A Custom Fit

When it came to finding the dwelling of their dreams, these three homeowners didn't hit the real estate market, they remodeled. These three success stories prove renovating your living space may be better than searching for a new one.

Lakefront Treasure

Barb and Joe Webb’s foyer is a reflection of early New England. A rustic 18th-century table is dressed with wooden bowls and a ladle fashioned from a dried gourd. Sage-painted walls and wood floors constructed from century-old Ohio poplar — all salvaged from old homes — create an appropriate backdrop for the Webbs’ antiques.

“One of our goals was to make this house fit the antiques we have collected our whole life,” Barb says, noting their preference for pieces in the 1800 to 1830 period.

But the utilitarian entrance to the Mentor home hides the reason the couple purchased the property. Barb cracks a door to the next room to reveal a stunning Lake Erie view.

After six moves, the Webbs knew they wanted to retire in this sort of home. While living in a condominium for two years, they began planning their dream home — a retreat to showcase their antiques, enjoy the lake and live with modern appliances and luxuries.

“So many people come into neighborhoods and build gigantic, huge, corner-to-corner houses,” Barb says. “Our goal for this house was to fit with the neighborhood, so we didn’t want to go up another floor or make it huge.”

Using the cottage as a shell, the Webbs’ ongoing renovations resulted in a lake oasis designed to carry them through their golden years.

“My No. 1 priority was to turn this home into a comfortable place that complemented our antiques and also fit our lifestyle,” Barb says. “We were in our 40s when we got it and we plan to retire here.”

Bathroom sinks are universal height, stability bars are installed by toilets and in showers, walk-in showers are wide enough to fit a wheelchair and, though the master bedroom is on the walk-out lower level, there are extra first-floor bedrooms.

Long-term planning also affected the Webbs’ approach to tackling the remodeling project. Taking on two renovations each year, typically in spring and fall, they framed a budget and prioritized their needs and wants.

“It’s important to know your house,” Barb says, noting that once they moved in, planning the space was even easier. “Because we lived here while we were renovating, we thought about each room. I might sit in a room for a half-day and think, How could I make this better?”

Both Barb and Joe have a strong sense of design and ample skill to manage painting, drywall and even flooring and demolition processes. Still, they needed to structure their ideas into a long-range plan.

“We are strong in our ideas but specialists helped us,” Barb says.

The Webbs, however, did serve as project managers. Both are retired and enjoy working with their hands, so helping out was important to them. Barb painted walls and plastered faux finish in the bathrooms. Joe painted ceilings and demolished the summer kitchen, hauling loads of wreckage to the dump in his Jeep.

“It’s your house and you are going to live in it, so it is important to be involved in the process,” Joe says.

Not all homeowners can or even want to participate in the remodeling process to the degree the Webbs did. And because the couple contracted different projects with various specialists, their renovation required careful facilitation. When it came to the kitchen, Barb turned to Laura Faralli of Faralli Kitchen and Bath Design Studio in Willoughby Hills.

Faralli says the Webbs’ distinct style called for attention to detail. “We take that information and make drawings and plans,” Faralli says. “I actually hand-draw everything, like putting together a puzzle.” Computer-aided design software is then used to show floor plans, elevations and perspectives so the client can get a view of what the design will look like.

In the kitchen, the couple opted for modern and natural instead of the authentic antique theme in the foyer. “The choice was to either go really, really old like the rest of the house or make it a soft, complementary kitchen that everyone would love,” Barb says.

The kitchen planning started in May 2003, but the couple tore out a wall and constructed an addition at the same time. “We coordinated our timing so when the room was ready to receive cabinets, we could get in there quickly and install them,” Faralli says.

Her choices included cherry cabinets, a Viking range, concrete countertops, an ample-sized island with bar sink and faucets that look like old-fashioned pumps. Cabinet covers mask all appliances, from the Sub-Zero refrigerator to the Bosch dishwasher and even toaster oven and telephone. Barb held the same requirement in the living room, where a television is hidden in a corner hutch. “I don’t believe [appliances] should show if we are trying to do this period look,” she says.

Faralli also led the design in the Webbs’ downstairs master bedroom kitchen. A consistent color scheme with terra-cotta paint, stainless steel range, peach limestone and granite counters provide an inviting space to brew the morning coffee.

Only the upstairs front bedroom and lower-level master bath lack lake views. But the Webbs — certified “bathroom freaks,” Barb says — make up for it in the master-bath and spa combination that covers half the lower level. The door to the Webbs’ oasis is discreet, next to a fireplace and table where the couple enjoys their morning coffee and newspaper. But on the other side of the wall is a large tub where sandalwood-scented candles set a relaxing mood.

The grand master bathroom renovation started in 1992 and has evolved three times since, Barb says. She and Joe mapped out the design, outfitting the space with his-and-her closets decked out with accessory racks and dressing chairs for each of them. Twin sinks face a mirrored wall, lending depth to the tub area.

“But this is the very best part,” Barb says, stepping into the generous walk-in shower. She turns the knob and a spray of water shoots from the pan-sized rain head. “This is just the most awesome shower in the world.”

The Webbs keep the heated peach limestone floors at 80 degrees even in the summer. “Limestone is cold,” Joe says, noting that the initial expense is worth the luxury, and electric bills are minimal.

Project planning has allowed them to pace themselves through the expensive process, Barb says. She admits that living in work-in-progress mode a couple times a year can get tiring. “There is dirt, there is noise,” Barb says.

Advance planning for every project prevented them from running into surprises while they knocked out walls, ripped out floors and sanded down limestone.

“And if you do your work ahead of time, you won’t be surprised at how much things cost,” Barb adds. “I had estimates for the kitchen, plumbing, lighting — that helped me frame my budget.

“Some people ask, ‘Why didn’t you tear down the house and start over again,’ ” she adds, noting that would have razed all the home’s charm as well. The Webbs considered the home a foundation on which to build their dream. And they were willing to invest in it.

“It is very daunting to choose everything for a whole house, so we were slow with our planning and we did it by section,” Barb says, offering her best advice. “Everyone who lives in the house has to talk to each other, otherwise you might discover that each has their own ideas.”

Colonial Creation

Bill and Cheryl Madsen could have purchased a condominium or even a new home. For the cost of renovating their 16-year-old colonial, they could have stuck a “for sale” sign in their Strongsville yard and hunted for something bigger and better.

“But we wouldn’t have the quality,” says Cheryl, who calls their traditional home a “last hurrah.” “We wanted to make sure we had high-end materials. …Our demands for our home are different now.”

The Madsens’ empty-nest lifestyle no longer calls for a kitchen table for family dinners, but the couple still needed space suited for family gatherings. “Both of us are involved in our jobs — our careers,” Cheryl adds. “This is more efficient for us.”

These reasons and a desire for custom-fit design drive many homeowners to renovate rather than trade in old real estate for new, says project manager Leslie Reddy of North Olmsted’s Bennett/Dover Home Remodelers. Reddy worked closely with the Madsens to develop project plans. They had some very specific ideas.

Bill and Cheryl had spruced up their home over the years, but the cosmetic treatments essentially updated the mauve-and-teal palette popular when they built the home. A photo Bill found in Architectural Digest helped the couple imagine their home as a clean slate. “We tried to model the kitchen off of a picture that I thought was the epitome of kitchens for the period of house we have,” he says.

The couple’s Williamsburg taste was already evident in every antique hutch, rug, art reproduction and perfectly placed candle. Even the wingback chairs are covered in a George III pattern, dressing up a “casual” living room that feels like an English pub or hunting lodge nook. The Madsens found their favorite pieces at showrooms such as Ethan Allen and Sedlak’s in Solon.

Before the renovation, patterns collided in the kitchen — plaids and floral, papered walls, cherry cabinets and teal laminate counters. The style was traditional, but not sophisticated and warm like it is now.

Prior to gutting the interior, the Madsens considered the way they use their kitchen, blending function with their preference for period style. Reddy developed blueprints for the couple following a series of meetings to discuss their kitchen wish list.

A generous island with a bar sink, warming drawer and woodwork detail topped their list of wants. Amber-glazed maple cabinets set the color scheme and Reddy worked in granite counters, as well as an elaborate seven-piece marble and limestone backsplash. To find a logical doorway that would open into the Madsens’ desired hearth room addition, Bennett/Dover drafted plans to slide the kitchen sink to the other side of the wall, resting it beneath a proposed bay window. A coffee bar area with a wine cooler and glass cabinets stands where the refrigerator once was.

“For Bill, it was the yellow cabinets that led us to other selections,” Reddy says. “For others it might be a color — they want to paint the walls red or they want cherry cabinets.”

Reddy addresses budget in the first planning phases, important so she can steer clients toward sensible choices. “People are hesitant to share their budgets,” she admits. “I try not to focus on it because I don’t want to stifle the creative process. But if I were to design a $125,000 kitchen and the client was only interested in investing $40,000, what have I achieved?”

Kitchen details afford plenty of room to upgrade and exceed budgets, Reddy adds. And the Madsens weren’t bound by their initial estimate. Bill knew their investment would be significant, figuring this was their final major home renovation. In the end, the couple spent close to $200,000 on their whole home.

“We were thinking about this renovation a lot,” Bill says, admitting that the project mushroomed from the original plan: Gut and renovate the kitchen and add a hearth room, which would provide places for people to sit and enjoy coffee or drinks.

“When you do a remodeling project, it’s typically even more expensive than new construction because you have demolition costs,” Bill reasons. “And the demolition can uncover areas that you didn’t know existed.”

When carpenters peeled away layers in the Madsens’ kitchen, they discovered a number of problems that translated into additional costs. “This room was a total tear-down to the studs,” Bill remarks. “It revealed not only the hidden costs but things you wouldn’t think about unless you are in the business.”

For example, they didn’t expect to find a floor joist that, if moved, would cause the second level to collapse. Reddy says she usually doesn’t find these surprises in newer homes, but the floor joist position was illogical and masked for years by drywall.

Meanwhile, Bennett/Dover considered additional electrical and plumbing needs for the repositioned range, bar sink and warming drawer in the kitchen’s island, and indirect lighting in cabinets.

“Every time we did one thing to one room, it impacted another,” Bill says, pointing out how the mantel in the hearth room mimics the columns on either side of the kitchen pantry. “The design was a total carry-over.”

Indeed, the project overflowed from the kitchen/hearth room area to the entire house. The doorway from the kitchen to the living room was closed 15 inches to make room for an additional cabinet next to the stove. That led to wallpaper and décor updates in the adjoining room. Why not retile the laundry room that extends from the living room? And once the cabinets from the kitchen were removed, Bill found use for them in the basement, which was re-carpeted and painted once a crawlspace was built under the new addition. Before long, ideas for updates and complete structural renovations floated upstairs: a brand new master bathroom shower, bedroom woodwork, walk-in closet design and even modifications to the guest rooms.

“When you change one thing, you want to change it all,” Cheryl says. “While the house was all torn up, we said, ‘Let’s keep going.’ ”

Bill adds, “That’s why it took as long as it did.”

Construction started in March 2005 and the project was completed July 15.

Reddy says many homeowners choose to renovate more than one area of the house, often scheduling projects on an annual basis or choosing to change a few rooms at a time. The Madsens were an exception, but their philosophy to multitask was economical.

“If you can do multiple projects at once, it will be much more cost effective than to do them back-to-back,” she says. “If you have a plumber in the kitchen, he can move from there to the laundry room to the bathroom. You may have three major rooms that are torn up, and that will be an inconvenience, but if [the Madsens] had done all of these rooms separately, the project would have taken eight or nine months rather than four.”

When living in dust and noise and constant foot traffic, the less time spent “under construction,” the better. The Madsens boxed up their kitchen and stored dishes in the formal dining room. They packed their Florida-style breakfast room (off the living room) with heavy furniture pieces from the living room. Bill purchased a small refrigerator and set up their microwave in an extra upstairs bedroom.

“It was like staying in a dorm,” Cheryl says.

The couple ate out a lot or were at their daughter Diane’s house two or three times a week.

Reddy says the work-in-progress status prevents some homeowners from digging into a large-scale project as the Madsens did. She advises clients to imagine the final results. “It’s not always going to be wonderful and everything is not always going to be clean,” she says. “But if you can keep that end result in mind, I have not had a client yet who has said it wasn’t worth it. Instead they say, ‘Why didn’t I do this a year ago?’ ”

Bill says an addition shouldn’t look like an afterthought, which is why he wanted a design-build firm to take on the extensive project.

“They can give you a project that looks like it was built with the house,” he says. “They duplicated the eaves and pitch of the room. If you go in the back yard, you can’t tell that the hearth room is an addition.”

The Madsens estimate the final project was 50 percent more work than what they planned for in the original contract. But the couple is ecstatic about the result.

“When you do a renovation like this,” Bill says, surveying the 14-foot hearth room ceiling, “you want to do it right.”

Efficient Expansion

Even on a 38-degree day, Carol Ward’s gas heat isn’t pumping high-priced energy into her North Olmsted ranch home. Not yet, she says. She can wait. With the flick of a remote control, she switches on the fireplace in her great room addition. Construction consultant Tim Quinn of Cleveland’s Aero-tech Construction places his palm 6 inches from the glassed-in flame. The room will warm up and retain this heat in no time.

A blower can circulate the heat through floor vents placed underneath each of the four windows in Ward’s great room addition, but Quinn says she won’t need to turn it on — the room will warm up just fine without it.

“I had the fireplace blower on the other day and it got really warm in here,” Ward says, adding that warmth and the fireplace she’s always wanted are her two most loved features about her new addition.

Ward had been feeling cramped in her North Olmsted ranch, and she considered moving in with her son and expanding his Parma Heights home. But a desire for personal space grew into a plan to expand and connect her home to its freestanding garage.

“I just kept going and going,” Ward says, surveying a 940-square-foot addition that nearly doubled the size of her 1,100-square-foot ranch-style home. She extended her bedroom by 130 square feet and planned room for a master bath with a walk-in Jacuzzi tub. The hallway leading from the original house to the addition carved space for the washer and dryer, and by connecting the home to the garage she won’t risk a slip-and-fall come winter.

But Ward’s favorite part: Even with all this space, she expects to pay only 10 percent more than her usual gas bills, which were in the $70 range last year. This energy-efficient perk was intentional — her renovation approach was different than many homeowners, who first concentrate on décor and finishing touches. For Ward, construction materials preceded color choices.

“Energy efficiency was the biggest priority,” she says.

So rather than building a room traditionally with hardwood and studs, Aero-tech built Ward’s room in a couple of days using Techbuilt Systems — engineered wall panels comprised of steel framing and expanded foam. Each panel is constructed with a foam core to prevent cold or heat transference from outside to inside, describes William Molle, president of Techbuilt Systems in Cleveland

This explains why Ward no longer feels prevailing northwest winds that once beat on her back door and drafted into her master bedroom. “She won’t get that blast because she has this protection,” Quinn points out.

Panels are custom made at the Techbuilt Systems facility in Cleveland. “The wall panel comes with a door and window opening already engineered and in place,” Molle describes. “That speeds up construction.”

Also, infrastructure allows for design flexibility. Without interior load-bearing walls, homeowners can enjoy large, open rooms and high ceilings. “The system comes standard with vaulted ceilings where traditional stick builders would charge you more for that,” Molle describes. In Ward’s case, her ceiling is 13 feet at its peak.

“Also, many times with remodeling, the homeowner isn’t exactly sure how something will look in the final phase,” Molle points out. “Because of the flexibility of a panel system, we can easily accommodate last-minute changes after construction.” For Ward, this meant closing off space to create a master bathroom and extend her bedroom.

Quinn introduced Ward to this material — but she didn’t trust only his word. “My choice to go with his company was strictly business, it wasn’t only because I knew him,” she assures.

In fact, Ward called several friends when she decided two months ago to make a move on her renovation plans. She asked for referrals and suggestions. “I prefer to trust word of mouth rather than just open the phone book,” she says. “I wanted to choose a company that had good references.”

She invited four other contractors out to her home to assess the original structure. “At the time, I wasn’t sure what I wanted,” Ward says. “It was going to be much smaller.”

She decided to use Aero-tech Construction, because she didn’t want the responsibility of hiring separate contractors for flooring, electricity and plumbing. “They took care of hiring other contractors for me,” she notes. “I wanted one stop — do it for me, here it is.”

Of course, even with a construction system that takes no more than two days to erect, renovations rarely go off without a hitch. Planted in Ward’s back yard was an abandoned septic tank Quinn discovered while digging the foundation. “The house is 60-plus years old, but Carol has lived here for 45 years, so she already had sewers,” Quinn says. Building approvals, inspections and uprooting the tank added a couple of weeks and a good $3,500 in plumbing fees to the project.

“No one had any way of knowing — there weren’t good records,” Quinn says. Also, because Ward wanted to connect her new addition to a detached garage, building codes required a firewall.

Those were the major kinks; other hold-ups occurred after Quinn built the structure. “I kept distracting them,” Ward remarks. Her imagination let loose with cosmetic lifts for the inside: a wall painted in cranberry — should it be cranberry? — Yes, of course cranberry. “I made the contractor take it back twice,” Ward admits, laughing. Oak mantels and window frames were a quick decision; so was Ward’s preference to mimic ceiling texture on the far wall.

Still, Ward needed furniture to fill her big space. She scouted neighborhood stores such as Sofa Express, La-Z-Boy and Kaufmann’s, mentally storing their inventories so she could return to her space and decide what colors and styles fit best. Her final stop was Value City, where she purchased a whole living room set.

A tableau-sized mirror framed in embellished faux gold hangs on the wall behind Ward’s sofa. She noticed the same sized mirrors for nearly $3,000 at other places. Hers was a steal at $300. “I couldn’t believe she found it for that price,” says Erin Quinn, president of Aero-tech.

The overstuffed sofa would barely fit in Ward’s old room, but that and a matching love seat and chaise lounge are the perfect proportion for her new addition. She chose a sandy palette with berry accent pillows to match her walls. There’s plenty of room to breathe in this space and the mirrored wall and neutral floor trick the eyes into over-appraising the room’s square footage.

“I went over my budget, but I did more than I expected,” Ward says, warning that even disciplined planners can exceed their initial budgets. “I wasn’t going to install all new doors, and the master bathroom and bedroom addition — those were add-ons. If it wasn’t for [the Quinns] telling me to slow down, I would have kept going and going.”

Ward will break from renovating the rest of her home for a while; new carpet in original rooms was enough to tide her over while she considers what’s next. For now, she’s content in front of her fireplace watching the flat-screen television — a moving portrait above her mantel. “This is where I want to be,” she says.

Share this story: