cabinetry, but because they come in standard sizes it was quite tricky and a bit of tight squeeze to configure our kitchen with the appliances we had in mind.
Using Ikea instead of going the custom route, we saved $30–120k based on the quotes we gathered for the materials alone. We are very happy with the quality, as all the cabinets have a nice soft close and a ton of other nice features. We ordered our granite countertops through Ikea’s 20% off yearly kitchen sale, which was a great deal. They were great about fitting to our oddly shaped back corner of the peninsula.
We selected the backsplash from a discount tile store, and when we went to order it they had just sold out of it permanently. We spent weeks trying to find something similar, and eventually found it at five times the price of the first one, but luckily the area we needed to cover was small so the difference in price wasn’t an outrageous splurge.
The recessed lighting in the ceiling was a challenge, as our ceilings are cement and had to keep a dropped ceiling if we were to keep recessed lighting. We opted to use a white-tone dimmable LED set of six, instead of the larger more dated set of four that were there before. We have these on a light switch panel with individual controls for the above cabinet lighting and the dining room filament bulbs, which are also dimmable. The under cabinet lighting is controlled by a light switch under the cabinets.
Our above cabinet lighted was a result of us trying to design for an awkward gap above the cabinets. We were forced to choose one of the two cabinet heights offered by Ikea, so we had to figure out how to make the unsightly top gap into a feature. We leveraged the top plug on the outlet shared by the microwave to be controlled by a switch on the global kitchen light panel. It’s a nice touch to be able to independently control each set of lighting in the kitchen, but also an extremely cost effective lighting solution, which is also easily replaceable.
Electric Box: We heavily considered moving the electrical box to the bathroom, but wanted to limit the scope of our renovation so instead we engineered a custom access door with a hinge to be visually flush with our backsplash.
Vent: A negative air intake vent was positioned above the microwave and kitchen cabinets. It was such a hinderance to what we were considering for the cabinetry configuration that it was worth it to reroute the vent to the kitchen ceiling for what it would buy us.
The original staircase in our house was a spiral staircase, but one of the previous owners was a woodworker and built a real set of stairs. Underneath the stairs there is a storage closet and our technology hub.
The traditional-style railing and decorative detailing along the stairs had to go. Our contractor bought raw steel and custom welded the railing together piece-by-piece right where it is standing and coated it in a matte-black finish.
Originally, we thought we could get away with sanding down each of the stairs, but realized the nails were sticking up slightly and there were some architectural challenges outstanding. We ended up replacing the risers and treads.
Super Secret Washing Machine
We actually weren’t originally allowed to have a washer and dryer because the old pipes aren’t equipped for it, but we found a way to make it work with an industrial wall mounted lint trap. I was originally super against the idea and was pretty nervous/terrified about the prospect of trying to sneak an entire washer and dryer into our building. If you know David, you’ll know he is a notorious rule breaker, and thus insisted upon having a washer and dryer as it would make our lives easier. As always, he ended up being so right, and everything worked out great. It’s super handy to have and we are now allowed to have our washer and dryer.
The upstairs hallway was originally equipped with a linen closet. We initially planned to remove the linen closet to extend the bathroom into the space, so we removed the closet. We then later came to the conclusion that our original plan of draining the washer/dryer through the shower drain would cause us to lose valuable closet space in the second bedroom so we reconstructed the hallway closet back into place to house a washer and dryer.
Given the age of our building, there is no way to easily vent a dryer to the outdoors as most dryers do. Our dryer uses condensation to dry the clothes, so it drains the water through a hose just as the washer does. The drain hoses run from the back of the washer and dryer into a drain pipe in the wall that connects to the U-shaped sink drain of the bathroom sink vanity on the other side of the wall.
Electrical hook up & drain
As you might expect, sink drains aren’t designed to drain washing machines, so at first few attempts at using our washing machine, the entire top floor of the condo flooded. We have since iterated and improved on our drain solution, and it’s in a pretty solid state. We made a small linen closet behind the washer dryer with another door on the other side of the closet wall.
Version 2.0 was a single-use lint-catching sock that fit over the end of the hose secured with a zip-tie that connects into the drain pipe. Currently, if I had to guess, I’d say we are on about version 11.6 of the drain filtration system, which now consists of a fully fledged lint removal system that filters out the lint on its own before it reaches the drain system, and we have to clean out the lint trap every 50 washes or so. We haven’t had to snake the drain yet. (fingers crossed🤞🏼)
We have also outfitted the pipe and drain system with moisture sensor alarms to signal the overflow warning in time to catch it before it creates damage and soaks all our linens.
The room felt much smaller than it was before we added furniture, so we took a couple measures to help it feel a bit more roomy. With the closet, the original sliding door mirrors felt dated and the visual line of where the doors meet the ceiling felt constrained. We used the Ikea Pax closet system wardrobe doors as sliding closet doors because of the design and price tag. We fashioned the armoire sliding door tracks to a wall mount we built for them (similar to this Ikea hack tutorial) and welded a track with the left over steel scraps from the stair railing and mounted it the floor to help guide the doors from the bottom.
We leveraged the Ikea Pax door hack solution for the closets in both bedrooms. Although the closet in the second bedroom is wider, the closet widths are conveniently the same width of the two available sizes the doors come in. For the second bedroom, we also installed an actual Pax wardrobe in addition to the closet for extra storage space.
We painted the walls with the Coventry Gray color by Benjamin Moore. I selected this color out of a lineup of about 20 other medium grays. I painted all the walls in my apartment at the time comparing the shades all against each other trying to find the perfect one. It wasn’t until after the fact that I learned about that color’s popularity on the internet and found that there are many other resources and examples available of how others have paired this color with their decor (here, here, here, and here).
Recessed TV Mount
We recessed a TV mount into the wall to help address the concerns about the room being small. We weren’t confident we would even be able to get a king size bed into the room, but assuming once we’d be able to actually get the bed into the room, we knew there wouldn’t be much space in the walkway between the foot of the bed and the wall. Once the furniture was moved in, we found there was much more room than we had anticipated.
We removed most of this wall to build a reinforcing wooden structure to provide the right support for the TV mount. The mount is recessed into the wall so the TV sits completely flat to the wall like a picture frame. We use the Harmony system with the TV to use voice commands to turn the TV on/or, change the channel, and toggle between the Amazon Firestick and Chromecast.
David refers to bedroom #2 as my closet. He has his clothes in the master bedroom and my clothes are in the second bedroom. The bedroom isn’t really my closet, as it also has a desk and a larger second balcony.
We originally had a futon instead of a desk but given that it’s a small room it didn’t fit very well. There is also a large armoire against one of the walls. We also have a large couch downstairs and so a desk ended up being a much more useful use of the space than the futon.
Upstairs | Full Bathroom
The sink installed in the bathroom when we purchased the house had a very odd sink faucet that was designed for a kitchen, not a bathroom. Other features included were the original dark blue 1960’s wall plate and behind the mirror was the original 1960’s striped wall paper. There was also dual medicine cabinets on both sides of the walls facing the sink which we removed.
We opted to use the Ikea Godmorgan floating vanity and installed under cabinet lighting wired to a wall switch and in-drawer outlets. We added an additional outlet behind the vanity during construction to support this. The tile backsplash matches the ceramic tile used for the floor and shower.
Downstairs | Half Bathroom
We replaced the shimmery sea foam floor tile with the same tiling used in the upstairs bathroom. We also replaced the sink with the same Ikea floating vanity sink as the upstairs bathroom, but in the narrower size and with the glossy white finish instead of the wood.
We wanted our living room to be comfortable, functional, and a great space for accommodating and entertaining guests. The couch we chose was the Cloud modular sectional from ZGallerie. The couch is very comfortable and can be configured into a giant bed shape by putting the ottoman in the middle and one of the long ends on the side.
We were challenged by the walls that stick out on either corner which we weren’t able to remove, and have a 8" gap between the wall and the couch. We were worried about the couch eating up the whole room, but we took a risk that it might not work and it turned out the be the perfect fit.
When we moved in, I came with a lot of furniture that I already owned, such as the dining room table, the living room tables, the TV credenza, and some other stuff. We chose the lighting fixture specifically for this room and used filament bulbs on a dimmer switch. The orb shape matches the string of tiny lanterns that garnish our balcony railing.
It was difficult envisioning how much space the dining room table would take when planning the optimal seating balance between the kitchen and the dining room. We had originally considered an overhang on the countertop of the kitchen peninsula with seating, but decided against it because the dining room seating was sufficient.
We have two balconies, one downstairs right off of the dining room and one upstairs from the second bedroom. The upstairs balcony is almost twice as long as the downstairs balcony because we have the rooftop pool on that side of us instead of neighbors.
We installed the IKEA Runnen click-together outdoor wood tiling because the concrete texture of the floor hurts when you walk on it with bare feet.
Our unit is 1 of 6 units in our 185-unit condo building which have two floors within the unit and two bedrooms. Our unit opens right to the rooftop pool.
Favorite House Features
Smart home setup
We use Amazon Echo Dots to control everything that we are able to. Our building was constructed in 1968, before neutral wires were used in light switches. This means we can’t use smart switches and are limited to smart home products that already have smart capabilities built in.
- Amazon Echo: We have four Amazon Echos, one in each bedroom upstairs and two downstairs.
- Smart bulbs: We have a set of Hue bulbs in each bedroom upstairs and a set of Lifx bulbs downstairs. We prefer the Lifx over the Hue because they don’t rely on a hub and the colors on the Lifx are much more vibrant and they dim much lower. Once you dim the Hue bulbs to about 20–30% they don’t go any lower, but the Lifx bulbs are much better.
- ITTT & Zapier: We have created triggers such as “Alexa trigger party mode”
- Harmony: Alexa will turn our TV on/off, pause/play/rewind 15 seconds television, switch from DVR to on demand, to Netflix, Amazon Firestick, Chromecast. We also have it configured to use our soundbar/subwoofer, and will play Spotify through the speakers instead of on the Echo Dot.
- Touch faucet: Definitely very handy, but at the same time I find myself tapping other sinks expecting them to turn on. Also, when the batteries die the whole faucet stops working.
- Under cabinet lighting, above cabinet lighting, and hidden outlets: We did not include any electrical outlets or switches in the visible line of the backsplash. For our above cabinet lighting, we used a light strip that plugs into the outlet used by the microwave, which is controlled by the kitchen light panel. To control the under cabinet lighting we added a switch under the cabinets. There is a continuous strip of outlets running under each cabinet, and another strip running on the outward facing part of the peninsula. We installed a button in the counter by the sink for the garbage disposal instead of having a switch on the wall.
- Induction cooktop: Heats up really fast, and it’s clutch for getting a nice sear on a steak and putting it in the oven in the cast iron pan to cook it through. We have a divided oven underneath the cooktop stove, which is great for cooking two things at different temperatures. The divider can also be removed if you need to cook something large like a turkey.
The radar is always on for new projects, opportunities, and investment properties. Additionally, there’s always a constant fuel driving the planning and inspiration behind what will be the next bigger, better, more badass abode, i.e. “La Casa de Lavid Wogers 2.0."
Being very passionate about real estate, we both got our real estate licenses last spring. I look forward to connecting with others and making an impact in the community through bolder challenges and opportunities that lay ahead.