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Before and After: 1920 Bungalow Remodel with Beautiful Built-ins

A home gains needed space with an expanded second story that preserves the house’s footprint and its neighborly facade

BEFORE | Fading Facade

The heart has its reasons, as they say, so best not to overthink another home buyer’s surprising infatuation. In Teresa Dau and Amanda McMillan’s case, it started with a certain neighborhood in Decatur, Georgia—steps from schools, public transit, the library, the playground, and old-timey Decatur Square—and culminated in a rash gamble on a carved-up bungalow that had idled on the market for months.

Shown: The unrenovated house, complete with a sun-blocking metal awning attached to the front porch.

BEFORE | Rear Facade

Let’s just say they had the imagination to envision it looking like the smart little award-winning house-tour favorite you see here.

Shown: The prerenovation house’s dilapidated rear exterior.

AFTER | Restored Facade

Home Exterior Gridley + Graves

Vivid imaginations—and sheer will. Rival house hunters had backed off after getting a close look at the crumbling plaster and aging infrastructure of the ad hoc duplex with an extra kitchen to deal with. Historic-preservation and lot-coverage rules in this 1920s garden district would make adding on close to impossible. Curb appeal? Not really. “We called it the Green Hulk,” Teresa says, unfondly recalling the siding’s unfortunate paint color.

Shown: The restored facade of the 1920 house shows no sign of the square footage added upstairs.

Paint: Sherwin-Williams’s Aviary Blue (siding), Shoji White (trim), and Inkwell (windows)

Defined Kitchen

Photo by Gridley + Graves

Former owners had clamped a full-width aluminum awning on the front porch, giving the facade the look of a card shark with an eyeshade. Alas, the artifact was pure postwar, making it a candidate for protective historic status. So, along with maintaining the footprint and salvaging the rotting exterior, new owners might have to acquire a soft spot for a shifty sun-blocker that had overstayed its welcome.

“We did have to work that through,” Teresa says.

Shown: The open kitchen boasts reclaimed heart-pine flooring, crisply defined windows, and a 48-inch pro-style range.

Windows: Jeld-Wen

Range: Wolf

Sinks and faucets: Kohler

Tile: Ann Sacks

Island pendants: Restoration Hardware

Paint: Sherwin-Williams’s Iron Ore (windows), Passive (walls), Pure White (cabinets and trim), Gray Matters (island)

Island Table

Photo by Gridley + Graves

Shown: A limba-wood top and turned legs give the kitchen island a furniture feel.

Custom cabinets: Timberland Cabinets

Glass subway tile: Ann Sacks

Dining in the Open

Photo by Gridley + Graves

Not that either of them knew from period awnings—only that they had been looking for a family-size house for a long time, and this one’s location and price were right.

Neither homeowner is a DIYer—Amanda is a psychiatrist, lawyer Teresa runs a family business—so they cast about for a construction pro to do a walk-through. “It was pretty spooky,” says Peter Michelson, the fourth-generation contractor who agreed to tour the place before the closing.

Shown: An enlarged opening crowned with a transom now joins the dining room with the living room.

Dining chairs and table: Restoration Hardware

Chandelier: Zia Priven

Paint: Sherwin-Williams’s Passive (walls), Pure White (cabinets and trim)

Meet the Family

Photo by Gridley + Graves

Spooky but salvageable. “It was going to be a lot of work but also our shot to have what we want,” says Teresa. Gradually a game plan shaped up: Return the house to a single-family dwelling. Open up much of the first floor. Finish the second with a full bath plus—somehow—a master suite, and squeeze in a pool (who needs a garage?). All while updating the plumbing, wiring, and HVAC, replacing the roof, rebuilding a fireplace, and gut-renovating the kitchen and a downstairs bath.

Shown: Homeowners Amanda McMillan (left) and Teresa Dau on the restored front porch with their kids, Jameson, now 6, and Ryan, now 4.

Living Room Hearth

Photo by Gridley + Graves

“I tell people, you have to have a gut of steel,” Michelson says, when folks seek his advice in transforming their home. “We have to wait for the architect and get the design approved and the whole thing priced, but real estate doesn’t wait and offers can’t be subject to six months of permitting. And I can’t guarantee what the historic commission will approve.”

Shown: The living room fireplace gained a raised hearth and a surround made from subtly shaded, extra-wide bricks.

Shutters: Acadia Shutters

Claw-Foot Tub

Photo by Gridley + Graves

Michelson did think his firm, Alair Homes Decatur (then known as Renewal Design Build), could turn the house around and even clear the way for that pool. The reno would take about a year and cost more than the house. But it would end up the way the couple wanted—open, upbeat, updated, and kid-friendly. Jameson, now 6, arrived that year, and her sister, Ryan, three years later.

Shown: An original claw-foot tub was reinstalled in the renovated downstairs bath, alongside a vanity fashioned from a vintage industrial cart.

Wall tile: Daltile

Floor tile: Orion

Flooring. Sink and toilet: Kohler

Faucet: Santec

Paint: Sherwin-Williams’s Filmy Green (walls)

Built-in Bar

Photo by Gridley + Graves

The design-build team was pleased to learn that what the couple lacked in construction know-how they owned in decisiveness and good natures. (“If our whole business was built on people like Amanda and Teresa, my life would be a picnic,” says Michelson.) They steered clear six days out of seven, meanwhile consulting updates posted online by the firm. They knew they wanted walls to come down, even if it required, as Michelson says, “new load points.” As for finishes, they agreeably honed a shared aesthetic after Googling “historic bungalow,” “modern farmhouse,” and “lots of light.”

Shown: A built-in bar taps space under the second-floor stair landing.

Wine fridge: Sub-Zero

Safer Stairs

Photo by Gridley + Graves

Historical value notwithstanding, the place was half-baked, with stairs that went straight up to a half story with two small rooms, a plywood floor, no bath, and a front-facing dormer illuminating dusty attic space. Downstairs, twin front doors opened to separate apartments, with a second bath and second kitchen in bumpouts that may have been added when the house was duplexed. A knack for deferred maintenance hung in the air. “It’s amazing anyone was able to live there,” says Michelson, recalling broken windows and a wobbly foundation. Local builders, he says half-seriously, “used to turn bricks on their sides and call them footings.”

Shown: The rebuilt staircase has a period-style newel post and balustrade, but its newness is revealed by the landing two steps up from the dining room—much safer than the kite winder stairs of yore.

Artwork: Justin Gaffrey Gallery

Master Suite

Photo by Gridley + Graves

“There was a lot of rot,” he says of the exterior walls, “so we had to do it piece by piece. Some framing was not okay, and there was no sheathing behind the siding.” To insulate, the crew used what he calls the burrito technique: The plaster comes off and the stud cavities are lined with moisture-resistant house wrap, then filled with insulation from the inside.

Shown: The master suite sits discreetly in a second-floor addition that can’t be seen from the street.

Windows: Jeld-Wen

Paint: Sherwin-Williams’s Dovetail (walls)

Luxury Spa

Photo by Gridley + Graves

The design-build team aimed to not only open up the house but also flood it with light and connect it more strongly to the outdoors. A near-blank slate after demolition allowed them to conceive a kitchen from scratch and a screened back porch in the old kitchen bumpout. Crews tore out the stairs, one of the fireplaces, and several interior walls. New load points were introduced in the form of fresh footings and piers and an abundance of LVL beams and headers. The team rebuilt the crawl space, restored wood siding, and repaired the front porch. A high-efficiency HVAC system offsets energy lost through single-pane windows painstakingly restored by a local window wizard, Sandy Crowe.

Shown: The master bath gets its luxury-spa look from a sculptural soaker, a skylight, and a curbless, frameless-glass-enclosed shower, all behind sliding glass doors.

Skylights: Velux

Glass doors: Sliding Door Company

Shower doors: Atlanta Glass Concepts

Tub and tub fittings: MTI. Shower

Wall tile: Daltile

Porch for All Seasons

Photo by Gridley + Graves

“It was a herculean task, for sure, but a marquee project for us,” says Michelson—landing two awards for historic renovation and a spot on a Junior League kitchen tour.

The team’s genius move was annexing air space above existing one-story back extensions for a 400-square-foot master suite upstairs that can’t be seen from the street. Two upstairs bedrooms were refurbished, a hall bath added, and attic space under the front-facing dormer became an exercise room.

Shown: In Georgia’s mild climate, the wood-burning fireplace means the skylighted screened porch can be enjoyed nearly year-round.

Fireplace: Malm Fireplaces

Sofas: Restoration Hardware

Ottomans: Tracery Interiors

Back Porches

Photo by Gridley + Graves

They punctured the new roof with five skylights, including one over the rebuilt stairs. To keep light moving, the team put in four glass panels that slide open between the kitchen seating area and screened porch. “It’s amazing for parties,” Teresa says. “And it makes the house gigantic.” Glass sliders similarly set off the master suite’s spa-like, light-filled bath.

Shown: The back porches overlook the new pool and manicured yard. New rooflines in back made room for an upstairs master suite over previously tacked-on single-story extensions.

Sliding Doors

Photo by Gridley + Graves

To unite the first floor, which includes an office and a guest bedroom, the team put down heart-pine floorboards salvaged from 100-year-old beams. Sounds straightforward enough, but the endeavor involved a three-month wait while the beams were snagged, milled, and kiln-dried. After installation, the crew filled holes by malleting in wood plugs, and applied a stain nicknamed Old Dirty Goat.

Shown: Glass panels slide to one side on a triple track, opening up the kitchen seating area to the screened porch, once the site of a second kitchen.

Sliding doors: Western Window Systems

Pocket Doors

Photo by Gridley + Graves

It probably goes without saying that the centerpiece is the open kitchen, with its modern-farmhouse island, pro-style appliances, and a play space within sight but not underfoot.

Also warming things up are two fireplaces, one on the screened porch, the other a wood-burning survivor in the living room. “That fireplace was really important to us,” says Teresa. “We had the whole thing undone by a mason and built back up.”

In the end, she says, the house is “exactly what we wanted—we love it.”

The mason repaired the chimney with brick salvaged from the back of the house. “They were going to paint it gray,” Teresa says, “but we said no, we love it just the way it is.” Flecks of green give the chimney character, and, absent that awning, provide a reminder of what the house used to be—and, in time, what it became.

Shown: Raised-panel pocket doors close off the office. The built-ins are new, the transom window original.

Pocket doors: Atlanta Specialty Millwork

Chandelier: Bling Convertible by Robert Abbey

Library ladder: Bartels Doors

Floor Plans

Floor plan by Ian Worpole

The now 2,955-square-foot house was converted back to a single-family home and 485 square feet added upstairs. The first floor was opened up and got a back porch, a new kitchen, and a screened porch; the rebuilt staircase is now accessed from the dining room.