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1830s Farmhouse Remodel Fit for a Family

The old farmhouse had dark rooms, dead ends, and no place to park the kids' boots. Here's how an inventive redo made an 1830s artifact just right for a 21st-century household

Colorful and Cozy

Photo by Jim Westphalen

An old house, like some other oldsters, can be rather set in its ways and resistant to change. Creaky stairs, a wheezing furnace, windows so small you can barely gauge the weather-—try telling them it's time to go and you may need reinforcements. Which helps explain why Tim Briglin and Laurel Mackin, seeking a new direction for their 1830s farmhouse, hired plenty of backup, including architects and work crews who specialize in bringing old houses to heel. The fate of the energy-sapping furnace? "We tied it to a pickup truck and dragged it out through an opening under the porch," general contractor Chip Odell says dryly.

Shown: Laurel Mackin and Tim Briglin wanted a warm, bright kitchen with just enough space to gather with Tucker, 11, and Mack, 8. A layered paint palette and vaulted ceiling contribute to the lofty feel.

Nine-Year Stretch

Photo by Jim Westphalen

That audacious act turned out to be just one of many during an ambitious redo that stretched to nearly nine years, long enough for both the house and its new owners to change. Today, no longer first-time homeowners who thought, as Laurel puts it, "everything was easy and possible," the couple have gained two kids and a keen understanding of how design decisions affect family dynamics. "When we first moved in, the notion of having no gathering space didn't seem problematic," Laurel says. "As the family grew, we realized we didn't need more space, just more 'together' space."

And more places to put the expanded household's stuff.

Shown: The house's former dairy barn, now a guesthouse, served as the family's living quarters during the reno.

Opening Up Smaller Rooms

Photo by Jim Westphalen

Perched above meadows in rural Thetford, Vermont, on a former dairy farm threaded with stone walls, the three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath house had been added onto over the years, giving the first floor a railroad-flat feel. Because the house overlooks a covered bridge, "everyone in town recognizes it," says the couple's architect, Ira Clark. "Laurel and Tim wanted to be careful not to ruin its lines."

They loved everything about the house, in other words, except what was inside.

"It was in good shape, but not very practical from a 21st-century point of view," Tim explains. Previous owners had appended a kitchen at the south end, like a caboose. But it was cut off from the rest of the house, marooning the cook. The core of the house held a cluster of small spaces, including a laundry room and the stairs to an unused attic. Beyond the laundry room lay a den, a master suite, a powder room that opened oddly into the dining room, and stairs to two steep-ceilinged bedrooms and a bath. "It was like a rabbit warren," Tim recalls. "In the old days, small rooms meant you could shut off some and heat a smaller space. We wanted to open it up and think very hard about every square foot."

Shown: The new kitchen, half the size of the one that was there, has a dramatic accent wall of cabinets that anchors the open floor plan.

Learning from Experience

Photo by Jim Westphalen

Cold air, meanwhile, pushed through the dry-stacked stone foundation, a 19th-century design aimed at relieving the pressure of snowmelt by allowing it to seep into the cellar and down through its dirt floor.

The couple remedied their cold feet—and began a new life as learn-as-you-go renovators—by sealing up the foundation with spray foam insulation. They also asked Clark's firm, Smith & Vansant, to make fixes in and around the master suite and dining room, eliminating the powder room and upgrading the bath and closet space.

Shown: An eating nook that connects to kitchen and family room in the open floor plan.

Places to Put Stuff

Photo by Jim Westphalen

The second test of the couple's redo mettle came when they tackled the barn, turning it into a finished guesthouse. After that, a fallow period followed—for the house anyway—while they concentrated on adding two kids. Then they asked the architects back to tackle the tricky rest.

Their wish list reflected years of living with stop-and-go traffic patterns and a light deficit. "The old kitchen was shut up," says Tim, "with no windows facing east to the meadows, where the sun comes up." There was no space near the kitchen for the kids to hang out before dinner and no place to drop their backpacks. The family's goal was a brighter and more open and fluid layout and a resolution of two conflicting demands common in many of today's households: a warm desire for togetherness and a desperate need for clutter control. In Vermont, where each season yields a fresh crop of sporting gear and outerwear, how do you keep an open plan from turning into an open field of mittens, hats, and ski poles?

Shown: Custom built-ins cater to kids obsessed with baseball, parents who collect running shoes, and four seasons' worth of outerwear.

No Need for Privacy

Photo by Jim Westphalen

To clear the way for a redesign, the family relocated to the guesthouse. And while 14 months may sound like a long time to hole up in 900 square feet with one bath and little more than a microwave and an outdoor grill for meals, "it really helped us figure out what the house would be," says Laurel. "It taught us about how little space you really need."

They also learned a helpful rule: "Think about the kind of family you want and how the space can support it," Laurel says. Some families crave lots of private space, for example, while in her household, she notes fondly, "we seem to all like to be together."

Shown: Interior designer Denise Welch-May united the spaces with soft greens, blues, yellows, red accents, and a reclaimed-barn-wood floor that has a checkerboard stain. Blue-tone slate counters and backsplash tile set off the kitchen, while a cottage-style rug defines the eating nook.

Custom Cabinets That Allow Efficiency

Photo by Jim Westphalen

Clark, joined by interior designer Denise Welch-May, looked for ways to wrap gathering spaces, like a family/TV room and a homework-friendly eating nook, around a smaller, more efficient cooking zone, opening work and play areas to one another—and the house to its newly landscaped front and back yards-. They also treated every corner and wall as a canvas for their artful cabinetmaker, Brian Ilsley.

Shown: Cabinets under the family room windows hide media components and a flat-screen TV on a motorized lift.

Extending Space

Photo by Jim Westphalen

Odell and his work crew dismantled the stairs that went up to the attic space. They swept away the laundry room and a closet, freeing space for a new powder room and a more inviting entry and a mudroom. And they took the south side down to its framing and removed part of the attic floor to extend the old kitchen's cathedral ceiling. Flooring came out, and insulation and a more efficient heating system went in.

"We also added more windows," Clark says, "and that really lets the life of the house shift to the sunnier southern end." Radiant floor heat doesn't hurt, either.

Shown: During stage one of the whole-house redo, the master bath acquired inspiring style and storage.

Light and Color

Photo by Jim Westphalen

Various rooms played musical chairs. The laundry beat a retreat to a spot upstairs. The kitchen got up and moved to a central location, freeing its old spot for a family room.

To help define discrete areas, Welch-May devised a color scheme so complex that it threatened to turn the paint crew into mad hatters. Further setting off the cooking area is a small peninsula, with seating on its far side. "I like people to think they are in my kitchen when they aren't really in my kitchen," Laurel says with a laugh.

Shown: A French door and matching windows give the master bedroom a sense of spaciousness.

Space for a Tight-Knit Family

Photo by Jim Westphalen

She also appreciates having a sight line to the TV. "Now I know what they're watching," she says of the kids. "It's right here, so we all decide what to watch together."

The mudroom has become what Tim calls a staging area for smoother comings and goings: "On a February day, when the kids have their backpacks and lunch boxes and duffel bags full of sporting gear, there are places to dump it all besides the kitchen." And besides the homework-friendly eating nook. The family has all its meals there, enjoying views of the meadows and the barn.

Shown: The new main entry has a bench for changing footwear and boot-friendly flooring made from reclaimed brick veneer.

Captured Space

Photo by Jim Westphalen

Looking back to a more innocent time, Laurel admits that "every project has more pieces than you think." That applies whether the project is having kids or creating the perfect home environment. In this case, it looks as if all the pieces keep falling right into place.

Shown: A new shower enclosure was made possible by the demolition of an awkward powder room. Towers of open shelving keep fresh towels at the ready.

Floor Plans: First Floor

Floor plan by Ian Worpole

Before the redo, the 2,500-square-foot one-and-a-half-story house was chopped up and storage-starved. The design team created an open plan on the south side with a 150-square-foot bumpout.

Floor Plans: Second Floor

Floor plan by Ian Worpole

The back stairs came out, and the laundry moved upstairs to make way for a powder room and a new entry and mudroom. Built-ins added throughout help keep the busy household well organized.

Homeowner Tip: "Think about the kind of family you want and how the space can support it. Then think about design." —Laurel Mackin