The clouds were gathering on the late-summer morning, and raindrops started to patter around Bill and Pamela Jones house in the Greenleaf subdivision of the Tallgrass neighborhood.
The front yard of the house, on a cul-de-sac off 21st and Webb, already stood out from its neighbors, lushly landscaped with sleek fountains and evergreens. But it’s not until you walk into the house that it lifts out of Wichita to a whole new level.
Bill Jones started to reveal the surprise in the vaulted family room by pulling back retractable glass walls that separate the family room from a large living and dining room that the Joneses refer to as the lanai.
With the flip of a switch, wall-spanning shades rose on three sides of the lanai, allowing the leafy backyard, koi pond and swimming pool to rush into the space, uniting much of the whole first floor of the house with the outdoors.
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A light rain started to fall, but the Joneses were cozy and dry, breathing in the outdoor air, feeling the breeze, grinning at the beauty of being able to live as few do in the non-tropical plains of Kansas.
“This room is actually outside,” Pamela Jones said of the lanai, though it does share the same roof as the rest of the house. The lanai contains a built-in grill, a long dining room table, a firepit and seating areas – all done in outdoor fabrics and materials, though you can’t tell it. A European heat-pump system provides heating and cooling to help make the outdoor area comfortable.
“We wanted to bring the outside in and the inside out so when you open it, the outside comes in, and when you close it ... it’s all interior,” Pamela Jones said. When the shades in the lanai are down, “you can’t see through. It’s very private in here.” And 95 percent of the outdoor air and light is blocked from coming through the screens.
“We want to use this as much as we can, because it’s so enjoyable and fun,” Pamela Jones said of the lanai. We Wichitans can’t roll back the car sunroof or open the windows in the house all that much of the year because of the extremes in weather, but the Joneses think their lanai is weatherized enough to stretch the limits and be used most of the year with the screens up. Even as it rained, light moisture was visible on the floor only about a foot into the lanai.
The project’s genesis
The elaborate remodeling of the back of the Joneses’ house started, as these things do, with one innocent discovery.
“We had seen the movable glass walls when we were in Florida, and we decided we wanted to have those in Wichita,” Pamela Jones said.
One thing leads to another.
“Then whenever I was outside I would get bitten up horribly all the time. So my husband said we have to put up some screens that are movable so we can shut it down. We had a porch but we wanted it larger, and then we wanted it to have big openings, and then we wanted it to open and close, and so that turned into the lanai.”
They decided to remove the back of the first floor of the house, adding the glass walls to the kitchen and the family room where solid walls used to be, and allowing access from both rooms to the lanai. That led to remodeling both the rooms as well, especially the family room. The Joneses ended up vaulting the family room’s ceiling, tearing out a wall that had a fireplace in it and replacing it with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the swimming pool, and enlarging the one interior wall of the family room while converting it to natural stone. Travertine marble tiles from Peru were placed on the floor of the lanai, the family room and the kitchen.
“When you open up the glass doors, it makes it look like it’s all one space,” Pamela Jones said. Adding to the impression is the crucial fact that the tracks for the retractable glass doors are in the ceiling, not the floor.
Which only helped make the whole job an engineering feat. Project manager Greg Rupp of Nies Construction said it would be something for him to brag about – if only he could explain it to anybody.
The whole massive roof leading from the family room through the lanai is engineered, he said; the headers that normally are above openings to outside doors are all hidden within the roof, “so that right below the ceiling you’re seeing outside.” Skylights in the ceiling required beams rather than rafters, also enclosed within the roof. Then there are the steel I-beams required to hold up each glass panel making up the retractable walls: Each panel is 10 feet high, 4 feet wide and 400 pounds. Putting the tracks for them in the ceiling required absolute rigidity. The company that makes the glass panels is in Pennsylvania, so Rupp and his crew had to communicate long-distance to arrange all the details, becoming good acquaintances in the process.
In addition, in the kitchen, the glass walls have to turn a corner so that when they are open and stacked up they don’t obstruct the view. Rupp ended up placing the tracks in a box shape in the ceiling to accomplish the turning of the corner; Bill Jones still has to stop and figure out how exactly to follow the tracks when he’s opening the doors, maneuvering them as if he were working a puzzle.
A tricky project
“Everything was very, very tricky,” Pamela Jones said of the project. The concept work took a year; the construction took nine months, during which a temporary wall had to be built to hold up the second floor of the house and seal the house from the elements.
The neighborhood had to live with the project, too – on the day that the wooden beams arrived on semis, Star Lumber figured out the only way to get them to the house was to move each of them sideways down the street on a forklift, Rupp said. “They fit between all the trees and shrubs and things.” The neighbors sat outside and watched the spectacle for hours.
Joe Gross of Designer Views did the landscaping and found that shipments of plant material for the yard didn’t always mesh with the construction schedule, forcing some plants to be hilled in the front yard until they could be planted.
Pamela Jones is an interior designer (Interiors by Pamela), and Bill Jones’ business is insurance. So it was kind of a surprise that the two of them designed the new addition to their house together – he did the architecture, and she did the interiors, meticulously choosing the furnishings, custom-designing a rug and a new front door, spending months, for example, hunting down someone who could translate a long, narrow vertical box into a firepit with exacting specifications.
“Everything we did was like that,” Pamela Jones said. “It was a huge project. It was something else.”
Commanding attention on the stone wall in the remodeled family room is a huge portrait of Pamela, the work of a Colorado artist who accomplished it with nary a brushstroke — just drips of paint. The portrait rises with the press of a button on a remote to reveal a large-screen TV.
It turns out, as the Joneses have started to live indoor-out, that all the weather-resistant fabrics and materials that went into the furnishings in the lanai were not technically necessary, as the elements mainly stay outside. “We didn’t know if the rain would come in,” Pamela said, “so we had to do all outdoor fabrics.”
After experiencing the lanai over the summer, they now look forward to a change in season.
“Each season is going to be interesting because each season is going to be new,” Pamela said. “Now we’re getting into fall, we’ll see how that feels. It’s a bit of an adventure, in a good way.”
Bill Jones steps back to frame the koi pond within one of the openings in the lanai, gazes out and smiles broadly.
“Just like a picture postcard.”