Old House Do-Over – Done!

When you've run into as many "suprises" as we have, you get verrry good at reconfigury. (Not a word, but we’ll use it anyway.) - As promised, a recent project! We wanted to share this home because, while yes, we have a very defined “typical” process – we also acknowledge that sometimes things take a turn for the unique-case-scenario. And this was one of those. The home belongs to our no-longer-neighbors but still good friends, both of whom fit into the “super-involved” category. Seriously. Wow. They were into. It. More on that later – first a little backstory. With a large family and less-than-large house, our clients had engaged an architect and Designstorms for a remodel, but at a certain point had to say “pencils down” (too complex, too spendy, not worth it). They started trolling the market, quickly found a nearby, way better house, and snapped it up. The move was fully endorsed by the family’s five-kid constituency, thanks to a certain super-fun backyard feature. (Hellooo, outdoor pool!) That said, the house had some less-fun features too. Like, say, the 90-degree turn into the garage – tricky for anything much bigger than a Radio Flyer wagon, and literally impossible for a family truckster. So the architect designed a detached garage addition – creating a straight shot into a new two-story structure, with room for a lift to create space for their growing car collection.

The house itself posed a few other head-scratchers: no mud room, and a strangely awkward flow for starters. The front entrance landed you in a room of closet doors, which felt a little like a throwback TV game show. Then the hallway wound you through the butler pantry to get to the living spaces which were all at the back. It seemed overly convoluted, so we set about to de-complexify it. We started by removing the oddly-placed butler pantry, making a clearer, more intuitive path through the house. Knowing the owners were intent on preserving or repurposing as many of the home's original features as possible, we salvaged some windows, installing them as cabinet doors on either side of a newly created opening to the living room. There was also an interesting inlay detail in the entry floor that we repeated on the floor and ceiling of the master bedroom upstairs.

    A side note worth mentioning: these particular homeowners just happen to be serial accumulators of all things found – and that hobby kicked into high gear during the remodel. The entire process was a parade of new old things they love-love-looooved and wanted worked into the design if at all possible – from light fixtures hailing from a variety of decades, to heavy metal (as in cabinet door, not 80s hair bands), to fireplace surrounds. In an attempt to articulate the DNA for their unabashed we-will-not-be-beholden-to-a-single-era taste, together we landed on a project slogan: “If it’s old, we like it.” Sensing their enthusiasm for this menagerie of found objects, we embraced the challenge and made it work. Most of it anyway. (We did put the kibosh on a few light fixtures that stylistically didn’t have a role in the overall story, so hopefully they found a loving home elsewhere.) The majority of the remodel was focused on making the back of the house more functional for family life. We worked with the architect to push the kitchen back six feet, making room for an eat-in dining space, adding the all-important mudroom, a “pool-accessible” tile-walled powder bath, and a new entrance to the basement addition, now the kids’ hangout zone. After the demo crew took sledgehammers to the old kitchen, we happened upon a surprise (the good kind) – a brick wall from the fireplace, which we all agreed should be the focal point of the new kitchen. As for the color, four custom mixes later, we landed on the perfect charcoal gray. But the color wasn’t the main challenge, the placement of the range wins the prize for that. Because we wanted it on the brick wall which was not centered in the room, we had to modify the floor plan to create a balanced look. We also had to pull it out from the wall a bit to make room for gas and electric, which made proper vent placement tricky as well. The other stumper was the kitchen sink placement. Typically, we try to position the sink near a window, but the architecture wasn’t cooperating. Our next go-to is often the island, but the homeowners wanted the full counter space. So we landed on a perimeter spot for it, and added nice detailing like honed white marble subway tile and supplemental lighting to keep the area light and bright. We were determined to maximize every square inch of space, particularly in the kitchen. So to the right of the range, we built a 24-inch recessed cabinet inside a wall void to house small appliances that remain plugged in, but discreetly tucked away behind a door when not in use. And off the butler pantry, we found another void between two walls, which the homeowners turned it into a liquor cabinet, adorned with an old metal door they had found. Very manly.   As we reworked the overall flow of the house, the former dining room up front became the home office, the old knob-and-tube electrical wiring got removed (phew), and an unused window-lined sunroom took on new life as the dining room, anchored by a narrow, ten-foot antique farm table find. Because the floor heights were inconsistent (oh, that old house charm), the GC had to build up the sunporch floor to match the others, then we added character grade hardwood and matched the stain from the rest of the house. Upstairs, the house was one bedroom short, but the master suite’s walk-in closet was eee-normous. So we added a window and some walls, and – poof – fourth bedroom. Actually, it wasn’t quite that easy. We must have redrawn that floor plan about ten times to try to make it all work – since we also added two smaller closets in the master, along with a compact laundry room that just so happens to be one of our most re-posted images of all time. (Slight exaggeration, but in our world, it has gotten a fair amount of attention.) Remember that chimney wall from the kitchen? Well, it extended up into this laundry space, so we kept the brick exposed, painted it gray, added a li’l rollout shelf for folding, then finished the floor with penny round tiles in a combination of grays. So what it lacks in size, it makes up for in style. The family is all settled in now and loving their new home. We don’t typically have time to reflect once a project is wrapped, because we’re up to our eyeballs in details on all the others. But one key learning stands out on this one: When a fix needs to happen, it needs to happen. And in an old house, well, let’s just say there will be fixes happening. Surprises lurk around every corner, behind every wall, inside every ceiling and under every floor, so there’s a lot of rethinking, redrawing and rejiggering along the way. A true remodel is more than a cosmetic touch-up with new drywall and paint – it goes deep. This house was a loving restoration, with each detail thoughtfully considered to remain true to the original intended architecture and detailing, while modernizing the behind-the-scenes elements like electric, plumbing and insulation. The result? A one-of-a-kind home that’s equipped with all the modern must-haves, and punctuated with “personality pieces” that make it far more unique than a typical new build. So while our original mantra for this one was, “If it’s old we like it,” we did end up adding, “but some new is nice too.

Come see it in person.

This home will be one of just four houses on Glen Ellyn Infant Welfare Society’s 34th Annual Housewalk, and two are Designstorms homes(!). We’ll feature the other one (a fun new build) in a few weeks – don’t miss it. Sign up below, and we’ll let you know when the story is live. Get Housewalk details here: Glen Ellyn Infant Welfare

All photos by Joe Kwon Photography (Thanks Joe! You're amazing!)

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