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A Whole-House Redo Becomes a Family Affair

Repairing and updating a century-old house brings three generations under one new and improved roofline

Whole House and Family

Photo by Keller + Keller

If there's one way to test family dynamics, it's a whole-house redo—the kind that involves dozens of decisions, from the size of the smallest bedroom to who gets to sleep there. Now imagine not two but six household members, ranging in age and disposition from preschool to retirement. Make one an architect and another an interior designer, and you've got some serious discussions in store. Then layer on pressure from the neighbors to keep a sweet little bungalow from putting on airs, and it's a wonder that the Powers-Kahn house in Jamestown, Rhode Island, got renovated at all, much less in 14 months.

Shown: Arnold and Joanne Kahn flank daughter Dana, son-in-law Donald, dog Ruby, and grandson Nate, 7, on the new front porch. Nate's baby brother, Theo, and his uncle, Andrew Kahn (not shown), round out the household.

Before: One-Time Learning Experience

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Actually, "it could have been done in eight months," says the resident architect, Donald Powers, "except we gave ourselves the luxury of taking a more casual, organic approach, without figuring it all out on paper. Though it was a fantastic learning experience, I wouldn't want to do that again."

After: Professionalism Paid Off

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But take a look at the result, a testament not only to experimentation but also to a high-functioning set of home-owners, comprising Donald and his wife, Dana, parents of 7-year-old Nate and 6-month-old Theo; Dana's brother, Andrew Kahn; and grandparents Arnold and Joanne Kahn. During the summer they all pile into the house, gravitating to the common areas while scattering to satellite rooms when someone has the crazy desire to be alone.

Vacation Cohabitation

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"We fell in love with Jamestown after spending several summers there and wanted a house we could share," says Dana. "Not by divvying up the summer and using it separately but by being there and using it together."

Sounds interesting, but not many extended families would act on the impulse by creating a family corporation with three shareholders holding the deed for a house that would ultimately have only one master suite. Then renovating on a budget. "That's always good for family tension," Donald jokes. At the same time, he points out, "when you're only in it for a third, everyone's game."

Shown: The living room opens up to a deck in summer months and offers a wood-burning fireplace come winter. To give the room a sense of spaciousness, resident architect Donald Powers situated it three steps down from the dining room, in effect raising the ceiling; "frugal" coffering made from 14s and 16s laid on the flat reinforces the room's casual formality without detracting from a view framed by French doors.

Stepped Up

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There was no way to move into the windbeaten, century-old bungalow as it was. With 1,545 square feet, thin walls, and a second floor almost completely under the eaves, "it needed everything," recalls Dana, who's also the operations manager at Donald's architecture firm.

"Knocking it down would have been easier and less expensive," Donald says. "But I didn't want to do that. The challenge was to respect the original bones and scale, especially upstairs, while expanding it."

Shown: The graceful, neatly framed transition between the living and dining rooms adds a sense of spaciousness while giving the separate areas distinct identities.

Lead by Example

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Knocking it down would have also rubbed the neighbors the wrong way. The town had just asked Donald's firm, in nearby Providence, Rhode Island, to help rewrite its zoning rules to protect Jamestown's scale and historic character—i.e., to stem the tide of McMansions. Choosing to repair, not replace, was a way "to walk the walk to prove it could be done," Donald says.

It was also a chance for him to put his firm's New Urbanist beliefs to work within the walls of his own home. In a New Urban village, private holdings are compact while walkable paths draw people out of their homes (and cars) into airy civic spaces. In Donald's plan for the house, bedrooms would be small and the living spaces open, with well-defined spots for people to gather in.

Shown: The dining room is open to the kitchen and the living room, allowing conversation and foot traffic to flow.

Like It Was Always There

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With Donald in charge of design and construction, Dana and her mom, Joanne, the resident interior designer, held veto power over finishes and furnishings. Andrew, Arnold, and Nate were invited to weigh in. "It was Arnie's great idea to build a brick chimney," says Donald, who worried about the expense but concedes his father-in-law made a brilliant move.

Donald's plan called for new roofs and dormers front and back, allowing a two-story addition with a master suite to sidle up under a new roofline as if both had always been there. A rejiggering of the existing second floor would create a hub-like stair landing, three bedrooms, two baths, and a "flex" room for guests, the baby's crib, or answering e-mail. Downstairs, Donald balanced open living space with an "away" room for household members seeking quality time with the TV.

Shown: Sloping ceilings in the master bath on the second floor mirror the roofline.

Meticulous Work

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The partners hired a builder, Larry Haley, and he and Donald set out to see what they could save. The process required "taking the house apart stick by stick and putting it together stick by stick, and doing some of the construction myself," Donald recalls, along with mocking up the second-floor ceiling over the stairway—repeatedly—to get several sloping lines to meet.

Shown: The generous stair landing, finished with a chunky built-in, serves as a hub for the rooms and shared linen closet arrayed around it.

Simple Harmony

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Ceiling-wrestling aside, the process remained tension-free, with everyone agreeing that the larger experiment worked and, of course, that Arnold and Joanne should take the master suite. Today, despite its new footprint, civic spaces, and rambling pathways, the house still has the scale of an old seaside cottage, along with a simplicity and serenity reinforced by Joanne and Dana's decor.

Shown: Sloping cathedral ceilings follow the lines of the roof. To enhance the suite's symmetry, the household's interior design team, Dana Powers and Joanne Kahn, flanked the bed with matching nightstands, lamps, and vintage chairs and kept to a breezy palette.

Surviving the Remodel

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At this time of year, the place is bustling. Andrew comes up from New York City; Arnold and Joanne come down from Buffalo, New York; and Dana and Donald and their kids hop over from Providence. "When we're making dinner, it's constant conversation," says Dana.

"We feel very fortunate that we got through the whole project and still really like one another," she says with a laugh. "Actually, it was really fun."

Shown: The 10-foot island is an open invitation to gather. With a prep sink at one end and seating at the other, it can simultaneously serve one or two chefs and a rapt crowd.

How to Make Spaces Feel Bigger

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The goal of the redo was to expand the house to fit an extended family—plus houseguests—without throwing off its cozy scale and proportions. Here are some of the tricks resident architect Donald Powers, his wife, Dana, and resident interior designer Joanne Kahn used to give the cottage its spacious feel.

Sacrifice closets in favor of dressers, pegs, and armoires if it helps you carve out larger rooms.

Use columns and built-ins to define separate spaces within an open plan, give stairs and room dividers a finished look, and add seamless storage and display space.

Pitch the ceilings upstairs. In the process of rebuilding the top floor and the roof, Donald kept rooms just big enough for beds while capping them with peaked ceilings.

Shown: Ample kitchen storage stows away enough dishes for three generations.

How to Create a Flow

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Step down the living room, in effect raising its ceiling and giving it extra presence and volume.

Use area rugs, lighting, and ceiling fans to "zone" separate gathering spots within open living spaces. Joanne points out that when there are fewer walls, rugs also add coziness. She and Dana used a whimsical floor lamp to give one spot its own personality and added adjustable-arm lights to turn seating into private reading nooks.

Choose a simple palette and let it flow through the living spaces. Dana and Joanne experimented to find the right ocean blue and sandy beige. They painted all the trim white to unify different areas and help them add up to one large space.

Shown: Columns help establish the living room boundary.

How to Use Untapped Areas

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Treat decks and porches like rooms. Painted floorboards make their screened-in porch feel like an extension of the house.

Create a 'flex' room that can be used for guests or as a quiet spot for answering e-mail.

Keep the decor simple and orderly. Fewer things, from objects to artwork, mean more distance for the eye to roam.

Shown: A rug, table and chairs set aside one half of the porch as a separate seating area.

Floor Plan: First Floor

Floor plan by Ian Warpole

The redo included rebuilding and reassigning rooms, altering the roofline, and grafting on a two-story addition, which together enlarged the house from 1,545 square feet to 2,340, not including the decks and the porch.

Floor Plan: Second Floor

Floor plan by Ian Warpole

On the second floor, three bedrooms and one bath became a master bedroom, three smaller bedrooms, three baths, a small "flex" room, and a hub-like stair landing.