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Exquisite Spaces...

And the Family of Craftsmen Who Create Them

Remember travel? We’d go to exotic places, bringing back art, sculpture and mementos of every shape and size. Once home, we’d then be challenged to find just the right way to display our finds.

One such couple journeyed to Oaxaca Mexico where artisans specialize in pottery, metalwork and carving, using techniques dating back hundreds of years. Their find: A series of Barro Negro (“black clay”) tiles hand fired and sculpted in a stone kiln buried in the earth. The idea was to hang the tiles – somehow – in a small, downstairs powder room they wanted to remodel. They wanted this tiny space to somehow glow with the unique character of Oaxaca, and provide a place to display their treasure.

Enter Lenny Berger of “HandyMensch Home Remodeling,” https://www.handymensch.com/. Lenny doesn’t take large projects or build additions; his forte is in mid-sized remodeling jobs that present creative challenges to home-owners – those projects that fit between your neighborhood handyman and a large general contractor. His team includes an electrician, carpenter, plumber, mason, custom cabinetmaker, tile expert, painters, countertop technicians and more. Surprisingly, this tiny space, when combined with artisan-crafted artistic elements, drew upon the expertise of all of them.

Because the clay tiles are carved through the surface, Lenny decided to mount them in a frame and backlight them. The finished piece would hang over the toilet and connect to a motion sensor so it would glow when someone entered the bathroom. To the side, a minimalist, floating countertop supported a vessel sink with a shelf below. The wall behind the sink used variegated stone tile with a rough textured surface, offsetting an elaborately carved mirror that was first deep cleaned, painted with gray primer then two coats of metallic silver paint and then distressed with black metallic paint to create an antique patina complementing the tiles.

While this sounds simple, a custom wood frame had to be designed to hold the clay tiles with the inside providing standoffs to allow for the routing of the back-lighting wire to each piece. Luckily the tiles had small holes on each side that could be used to attach to the back of the frame. To get the glow just right Lenny used metallic silver paint and LED strip lighting placed around the inside surface of each tile to get a consistent brightness.

The result? A grand prize Contractor of the Year Award (CotY) in the “residential bath under $25,000” category from the National Association of the Remodeling Industry in the Metro DC area, awarded February 5. It’s no small honor as this local NARI chapter annually receives more than 100 award entries from its most accomplished members.

Sharon Inetas of Sky Marble and Granite, sits on the association’s board of directors and on the awards committee, and has done several projects with Lenny. “NARI helps consumers to select good contractors and trade professionals,” she says. “It provides certification and education to make members more credible, and helps them keep up with new ideas and new technologies to help them run their businesses.”

Sky Marble and Granite has itself won numerous awards, including a “Contractors Choice” CotY awarded by contractor members to a trade associate that has made a significant contribution to the group’s professionalism. This year, Sky Marble and Granite entered in both kitchen and bathroom categories, including a kitchen in which they partnered with Lenny. In this latter project, Lenny and his extended team were able to build something beautiful that delicately negotiated common ground between the traditional sensibilities of a husband and his more modern wife. (See photos.) 

In Sharon’s view, “We’re like a family. It’s these special relationships that make the real difference in our industry.”  Her company couldn’t exist without the big jobs that come from large contractors like Toll Brothers, or from smaller craftsmen like Lenny who bring creativity and skill to every job, no matter how small.

What makes a project notable enough for a CotY, Sharon says, are “the innovative ideas that you come up with to make someone’s dream a reality, and the obstacles that you overcome. For the remodelers, designers, tradespeople – that’s the beauty of this organization. We have an immense pride and passion and genuinely care about what we do.” 

Angela Hubbard, executive director of NARI Metro DC says that being a trusted resource means that all members adhere to the code of ethics posted on its website (https://narimetrodc.org/). “We take this very seriously.”

The site is an effective resource for homeowners looking to remodel because it provides a searchable member directory broken down into locale and specialty to make it easy to find the right expert for any job. There’s even a tab on the website that lets homeowners put in details of their project that the association will forward to members who then reach out if they think the project is a good fit for them. And, unlike an Angie’s List or HomeAdvisor, members don’t pay to be recommended.

Angela says, “What's wonderful is when members can team up as Lenny has done with Sky Marble. They're able to work together to problem solve for a client and come up with creative and beautiful solutions.”

NARI Metro DC has renovated five houses through five different “Rebuild Together” groups in the last three years, for Make a Wish Foundation – working on home projects when travel wasn’t possible – and Dream On 3, which fulfills sports-related wishes for kids with chronic illnesses. It also supports the Alexandria Seaport Foundation’s apprenticeship program for at-risk youth, teaching them carpentry skills, life skills, and work skills. The 15-20 yearly graduates take internships with NARI members to select careers in the remodeling industry.

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