My wife Rachel and I could easily be described as do-it-yourselfers. Through trial, error, money, time, more error and more time, we know what works for us and what we should never try again. The work, we’ve found, can be a creative outlet, a fulfilling endeavor and a method of escape all at once. After all the work, we can say that our house has shown us—and we hope it shows you—that when you stop worrying about what you don’t have or can’t do, and embrace the possibilities present in your own place at home and elsewhere in the world, performing the task yourself can be as good or better than you ever imagined. The following is a rough breakdown—a diary of sorts, absent of ho
w-to’s, material specs or step-by-steps—on a bit of what we’ve done, why we did it and what we’ve learned.
Entry: First Timers
The first day the house was ours, we started cutting through the outdated, worn-out carpet that lined the main entrance hallway until the tips of our utility blades were as dull as pencil tips and chunks of tattered carpet piled against the front door blocked our way back out. I remember sitting on the floor of the hallway looking at Rachel, my wife of two years then, who was sitting across from me. Our shoe soles were touching. It was early fall and the air still held heat. Across her brow, a few beads of moisture were visible just under her dark brown hairline. Across my own brow there were full-on sweat drops. I’ll always remember that moment, the way she looked and the sweat on my own skin. After I wiped my head on my shirt sleeve, we shared a quick smile without saying a word, both of us knowing we’d failed to change clothes or plan a place for the spent carpet. Hundreds (maybe millions) of staple heads were poking through the floor, left behind from the carpet. She was as beautiful as I’d ever seen her and all we cared about was the house and the possibilities for anything and everything that it would bring.
How can you ever forget something like that—the moment you see that your life is primed to make the dreams of things like kids and dogs and family and BBQ grills, a soon-to-be reality under your new roof? We certainly haven’t stopped working on the house since the day we got the keys. The result is something we think is unique and inspiring, at least to us. We know this for sure: Pulling staples is a nightmare. Duct tape works fairly well to roll up spent carpet. Just because you want dogs, BBQ grills or kids doesn’t mean you’ll get them. Project work, do-it-yourself jobs, and renovation can be more than a task, it can be an escape. For us, through our adventures with infertility and the way it all impacted our daily lives and always the progress of projects, our home has been an experience that we wouldn’t demo for anything.
Entry: On The History
We are the second owners of this four-bedroom, two-bath Cape Cod style house. The previous owners enjoyed a long run in the home with multiple family members living at the residence at any given time. Rachel and I have always had a creative drive. Even early on, we knew that the house was an unexplored canvas fit for our big imaginations. The footprint of the home when we bought it still exists today, but nearly every surface, and the things on them, have been altered. The current version of the home is now clearly distinct from what it was, if not unrecognizable; history in many ways.
Entry: Hardwoods and Trimming
It’s hard to say how long it took us to install hardwood over 2,400 square feet throughout two floors, but “long” isn’t even close. The stain mix was half Jacobean and half Ebony. I think somewhere we still have the floor board sample with multiple different mixes applied. This was pre-Pinterest days. At that time, we slept in which ever bedroom was the cleanest, we had a grill, a house in the middle of a full-on gut/remodel/re-do and we were just getting serious about starting a family. I’m not sure we would have stayed in a house fit for a big family had we known what was to come.
When we started exploring the world of finish carpentry, we knew by then we wouldn’t get pregnant through natural means. Through all the trim work, I think we created a process that forced us to focus on multiple details at once. We just couldn’t think about our larger issues. We’ll always be thankful for trim, as odd as that sounds, because it gave us the escape from our heads that we needed at the time. I learned how to efficiently run separate different nail guns and Rachel uncovered a hidden talent. Nearly every piece of baseboard, shoe, doorframe, window frame, and crown molding was planned, measured and cut by her. The shadow box elements, board and batten, beadboard and wainscoting elements were also from her head and mostly cut by her hands. In the hardcore trim install days, we spent many hours traveling to and from doctor’s appointments in town and out of town. Every single appointment, test or talk revealed the same thing: We weren’t parents. Before going home, we usually stopped at the hardware store for more trim and materials.
Entry: The Canning Craze
After a trip to an apple orchard one summer, we decided to make a batch of apple wine. Time in hospital rooms waiting for ultrasounds gave both of us plenty of internet research time. Somehow we found a video on apple wine. At various times we’ve canned or pickled almost everything—even watermelon rhine—which I would describe as gross. We used veggies from our backyard and the farmer’s market. Rachel spruced up the space with floor stencils. We never got to finish the apple wine process. The stress of IVF treatments, doctor schedules and the like, ruined our remembrance of the wine and by the time we remembered we needed to rack it (re-bottle it), it was too late.
Entry: The Commercial Fridge
Rachel’s parents, who lived in Sioux City, Iowa, were closing their family-owned sub shop after a successful 25 years. The refrigerator had sentimental value to her mother and she was worried about seeing the fridge disappear at an auction. The same week my Dad’s dad passed, he drove with us to Sioux City to pick up the commercial refrigerator we have in our kitchen today. He said there was a hot dog place in Sioux City he wanted to visit, but the conversations we had on the drive down—all about my Grandpa—revealed his true motive. We’ve put multiple turkeys, briskets, platters, cakes and other big food items in the fridge before. Rachel’s only regret is that we didn’t take the commercial bread oven and meat slicer. I’m not sure where we would have put those.
Entry: The Outside Oasis
Driving to and from doctor visits takes a toll on energy levels. Living on a two-week at-a-time schedule makes vacation and leaving home near impossible. During our most serious child conception days, we based everything we did on two-week increments. When you see the built-in planter boxes, trellis systems, perennial gardens and other unique features of our backyard, much of it stemmed from the TWW (two-week wait). We couldn’t leave much, but we wanted a getaway of our own. We found it in flowers and gardening. Before we lived in this home, I didn’t know the difference between a rose and a weed. Now, I’m excited to watch our Morning Glories grow and the Dahlias develop, and the fire pit softly send a sift of smoke into the summer air while an iridescent green humming bird feeds from a Canna lily at the edge of the yard. During the rough times, we’d sit in the north lot of the yard and look to the tree that has grown over that section and watch it silently sway. I don’t care what is going on in your life, that view will soothe you.
Entry: Building Our Own Furniture and Built-Ins
By the time Rachel had the drawings and dimensions for a set of custom queen beds to fit a style she believes combines modern and Victorian elements, we had stopped our doctor visits and research efforts into having children. By then, we didn’t need to do anything else in the house. The basics were done (and then some). Any choice for more trim, a different paint color or in this case custom-built furniture, was based on want. If we wanted to do something, we had decided we would. What we couldn’t get in one area of our lives, we decided to get from another. Furniture building seemed like a reasonably healthy thing to do. Eventually, we just reached a moment in our lives when we came to understand that we couldn’t wait around for things we couldn’t have, but instead needed to embrace what we had in the moment we were in and take action without fear of how it might change our days ahead. Now, we’ve built massive tables, multiple desks, multiple beds, end tables, planter boxes and more. We screwed up many along the way. I asked her once what we are going for, style wise, in the house, and I’ll never forget Rachel’s take on it all. Think of it, she said, like a combination of one thing and the other, light and dark, ink and ivory. When they are paired together in the right way, she still explains to others that ask her the same question, they make a memorable image that inspires your mood.
Entry: Near Completion
As we near completion of the house, we’ve learned so much but understand we have a long way to go. I still can’t read off the tape measure marks as they officially read. Instead of telling Rachel to cut a board at five and seven-eighths, I’ll just ask her to cut a board at six minus a nick and tick. She gets me. Rachel strips a screw head every now and then. But that is about it. I didn’t know I was marrying a professional trim carpenter, reality-TV-worthy interior designer, master gardener, décor finding expert, furniture builder, household design savant, super-woman type woman that Rachel has clearly proven to be. We have been lucky to sustain our happiness together and to grow closer—not further—during all of the projects and the reason we took on so many projects in the first place. As bias as it sounds, I’m also proud of my wife. Not only did she put up with me (reread the tape measure part), but she unleashed and showcased an ability to take on anything she desired regardless of know-how or fear of an unknown. All of that came at a time when all anyone or any test was telling us was, "No," a house is just a house, but we all know a house is more than a house.
Ours isn’t perfect, it's not done and there is plenty more we’d like to do. During the renovation and reimagination of the house, we learned that despite life’s ability to push against you, there is always an alternative. I'm not a big qoute guy but at my desk I have a sticky note with a phrase from some where by some one that reads, "Don't be a fighter if you don't want to bleed." I guess that could be applied to DIY'ing and owning a home, if you swap out the word fighter for DIY'er. Our current home includes Drake and Taya, our dogs, that still get to sleep in the bed (why do you think we built a big sturdy king-sized bed). Owning a home shouldn’t be about what you are limited by (time, money, energy, know-how) or can’t do, homes should be the place where you go to bed thinking and smiling about what you have done and what you might do in the future. G
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From Issue 1, 2020 PHOTOS BY: Manstrom Photography