It’s become a familiar story: Couple buys old house intending to renovate, couple is blown away by cost and limitations of a redo, couple razes home and starts over. Enter chorus of upset neighbors, unrelenting town building commissioners, and contractors gunning to build big.
But a teardown doesn’t have to play out that way. When Doug and Dana Reese relocated from San Diego to Chicago, they fell hard for a charming suburb only 23 miles west of the city. Glen Ellyn, Illinois, had everything they were looking for: an old-fashioned Main Street with a movie theater they could walk to, an atmospheric mix of older homes, and a good school system.
So when they settled on a small 1953 Cape Cod on a tree-lined street, their plan was to remodel while keeping the home’s traditional feeling. They knew they faced some hurdles: The damp basement had a mold problem, the tuck-under one-car garage was impractical for a two-car family, and there was no space in the cramped 1,300-square-foot interior for Dana to display her collectibles.
“Everyone said we’d have to take the top off and build back,” says Doug, of the extensive (and expensive) work that would be required to fit more living space on the narrow, 50-by-150-foot lot. They also didn’t want to lose the character of an old house, especially the way that the exterior blended into their mature neighborhood of traditional-style homes, mostly built in the 1930s and 1940s.
after a couple of years in the house, Doug and Dana started spending evenings poring over remodeling books at Borders, and Doug ordered dozens of narrow-lot house plans online to see how they might configure an addition. Things started looking up when they stumbled upon The Not So Big House, by architect Sarah Susanka, the landmark architecture book that celebrates the smaller, well-crafted house over gargantuan McMansions. It wasn’t long before they were on the phone with the architectural firm that the author cofounded, SALA Architects in Minneapolis.
When architect Paul Hannan arrived in Chicago, the couple were talking redo; by the time he left the next day, they were committed to building a new home. “There were fewer compromises if they started over,” says Hannan, who said the cost of their transformation would approach that of a new house.
To begin, he gave the couple a 30-page questionnaire that would help him understand their wants, needs, and lifestyle, asking everything from “Where are you on a Saturday morning?” to “Where do you put the Christmas tree?” Hannan quickly learned that his clients wanted a casual home with an open floor plan. Dana, a stay-at-home mom and a passionate cook, needed a kitchen suited to cooking and entertaining, since the family also socializes regularly with the neighbors. And they were in desperate need of an alternative to beach chairs set up in the driveway as a way to accommodate guests.
In a town where 20 percent of the houses have become teardowns, the couple also emphasized that their new home should fit in. “We didn’t want people to be able to drive by and say, That’s the new house!'” says Doug.
“I had a hard time with the knockdown,” says Dana, remembering how she dreaded that day. “But it came down so easilythere was no insulation in the wallsand, in the process, we found out that the electrical was bad. It was almost a relief when it went because we knew we were going to build and live in something high-quality.” Luckily, the family was able to rent a house located just behind their own for the duration of the nine-month construction period.
To formulate a plan for the exterior, Hannan cruised around Glen Ellyn taking snapshots of other houses in the neighborhood, noting their overall scale, exterior color choices, and architectural details such as dormers, columns, and rooflines. Then he went to work, designing a two-story cottagelike home. To the facade he added a small porch, where the Reeses could hang out with friends. He shifted the one-car garage, which originally sat on the sloping space under the porch, to the other side of the house and expanded it to hold two carsthe best-case scenario on a narrow lot with a lopsided topography. Now, when Dana is loaded down with groceries, she has a direct path from inside the garage to her new mudroom, pantry, and kitchen. On the back of the house, Hannan re-created the screened porch that the couple had enjoyed from the original home and added a deck.
For the look and feel of the interior of their new home, the couple channeled the lakeside cottages where they summered while growing upone in Lake Tahoe, the other in northern Wisconsin. “We wanted to replicate the exposed wood, the beams, and the light from the outdoors,” says Doug.
Their other mission was to use the 2,532 square feet of living space efficiently. Hannan made rooms feel larger by using lots of glass to maximize the views in the front and the back. “The windows were the single biggest budget item in the entire house,” says Doug of their Pella Architect Series double-hung and casement windows, some with transoms and retractable screens.
The investment proved to be worth it. Natural light infuses the living space, designed with an open floor plan that flows out from the kitchen into the dining and living rooms. Timber framing with reclaimed 1940s Douglas fir beams from the Duluth Timber Company subtly defines the rooms while supporting the second floor. Warm natural wood finishes are used everywhere in the house, from the southern heart-pine floors on the first floor to the red oak floors upstairs to the flat-panel cherry kitchen cabinets to the simple stained pine trim. “We took the lake house look and added some of the simplicity of Shaker design,” says Dana.
When it was time to talk kitchen countertops, Dana reached a hurdleshe’d always wanted soapstone. “I first learned about it on This Old House,” she says, confessing that she’s seen every TV episode. “Tommy (Silva) used soapstone in his house and says it’s great.” Her problem was that while the material is popular in the Northeast, it isn’t in the Midwest. “The granite guys here said it would stain, and the contractors didn’t know where to find it.”
Dana persevered, even finding a nearby Mexican restaurant that had a soapstone bar. “The bartender said they serve hundreds of people there a night. All they need to do is oil it when it gets gray.” It wasn’t long before the soapstone for Dana’s countertops and fireplace surround was being delivered.
One of the most important aspects of Hannan’s home design was the custom built-in cabinetry, desks, and shelving. The “cubbies,” as Doug calls them, were a necessity for the couple, who admit that they disagreed frequently over Dana’s Americana collections covering every horizontal surface. “I call it C.O.D.crap on display,” says Doug. “I got tired of moving three things to make a sandwich.”
Architect Hannan played mediator, creating plenty of open shelves and deep window ledges to hold Dana’s treasures.
While the blueprints reflect built-ins throughout the house, the couple knew they wouldn’t be able to afford to put them in all at once. So Hannan suggested that he design them all anyway, and that Doug and Dana install them as their budget allows. Still on the wish list are built-in dressers in the master bedroom, the desk in Doug’s upstairs office, and desks in the children’s bedrooms.
Hannan also saved valuable space by building the second-floor rooms right into the roof, giving them that old-house attic feeling with lots of slopes and angles in the ceilings. “It’s a way of recovering otherwise dead space,” he says, noting that the children’s playrooms and Doug’s office are tucked into dormers.
Nine months after tearing down their old house, the family moved into their new home. Having settled in for a while now, they wonder how they ever lived without a mudroom, a pantry, all the shelving, and the open kitchen. In fact, they’re currently making plans to bring in their contractor to complete Hannan’s design for a finished basement, which will include a family room, a kitchenette, a craft room, and a guest suitefor another 1,000 square feet of living space. “We’re using every bit of this house,” says Doug.
And the neighbors? “The feedback has been nothing but positive,” he says. “They approve.” And they’re very happy not to have to sit on folding chairs in the driveway anymore.