Meet the Grand Prize Winners: Best Whole House Remodel 2013
With almost nothing but blind faith—and hard work—the Simpson family saved a sadly neglected community landmark to create a vibrant home
We first came to Idaho to visit my brother and liked it so much, we spent the entire 14-hour drive home trying to figure out how to move there too. Our twins, Ethan and Ellie, were 3 years old, and the little town of Eagle seemed like the perfect place not only to raise a family but also to feel like part of a community. As my husband, Dustin, and I talked, we realized that if we sold our place in San Diego, we might be able to build a house in Eagle from scratch. We were lucky enough to be able to do that, and everything was going along smoothly until the recession hit and we lost everything, including our new dream house. That was three years ago.
Shown: The family's retriever, Buddy, is a fixture out front, as is a historical plaque that dates the two-story addition on the right of the bell tower to sometime around 1930.
We were trying to figure out where to go and what to do when Dustin comes home one day saying he drove past this vacant day-care center with a historical plaque and a For Sale sign out front. Hint, hint. I tell him he has to be kidding. He says let's just go take a look. We have an agent show us the place, and the first thing we see inside the door is a bunch of dead mice. Next I notice the kitchen has no fridge or stove. The rooms are bare, and there are just four of them downstairs, plus a funky bathroom hanging off one side, outfitted with a tiny toilet and two tiny sinks for children.
No garage, no closets, no master suite.
Shown: The home, built in 1912, was originally also a church.
The plaque said the place was established as a church and a school in 1912. Later, classrooms and living quarters for a teacher were added and the original chapel divided up to create a rec room. In the 1990s a day-care center moved in, but by the time we saw the place, it had been empty—mice aside—for months. The agent told us it was three weeks away from foreclosure. That meant one of Eagle's favorite landmarks, a nearly century-old building on the National Register of Historic Places, would sit and rot.
Shown: Homeowners Stephanie and Dustin Simpson, with the help of twins Ethan and Ellie, 12, pumped life into a barren schoolhouse and furnished it with salvaged finds, including the kitchen cabinets, appliances, and schoolhouse lights.
Butcher-block countertops: IKEA
Granite countertop: Stone Surfaces, Eagle, ID; 208-938-0037
Pendant over sink: Barn Light Electric
Floor stain: Minwax
Barstools: Graples Home Decor Outlet, Nampa, ID; 208-467-2963
I told Dustin we had to save it. We did some creative thinking about how to turn classrooms into living space, arranged some creative financing that allowed us to take over the mortgage, and broke the news to the kids: We were moving into an old church!
We arrived with no money, so we decided to fix it up as we went along and pay cash for everything. We had learned our lesson. In fact, you might say we saved the church, and it saved us.
Shown: After opening up the first floor for better flow, Dustin and Stephanie added a pair of salvaged doors that lead to the family room and finished the living room with a reclaimed pew.
Luckily, the kids saw it as a big adventure—and it was! Picture the first floor with beat-up vinyl tile and gross carpeting, back stairs with a distinctly non-horizontal feel, and an upstairs bedroom, bath, and kitchenette; and imagine trying to turn all that into a home. The place looked so empty and worn, it was hard to imagine it full of life. But at one end of the rec room sat a stage, just big enough for our piano and a few singers. Our family loves music, and the thought of having people perform here kept us going.
Shown: Ethan and Dustin prepare for their next musical performance against a backdrop of vintage ceiling tiles. The family regularly hosts community concerts.
Ceiling tiles behind piano: The Shabby House, Boise, ID; 208-853-1005
The first step was making the place habitable, which got off to a weird start. The guy we hired to clean out the septic tank said he couldn't do it—too many tree roots. So there we all are, standing around waiting to hear what he wants to do about it, and he tells the story of another guy who had the same problem and how that guy got down into the tank with a chain saw and cut out the roots. Then there was a long silence as he looked right at Dustin.
The kids got a real kick out of suiting Dad up with garbage bags and duct tape, and down into the Pit of Despair he went, armed with a reciprocating saw and a 12-inch blade. Ethan helped the whole time, raising and lowering a bucket as Dustin filled it with root balls. Talk about heroic!
Shown: Dustin built the master bath in space annexed from the original kitchen and finished it with beadboard and a DIY vanity.
Faucet: Glacier Bay Lyndhurst Series
Mirror: The Shabby House, Boise, ID; 208-853-1005
To clear space for all the work we had to do inside, we shoved our boxes and furniture into one classroom, which became the junk room. Another classroom became our bedroom, and the kids took over the upstairs, including the tiny bell tower. Later we'd create a second bedroom and a new bath up there. But a bigger priority was the kitchen, which turned out to be our toughest project and also our proudest achievement.
Shown: A former classroom, the family room lacked storage. Stephanie overcompensated with cubbies and bins from Costco.
The old kitchen was more snack room than cooking space, with big windows looking out over potato and corn fields and not much else. It was drafty, so we tore out the ceiling and took the window wall down to the studs to add insulation. Plaster went everywhere, and when the dust settled, there were beautiful Douglas fir ceiling beams, which we decided to leave exposed. Dustin the dust maker got out every tool he owned to build my dream pantry, not to mention a master bath and a small mudroom in the footprint of the old kitchen. I love how organized, homey, and bright the space feels.
A home was beginning to take shape.
Shown: After tearing out the kitchen ceiling, Stephanie and Dustin decided to leave the Douglas fir beams exposed. Dustin built the walk-in pantry, and together, on hands and knees, the couple put down stain to create the checkerboard pattern.
Refrigerator: Kitchen Aid
Paint: SW 6385 Dover White (cabinets; beadboard, except in foyer; family room walls; and all trim) and custom blend (kitchen walls); Sherwin-Williams
The old kitchen floor was kind of a nightmare: chipped vinyl tile on top of plywood on top of more tile held in place by what looked like black goo. Using an iron and pieces of aluminum foil, I was able to soften the adhesive and pry up the tiles one by one. My mistake was then attacking the floor with a sander, which gummed up so quickly, I made a panicked call to a flooring company, and the guy there immediately says, "Whatever you do, do not sand!"—not without a hazmat suit, anyway, as I was probably breathing asbestos. Yikes. We quickly covered up the adhesive with plastic and nailed new pine flooring right over it.
Shown: The view from the kitchen takes in burlap curtains made by Stephanie and faux coffering added by Dustin, who invited the kids to hammer the wood for a distressed look.
By this time we were real Craigslist regulars. That's where we gleaned "new" cabinets and appliances—including a KitchenAid fridge we could never have bought new—along with a shelf system for a closet that Dustin built in the family room, a $35 glass chandelier for the master bath, and a rusty cast-iron tub, which we sanded down and painted and added there too.
Shown: Dustin furthered the cause by lining the hallway that leads to the master bedroom—another former classroom—with generous built-ins.
The kitchen is our favorite gathering place, but I'm pleased to say we also have a living room worthy of our guests. Its finishing touch was a pew salvaged from a church renovation in downtown Boise. We stripped it, stained it, and positioned it facing the stage.
Shown: The hall tree, a family heirloom, in its new spot.
Plenty of things remain to be done, from finishing the bedrooms to building a basement laundry room. But it helps that these days we've learned to live with much less. The kids even helped us organize yard sales so we could release items back into the stream of lightly used goods that has nourished us so well.
Sometimes we do miss the house we built from scratch. But we have loved fixing up this old schoolhouse, and we love our simpler life right the way it is now.
Shown: Stephanie found photos of their house at the local museum and hung copies in the new foyer, which she finished with paint and glaze.
After three years and counting, Dustin and Stephanie Simpson have learned a few things about how to deal with dust and disorder. Their tips:
Focus on one project at a time. "It's like, 'How do you eat an elephant?' " says Dustin. "The answer is, 'One bite at a time.' We drew up a five-year plan and broke it into pieces so we wouldn't be overwhelmed." They also started with small bites. Early on, Dustin built open shelves in the basement to serve as a pantry. It created a sense of order while the new kitchen and walk-in pantry were still just an idea.
Set up a sanctuary. "As soon as we could, we turned the chapel room—now our living room—into a place where the kids could do homework and we could have meals," says Stephanie. "You need to have one spot everyone can escape to." Less than a year after moving in, the family was able to host a Christmas party in the chapel room with live music and nearly 100 people. Making the rest of the house guest-ready came later.
Schedule breaks. "I can go hard-core for days on end, but I've learned how important it is to walk away and take a break before you get depleted," Dustin says. "When you're ready to go back, you'll find you have more energy and interest."
Shown: Good-bye chimney; hello laundry chute.
Engage the kids. "We were lucky because ours were old enough to take some pride in what we were doing," Dustin says. "Without them, we would never have been able to cart away all that plaster and lath we tore out of the kitchen!"
Go to Craigslist every day. "We learned to look for things we weren't even looking for—like our church pew and the doors to our family room, which were salvaged during renovation of the state capitol," Dustin says. He adds: "It's like Facebook. If you check it out regularly, in the end you'll save time because all the new postings are right at the top."
Shown: Rubble master Ethan at work!