Grand Prize Winners: The Search for America's Best Remodel 2014
How did one of our fellow readers earn our awe—and a $5,000 prize? Well, first he had to "retire" so he could work on the house full-time. Nice job!
The exterior boasts the original corbels, but the shutters, copper gutters, and fiber-cement clapboards are all new.
Before switching gears, my wife, Becky, and I were both in pretty high-octane jobs and beginning to think one of us should be doing something different. We barely saw each other, and I'd get home most nights after our son, Taylor, was in bed. Something had to give. In the end, I decided to make a change. I quit my job solving problems at a private bank to work full-time fixing up a house.
We were already looking for a fixer-upper near where we were living, in New Jersey, when I passed this wreck of a farmhouse in the town of Branchburg. An old red barn sat right behind it—perfect for a dream workshop. I said to myself, Wow, now there's a project!
The place was on a cul-de-sac surrounded by new houses. It had been empty for two years, and at one point had been at risk of being razed. But it was a local landmark, and the neighbors wouldn't have it. Ultimately, the developer moved the house and the barn to a corner lot and plunked them onto brand-new foundations.
The house was unusual, nothing like the box-shaped McMansions you see everywhere. I liked the quirky roofline with the intersecting gables, and after falling for the front porch I could imagine how one in back would be even sweeter. The place was crying out with potential.
At this point my former colleagues in the banking business might have called me retired—but I was getting ready to work harder than I ever imagined.
I had a million plans for the house, but before we signed on the dotted line, I checked in with the local historic preservation commission. I'd heard horror stories about renovations screeching to a halt because a new roof or some new paint color wasn't acceptable. Folks from the commission agreed to come by for a walk-through, and they not only threw support behind my plans but also gave me the best tip of all time: Be careful what you throw out. (See "Prize Inside" at right.)
Our old house sold quickly, but our "new" house was uninhabitable. So we decamped to a rental nearby, eager to get going on what would soon turn out to be an immense undertaking. Our new routine went like this: Becky would jump on the 6 a.m. bus to New York, and I'd drive Taylor, then 8, to school.
I hadn't had a chance to spend mornings with my son before, and I had no idea how much our time together would mean to me over the years to come. I'm happy to say I've never missed a football game.
After dropping off Taylor, I'd hustle home to get started on Phase One of the redo: Building out the barn so I could have a workshop as well as a garage, and shoring up the farmhouse before a spate of bad weather could turn it into kindling.
Symmetry and proportion mean a lot to me, even when it's a barn, so I designed an addition that wraps around two sides and the back—like a horseshoe—while stepping back from the gable end that faces the house. A wide door to the right, where I unload lumber, is balanced on the left by a screened-in porch.
Had I ever taken on projects like this before? Not really, though I did do some work on a house we once owned up near Boston. My real love was actually furniture making, a hobby that dates back 20 years. From there, my passion had widened to woodwork and built-ins. I couldn't wait to finish this house with casings, wainscoting, and all the rest.
But first I had to focus on making sure the place didn't collapse. The floors weren't level, and they sagged in spots. Termites had compromised the old beams. Rain poured in through one wall. The weight of the roof was pushing out the walls, so the house would need new joists and support columns.
One thing I've learned through life is that there's a solution to every problem—you can't let yourself be overwhelmed. So the first thing I did was bring in a couple of pros to help with demolition and structural repairs. One of them, Dimo Mihaylov, turned out to be a kind of savior. It took about six months and 15 dumpster loads just to gut the place.
We found kitchen joists that were so old they still had bark. The siding was nailed right to the studs. No insulation! But we did find some funny things stuck in those trembling walls, including a bunch of Christmas ornaments carved from walnut shells—seems the mice made off with them one year. Behind the layers of plaster in another wall we uncovered a ladies' shoe, complete with button and bow. I'm not sure when it's from, but as I learned from reading up on old houses, it's not an unusual find: Centuries back, people tucked shoes near openings in walls to ward off evil spirits. I prefer to think ours was put there as an emblem of the house's "soul"—get it? Later, Taylor and I decided to bury the shoe back in the new walls for some future generation to find. Only he and I know right where it is—we swore each other to secrecy to keep Becky guessing!
While studying the wall situation, we realized all the plumbing and wiring, even the furnace, had to go, too. Then there were the uneven floors—we'd have to even them out by jacking up the floors from the basement.
With the floors opened up, the two chimneys at the center stood free, so we used one as a gauge as we very, very slowly jacked up sections and shimmed the support columns in the basement. Bingo: Now the first floor was level.
We'd knock off at sundown just hoping this thing would still be standing in the morning. I had plenty of sleepless nights, but the challenge was like a drug.
Becky and I love old houses but we wanted all the conveniences—central air, a whole-house sound system, even a central vac. A local architect, Alexander T. Polaski, drew up floor plans and we began the business of pulling building permits. At first, I was apprehensive about this whole phase of the process, but I have to tip my hat to John Tamburini and the other folks at the Branchburg building department—they were great, every step of the way.
We reframed walls and installed joists 12 inches on center—I wanted a house that was sounder than a bank. To get a big, open kitchen, we took down walls, which meant adding a 1,100-pound beam overhead to support the second floor. We did it like the Egyptians: no crane. We just hoisted it through the front window, carried it back, and seesawed it into place.
To gain space downstairs, we moved the basement stairs, and throughout the house we moved openings to improve the flow. Now you walk down the central hallway and have a choice: right to the dining room, straight to the kitchen, or left to the living room. The challenge upstairs was dealing with steps connecting floors at different heights under the different rooflines. I ended up raising the roof over Taylor's room so you didn't have to duck to enter.
For the master suite, I merged two rooms at the front of the house and rejiggered a step-down into a kind of hall under the eaves on that side of the house so that I could also fit in a walk-in closet. At the end of the hallway is the master bath, which is filled with light from windows on the back of the house.
There was one near disaster. It started innocently enough when I decided to take apart the main staircase's mahogany balustrade to have it stripped. Each baluster had a hand-cut pin to dovetail into its tread, so I carefully numbered them as I took them out, so I'd know where they belonged—each joint was like a fingerprint. To my horror, when the balustrade returned from the strippers, the numbers had disappeared along with the layers of varnish. I thought I'd never figure out which baluster went where! But as I like to say, there's a solution to every problem. Through trial and error, I figured it out.
Once various pros had taken care of the plumbing, wiring, heating and cooling, chimney work, and drywalling, I had a big empty box. This was what I'd been waiting for—a chance to dream up all the details inside and out, from custom interior trim to copper shutter caps.
I replicated the original casings in my shop, installed wainscoting in the main halls, and built a lot of furniture and cabinetry. I even developed a system for installing bookcases: Start with 5-inch-high plywood bases, and if you get them level, what's on top will be too.
Finally, I reached the last part of the remodel, the downstairs guest room and bath, where I was determined to maintain the same kind of symmetry I'd aimed for throughout the house. In order to center the guest-room door, I had to put a pocket door in the bath, which meant creating an extra-thick wall so that the door could slide behind the shower enclosure. As always, there was an answer—I just had to take the time to find it.
This time, however, I had a new helper—Taylor. In the time it's taken to finish this house he's turned 18. It's hard to believe, but in a sense he's been right at my side every step of the way. No sooner had we finished up the downstairs bath than he was off to college.
I couldn't have done this without Becky cheering me on, of course. She'd get off the bus every night and walk in the door saying each day brought another "miracle." We worked together to get each room in shape, moving furniture and rearranging it as our living space grew. Becky even sewed the window treatments, one by one.
Becky agrees: No matter what Taylor chooses to do in life, we hope he is as happy as I have been working on this house. She and I have already talked about what we'd do if life presented us with another falling-down house: She'd keep her day job, and I'd head off to my workshop.