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Couple fuses cultures in renovation

By JANET ZINK
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 14, 2002

TAMPA -- It's easy to see why Karyn Sbar and Karim Tahiri fell in love with their lot in South Tampa.

Two sets of sliding glass doors in their home's great room reveal a deep backyard that slopes down to Spring Lake, which surrounds an island providing sanctuary to ospreys and roseate spoonbills. It's only blocks from Manhattan Avenue and West Shore Boulevard, but it feels like it's a world away.

"It's a weird thing in the middle of the city," says Sbar, who grew up in South Tampa but never knew about this lakefront spot. "We felt like this was a little jewel."

Unfortunately, the home that stood on the lot when they bought it hardly sparkled. The home had an odd, choppy floor plan, no central air conditioning and a facade that only a builder with good imagination could love.

"Most builders wanted to split the lot," says Sbar, who with her husband owns Soleil Design Build, a company that specializes in old-home renovations and custom-home construction.

The couple decided to renovate rather than raze because the house was only 10 years old, is solidly built of block construction and is above the flood zone. Plus, by doing so, they knocked a good $100,000 off construction costs.

To coax this ugly duckling to its swan state required gutting the home and removing the roof. They left the garage and four walls, one with a real masonry fireplace.

An unfinished room over the garage provided livable square footage, which has now transformed into a game room with a pool table, television and several chess sets. They moved a staircase to clear space for a great room, and they raised the roof to create higher ceilings.

Top priorities: Adding a back porch that runs the length of the home and putting in the glass doors and windows to show off the view.

The 3,700-square-foot, four-bedroom home is filled with an eclectic mix of furniture and artwork, much of it from Morocco, where Tahiri grew up. He graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Florida, where he met Sbar.

Every year, the family -- including two elementary-age children -- visits Morocco or France, where many of Tahiri's relatives still live. Sbar and Tahiri collect items for their home and clients along the way.

There's pottery from the cities of Fez and Casablanca, a metal-studded leather water pouch, metal bowls, brightly painted wooden furniture and colorful wooden plaques used to teach children the Arabic alphabet.

Hand-cut Moroccan tile adds an exotic touch to the risers on the steps leading to the front door and tops two tables on the back patio.

The formal dining room was turned into a Moroccan salon that blends the customs of the couple's two cultures.

Moroccan tea glasses adorn the formal dining room table, which once belonged to Sbar's mother. A wide banquette upholstered in Moroccan fabric lines the walls at one end of the room.

Low chairs and painted wood tea tables can be pulled up to the couches, providing a comfortable alternative to formal dining. Still, the room can accommodate up to 25 people.

"It's one room, but it's multifunctional," Sbar says.

Such rooms are typical of Moroccan homes, and Tahiri says that when he was growing up, he and his cousins -- sometimes more than a dozen of them -- would sleep along the couches in the salon in his grandfather's home.

The house also displays many of the features that Sbar and Tahiri integrate into homes for their clients. There's a mudroom equipped with a cork board, cupboards, shelves and hooks to catch shoes, hats, jackets, kid art and book bags. There's also a couch in the kitchen, a touch Sbar considers a signature of Soleil Design.

"People hang out in the kitchen," Sbar says. "So you want someplace cozy to sit."

They often test items before recommending them to clients. A solar tube, an alternative to a sky light, brightens a windowless upstairs bathroom, and a double-drawer dishwasher quietly handles small loads without wasting water.

The deck off the master bedroom is made of recycled materials, and the master bathroom has a shower with vertical jets along the walls. For their lawn, Sbar and Tahiri used a newly developed, drought resistant, salt-tolerant grass.

Although their clients often build or renovate million-dollar homes, Sbar and Tahiri did not have a huge budget, so they kept their eyes and minds open to cost-saving options.

The entire kitchen is built around a center island topped with an off-cut slab of granite that the couple purchased at a low price because of its defect.

The walkway that leads to the front door is made of limestone cut into a nonstandard shape.

A towel rack in the downstairs powder room was crafted from a throwaway piece of metal rescued from Home Depot

And an immense armoire salvaged from a home on Bayshore Boulevard holds kitchenware.

"The homeowner wanted to get rid of it," Sbar says. "It was in 20 pieces."

The couple first thought they'd use sections of the intricately carved wood in various places in their home, perhaps to decorate the mantle. But once Tahiri put it together they knew it needed to remain in its natural state.

"You have to be flexible and creative," Sbar says.

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