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From flimsy, kitch shack to comfy designer treehouse apartment for under 8000 euros

5 August, 2010 (19:53) | Living in Europe | By: admin

On March 15th we got the keys to our fixer-upper near the beach. Here are some BEFORE photos. It looked like a mad chemical laboratory to me, with only one redeeming factor; it’s near the beach:

1 & 2) Odd, miniscule, labyrinthian rooms; tangerine orange, faded tissue pink, and one splotchy blue and gray room, destined to become my personal royal chamber (with adjacent covered terrace with beach view that will serve as my writing spot and music station). … that is, once we add a door to connect it to the house … 3 & 4) These small, rusty, semi functional windows (Mark’s side) will soon be replaced by big glass doors to the sunny terrazza in the two rooms on “Mark’s side” of the apartment, pictured above.

1) We are leaving the bathroom for last because it has interesting tile and the room itself is larger than the original kitchen. At least until after summer we’ll use this funky but functional one. Eventually we will put in a jacuzzi and do a major rearrangement of everything from horrible existing fluorescent light fixture, to the obnoxious and non functional oversize heating towel rack, to yanking out a bidet sandwiched in the corner and of no practical use. We have grown attached to the cracked but interesting tiles that came with the house, so hopefully we’ll find either an attractive Islamic tile or else maybe a Sicilian tile. We might splurge on our bathroom remodel, because it is such an important part of one’s daily life. 2) This tiny tangerine room will soon be made into a much larger rumpus room with oversize bed and lots of pillows. It is officially Mark’s room in which his closet and personal things belong. My side of the house has wonderful morning light, his side has great afternoon sun. My formerly walled up room has one “luxury” feature which makes me really happy; a full wall of closets with full length mirrors on 2 of the doors. 3) This ugly, Franco era building blocks most of our beach view, but I’m sure we never would have been able to buy our place for 149 thousand euros if that building were not there. My fantasy is that someday an extreme anti Franco regime survivor will blow it up… 4) There is actually a room (now my bedroom) behind Mark (in foreground) which at that time had no door to it. At that time the only access was through the mauve pink hallway/terrace from the den.

1) My little slice of heaven; the view from my writing spot, taken with a telefoto lens 2) our kitchen used to be walled in, but now it has become an “American Style” kitchen by simply knocking out a wall and extending the kitchen counter. 3) Our loyal and efficient team of workers.

1) My writing spot before paint job. 2) My writing corner seen at night from the street below looks like a bordello. I hope to keep that Raymond Chandler vibe; I find the pink lampshade mysterious and suggestive.

1) Mark’s temporary office. 2) Love in the ruins – Mark hanging out with the family in the future rumpus room a few days before the remodel begins.

About 3 week into our funky stay, our crew showed up so we had to move back to Gracia for about 2 months.


Our French door frames were delivered the “old world” European style; hoisted up the side of the building with a rope:

All these years of living in Spain, documenting the sounds and images of how resourceful Catalan workers are, I have endless footage and sound bytes of happy Catalan workers using obsolete machines and outdated tools, which fascinated me our first few years living here … But now, a few years later we have become “one of them”, meaning we are the boss who gives orders, chooses materials, makes it all happen.

I can’t imagine how couples can live in a place while its being renovated. I can see how many marriages would crumble while they try to live a normal life as their walls are being knocked down and their home invaded by strangers. At least we’re not that naive; we never would have taken this project on if it was our only roof or if we couldn’t easily afford the mortgage. Thankfully we have our quiet home to retire to in Gracia, a simple 10 minute bus ride away (20 minutes on a bike). I imagine the noise, intrusion of workers, and ensuing communication break-down could be hard to overcome, no matter how much love flows through a relationship.

We were very lucky that our friend Isi took on this job because he’s not only efficient and capable, but he implements his own ideas to make our life easier once we move in. And he’s brutally honest, unwilling to charge more than the basic costs for material and for his wrecking crew. He is always thinking of our interests, even if we’re not there to direct. For example, it was his idea to get the electric blinds. “Why bother getting those manual blinds you have to struggle with just to let the light in when the mechanical ones are only 200 euros more expensive, which he (rightly) convinced us was the way to go. Now we can raise or lower the blinds (in both rooms with French doors) with a simple remote control, not having to even bother to get up from bed to raise or lower it. He also made the executive decision to install lights outside on Mark’s terrace “in case we ever want to play cards out there” and he not only fixed all our faulty electrical outlets, but he added lots of easy access electrical sockets in every room on most walls and in Mark’s future office he installed a strip for 4 outlets, which he also did in my future office.

Here’s a short video clip showing Isi at work. He is very intense, direct. capable and focused. He is a skilled and talented craftsman, which is evident in all his work.

Isi has been our friend for over 15 years now. All these years his girlfriend Cristina has been my loyal friend, and until recently we only knew Isi as Cristina’s boyfriend who we only saw when invited to their house, but this remodel has given us a newfound insight, love and respect for him. He was able to accomplish in slightly over 2 months and only working 2 to 3 days a week that which would take a more typical crew at least 6 to 8 months. He works intensely and wholeheartedly, always keeping our interests at the forefront.

Which brings me to … if you go back and look at the very first photo of this blog, you will see a long, pink hallway which was originally the only way to get to the room destined to be my very own. I expect to enter a cruisey but prolific phase of my artistic development once we settle in. After so many years of compromise, living in a glorified loft in Gracia full of random disruptions and no real space to call my own, I feel I deserve my own room with a door I can close, with adjacent creative enclosed terrace that can now only be entered by going through my room. Isi constructed a low wall with sliding windows so I can still visually connect with the rest of the house from my work space unless I choose to close my curtains. For the first time since moving here to Spain I have my very own private chamber and adjacent workspace. Most people take this for granted, but I never will do so again; its a great feeling to close myself in my room allowing me to focus and/or avoid the world at large…
Mark looking into my future mini studio area through the sliding glass window. (compare this with the firts thumbnail photo in this blog, before I separated my work space.)

This is where my future simple protools music studio will go; I’ll still use our mega studio in Gracia, but plan to do most of my composing in my stripped down studio with limited palette. Then, If I want to or need to add more unusual vintage MLV sounds to a track I can simply bring it on a mini disc to Gracia, plug it into the mega protools studio and add PIGSHARK STUDIO sounds. In Gracia, we have a set-up that is dauntingly complete, complex, modern, expensive…like a ferrari. But at this stage in my artistic career I want to get back to basics (piano compositions mainly). I look forward to once again living and breathing music, reintegrating it into my daily creative routine … writing music for the joy of it, with no specific goals in mind. I will join the ranks of all our composers (over 90 composers on our payroll these days) and submit my tracks to and have Mark approve or block my tracks, like any other composer. I look forward to writing limited palette compositions that even I can mix with no help.


1) At the top of this long rope you can see Mark’s tiny head waiting for the door frame 2) Mark helped get the door frame up, but we cleared out shortly thereafer. 3) The VERY FIRST hole … soon there will be no wall here at all, because we had to move the rumpus room wall over to make space for our huge oversize bed (the biggest bed available in Bcn), due to arrive in a few weeks.

1) This tiny window will be replaced by a big glass double door 2) This is the point where we begin to ask ourselves; what are we doing? 3) Seeing our cherished new beach pad reduced to ruins was tough psychologically… So much emotion went into the actual purchase, we were almost sad to see the old, tacky faux meth lab look disappear to rubble.

Neither Mark nor I had ever imagined we would buy a place and remodel it. Not in this lifetime.That’s the type of thing our mom’s do – my mom especially is famous for turning every home she’s ever lived into an original, classy villa. The house I was raised in started as a simple 2 story tract house in the hills of Sherman Oaks but by the time I was a teenager and moving out, she had transformed it into a spacious Italian villa, adding balconies, marble floors and marble fireplace (not to mention Carrara marble bathroom wash basins). She added a room with a connecting bathroom and separate wash basins so my older sister could do her prima donna routine without impeding my ability to quickly wash up. Mom also added a balcony to my room (which I later used for sneaking out at night when everyone was asleep and I was raging with teenage rebellion…). She put a quaint stone fountain on our lawn, constructed by an Italian architect (who had an obvious crush on her and was also responsible for locating the marble from Carrara she insisted on importing for her personal Medici-esque vision.) in our yard … My mother, Mirella, turned our simple house into a Home and Gardens villa which to this day has a mosaic at the front entrance that says “Villa Mirella”. When my family later moved “over the hill” to Beverly Hills, Mom did an astounding remodel there as well, which earned her a spread in Home Magazine. From then on, my dad would buy property, often as investment, and my mom would see to the remodel, which would inevitably double its resale value. I think Mirella could have become a well paid interior designer had she not chosen to be a socialite, wife and mother. As a kid I never understood why she was always changing our comfy homes into showcase abodes, nice to look at but less fun for a kid to live in, but now I understand it was her method of creative expression. I don’t think I inherited this remodel gene, but Mark and I took our fixer-upper on as our “analog” project; instead of building a website using programmers in India, we built a house (or that’s how we feel, anyway) with workers we know and communicate with *in person*. Most of our “employees” (independent contractors) we have never met. We hire programmers in India, Bosnia, New York … other countries… and many of our composers live in countries we will probably never visit (Poland, Russia, Norway, Venezuela, Czechoslovakia, etc.)

I never in my wildest dreams thought it would be my personal destiny to “do a Mirella” and buy a shabby place with intention to transform it into something special and reflective of who we are. Mark shares my feelings, for his mom was also into home improvement (though less showy), which both Mark and I associate with being dragged from boring warehouse to warehouse to pick supplies, with being shoved from one bedroom into another while our homes were under construction, with an unsettling growing tension between mom and dad over budget and materials.

But when this place came on the market, a steal at 149 thousand euros we were in a position to put a big down payment, making our mortgage an affordable 400 euros a month – we scooped it up, and for the first time in our life were able to take advantage of the global real estate crisis with properties worldwide selling at bottomed out prices.

Gracia we bought before the real estate bubble burst, so its a bit of an albatross at the moment, but we are optimistic it will make an ideal, lucrative short term vacation rental, comfy, furnished and with all the modern amenities, including internet and Hi def TV. We plan to keep it until Spain’s economy rebounds and then sell it if/when the market returns, not looking to turn a huge profit…We’ll be happy to pretty much break even once we decide the time is right to sell.

Gracia is a safe neighborhood and is filled with surreal architectural masterpieces, perfect for tourists who don’t just come to Barcelona for the famous party scene, tourists who like to cook at home and walk the streets without bumping into pickpockets. Gracia is filled with architectural surprises, sometimes hidden in the most unlikely one way traffic cul de sac nooks of the neighborhood.


Isi has actually kept things under the original estimated 10 thousand euros tops. What luck! When he gave us an original estimate of 7000 euros we realized he was charging us about half what any other “paleta” (that’s what builders are called here) would and we remain impressed by his ability to keep the project close to estimated budget, despite all our last minute ideas not included in his original agreement. (like building a custom shelf for all TV related products, with holes behind the TV for the chords to disappear from view and connect directly with the multiple electrical sockets he installed for our techno needs.)

1,2,3 – with no elevator, debris is lowered down to the street from the terazza. 4) Mark looking in the gaping hole where there was formerly a window but soon there will be double glass doors and electric blinds.

Once they began knocking down walls, as addicted as we had become to our future home, we had to leave. Its not just the dust (which I’m allergic too) but the emotional impact of watching the walls come down which had us both wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.

1) French doors (which we put in the two rooms on “Mark’s” side f the house 2) Mark basking in his newly opened up spot. Although we could no longer sleep at the beach house, we would come a few times a week to hang out and to oversee the progress.

1) Haka approves of new French doors 2) More French doors in what will eventually be Mark’s office. 3) Its hard to believe how ugly and thrown together our little attic apartment was, but these photos live on to remind us… 4) Here we opened up the kitchen (knocked down a wall and later extended the counter.

1) The arrival of our new extended kitchen counter. 2) The dogs investigating future site of my royal chamber. My room is so beautiful *now* that its hard to remember just how ugly and separate it was from the rest of the apartment.

So, to sum it all up we knocked down a couple walls (moving one of the walls over to make more space for us in the rumpus room), got rid of a useless hallway and door to the terrazza, making Mark’s future office bigger and eliminating the one inherent problem when we first bought the place in which we would keep bumping into each other unless we traveled in the same direction, single file…

The former owners of our place lived here 30 years and raised 3 kids here. I can’t even imagine what a nightmare that would be for someone like me, but they claimed those years were the “happiest in all their life” and that our location is unusually quiet for Barceloneta.

Posing with Rosalia and Albino, the nice Catalan couple who sold us our apartment, this photo taken on the day we signed the agreement. 2) March 15, the date we got the keys to our new place. I am holding the newly acquired keys to the apartment in this shot, but my skeleton gloves overshadow this important and exciting detail.

We put in parquet floors (looks just like stained wood), widened doorways, added a nonexistent door to my room. “My” side of the house is the morning light side and the terrace is enclosed except for the little uncovered strip outside the kitchen, which has since been deemed the “Barbecue patio”.

1) Mark breaking in the barbecue patio (on” my side” of the house. It is an extension of the closed pink terrace in the first photo of this blog, just outside the closed door with speckled glass window in this photo. Originally this same hallway was the only way to access my creative nookie leading to the only access to my bedroom. We have totally changed the feng shui on this side of the house… 2) Quixote has made himself at home in the planter on the barbecue patio.

1) This recently created corner (which leads to a foyer and then the barbecue balcony on the other side) is where my little studio will go. Isi is building me a workstation desk to size. I will get a dedicated computer for my music needs so I can switch from writing my thoughts in my laptop to creating music. Does anyone “out there” have a Macintosh recommendation – what’s the smallest but most powerful computer to meet my simple protools composing needs? 2) If you roll your chair over from the previous photo it takes you to my writing spot. Isi will also build me a small writing desk just big enough to hold my laptop and a drink or whatever—


(Summer of 2010) – NOW the fun part starts; 2 months and about 7 thousand euros later we have basically succeeded in making our dream piso. We hired the same painter as we used in Gracia because he did a great job there. The hard part is picking the right colors. We didn’t want to simply paint the place white or antique whte or cream color or beige or any other “safe” colors, although we wanted at least one neutral color room (the den). My idea was to paint our bedrooms a sexy color, like black cherry. Surprisingly Mark liked this idea. Its not easy to paint a small apartment in dark colors without making it seem smaler, yet we wanted to be bold and make a statement we could both be proud of.

We have purchased futon sofas for 4 out of 5 rooms – so hopefully we’ll get some visitors from Hollywood someday. It would be fun to show my former scenester friends who have all managed to catch up with me through facebook around the city. Basically, we’ll bide by the Chinese saying, “fish and guests are welcome for 3 days” (I paraphrase). The well known saying suggests that fish and guests begin to smell after 3 days, an offer we extend to 5 days but not longer unless it is immediate family…

In Gracia we were unable to host any visitors because it was like living in a big cave with no privacy. We made it a point to locate a really affordable hostel 1 block from where we lived for even the closest of visiting friends or family. But here, both Mark and I hope to accommodate our respective younger brothers and their offspring. I’m hoping to lure my cousins living in Florence here, one by one. I am proud to show off our wonderfully seductive and animated city.

1) Cousin Silvia visiting from Florence, Italy. 2) Her two fun loving kids. (her husband Alberto was with them but I didn’t manage to get a good photo of him) 3) Giuseppe clowning for the long lost “aunt” (me) he never knew existed until we met in Italy last Christmas (which we spent with my extended family). On this trip I am told he developed a small crush on me and has been asking questions about me ever since… (cute!!!)
I have 7 more cousins in Florence I want to lure over here, plus my favorite aunt and uncle.



1) choosing the right neutral color is no easy feat. We decided om “caña! (translates to cane) for our neutral color room, which successfully avoids the beige/off white shades we both hate. “Cloud blue” would become too “baby boyish” when extrapolated over a whole wall and “honey” was way too orange though it looked much more subtle in the sample book. We chose the color on the right, caña, which is almost a cinnamon creme color; soothing and quasi organic. it is a hue that is in keeping with the building across the street, an aesthetic bonus when looking out the window. 2) We chose indigo blue for Mark’s office corner because I think its a flattering background for him and he agreed after seeing the photo I took. (as seen in the photo of him sitting in front of the sample patch). So his corner is indigo blue, but the other two walls in the office are also a soothing caña which makes the room look bigger despite the deep blue shade of two of its walls. So when you look into the house from Mark’s terrace you only see the organic caña walls looking into the caña den. I think it is reflective of out Hollywood roots that we both chose a color that is flattering to our respective skin tones for our personal spaces. The test photos with us posed in front of sample colors helped us both decide on what shade makes us most photogenic. For me, black cherry/deep chocolate purple brings out the best in my golden brown skin, which made my already favorite color a no brainer for me. Hollywood people have an innate sense of what background is flattering, especially us former rock luminary scenesters who were born there…

It is now early August and we have been living here happily since mid June. We’re almost through furnishing the place, are awaiting the light fixtures we ordered, a beautiful desk for Mark, and have put off remodeling the bathroom because: 1) Isi is busy through Sept. and 2) the bathroom functions as is, and has a certain charm we’d lke to keep intact. However it needs a complete overhaul, from electricity to lighting to installing a jacuzzi tub and ripping out the ineffectual bidet in the corner (see original photo at beginning of this blog – the bidet is squeezed in the corner, squashed between the bathtub and the wall. It is rusty and looks disgusting upon close inspection) . We will tackle our bathroom remodel with fresh energy after enjoying our summer here in our modest new dream house, which feels like a tree house in the sky, by the mediterranean. Once again, we have found a little slice of heaven on earth to live in (which has been the pattern of our 15 odd years together). Instead of watching people walk by like we did from our street level home in Gracia (fun for a year or two), we now watch birds fly and clouds waft by our many windows. Our soundscape is now seagulls, swallows, doves and passing ship horns instead of passing cars and Gracia neighborhood gypsies whose voices carry to the furthest back rooms.


Living by the sea is like having a big swimming pool downstairs, a heated one… not at all like the deep, cold, undulous Malibu Pacific Ocean which requires a wetsuit 9 out of 12 months. Not often, but occasionally we have surf waves here, which lures everyone who owns a board out surfing, no matter what level of ability. (another endearing aspect of Spanish culture – in USA surfers are territorial and will intentionally prevent amateurs from catching a wave whereas here everyone is simply out to have fun, perhaps reflective of Spain’s socialist sensibility and integrated multi-generational lifestyle. It is unheard of to “compete” for a wave in Spain.) In Malibu the motto is:
“My Beach. My Waves. My chicks. GO HOME!!!! but here it is “bienvenidos y buena suerte con el surf”.

I project we will live here in Barceloneta 3 to 5 years and then perhaps move up the coast to a *real* house near the beach but with a garden, maybe even a rental along the Costa Brava, probably Cadaques. But meanwhile, the den is equipped with a HD TV, wireless playstation and headphones, stereo, WI FI, air conditioner … We’re still waiting for a few minor furniture deliveries, but we can now say that Barceloneta is officially our new home. We love it! The dogs love it! Our family is happy.

1) Looking from the home entertainment den into Mark’s freshly painted indigo corner office space. 2) Looking out from my newly painted bedroom through my recently installed new door into the recreation room. (my creative terrace is adjacent, to my right) .

These two photos, one of our new, Catalan front door welcome mat and the other of our recently installed air conditioner, will make my future blogs a comfortable experience…

1) Our new welcome mat makes this place officially “home”. (the welcome fairy says in Catalan, “welcome to my world”) 2) The air conditioner was a 3000 euro investment (almost half the price of our remodel to date…) but it makes the difference between sweaty, sleepless nights with hungry mosquitoes and an easy and comfortable sleep, with most of the mosquitos getting sucked out of the house along with excess humidity.

We have found our place in the sun, so I close with a shot of a surfer and one spectacular shot of the sun rising from “our” beach. Since living here I have been taking a long bike ride with my dog and camera every morning, but that will have to wait for another blog…

1) Surf’s up on a moody day. 2) Amazing sunrise that pops up from the horizon on “our” beach (Playa San Sebastian).