Seventeen years ago, on a drive through the hilly, leafy streets that surround Nashville, Tennessee's Vanderbilt University, Dan and Evelyn Raines found the house of their dreams. The modest 1920s French-cottage-look-alike sat high above street level, perched on a deep, double lot that climbed the hill behind it. The three-quarter-acre property promised plenty of room for Evelyn to pursue her passion for gardening, and the convenient midtown location meant Dan could easily commute to his job as a music producer. The diverse neighborhood with excellent schools in walking distance made it ideal for raising a family.
And when they knocked on the door to say that if the owners were ever interested in selling, they'd be interested in buying, they were delighted to get a “Funny you should ask” response. The owners were contemplating a career change. Six months later, Dan and Evelyn and their infant daughter, Farris, moved in. Within a few years, a second daughter, Anne Carney Raines, was born, and the home's finished, but undivided 300-square-foot attic space became the girls' bedroom and playroom. “It was such a creative space,” Evelyn recalls. “For a few years, everything was tents! They grew up learning to share.”
But as the girls reached their teenage years, possessions piled up, the tiny half-bath seemed to grow smaller, and “walls” of beaded curtains and bedspreads were not adequate enough to mark off their separate areas. The lack of closet space, the inefficient bathroom, and the girls' mutual desire for privacy made it clear: A renovation was in order.
Evelyn and Dan set out to find a remodeling firm that could help them generate ways to make the new space function to accommodate all the girls' needs, but they had two major concerns that anyone hoping to take on the job would have to address. One was that in bringing in trucks, Dumpsters, and needed materials, no damage would be done to the landscaping and hardscaping that encircles the house. “We had worked hard to replace invasive species, installed complicated French drains, put in an extensive brick patio,” Evelyn says. “I didn't want any of my outside spaces destroyed.” The second concern was that the attic redesign respect the intimate scale of the house and neighborhood. They ruled out any expansion that would substantively alter the look of the house from the street, or appear awkward or oversized from the backyard.
Evelyn interviewed representatives from several remodeling companies before she talked with Ridley Wills, co-owner with Wendell Harmer of The Wills Co., a design/build firm founded in 1991. “[Wills] was the first one who really understood my concerns,” she says.
“He had solutions.” Wills explained that his crew could construct a temporary staircase on the outside of the house, then access the jobsite through an opening converted from an existing attic window. A crane parked in the driveway would lift materials in and out, with no need to disturb the yard.
Wills also understood the Raines' interest in the concept of the “Not So Big House” — a shorthand phrase for de-emphasizing square footage and focusing on smart use of interior space. The phrase comes from the title of an influential 1998 book by architect Sarah Susanka that triggered an industry-wide focus on small and smart spaces.
Respect for the Past
Trained in architectural history at the University of Virginia and having a background in historic preservation, Wills is sensitive to issues of tailoring spaces to the way people live in them. “One of the things I respected about [Wills] is, he listens to you,” Evelyn says. “We knew how we had used the space and how we wanted to use it. The ideas came out of our living in this house.”
According to Wills, Dan was “very influential in designing the project.” Some homeowners are hands-off clients, he explains, limiting their involvement to accepting or rejecting design ideas and material choices. Collaborating with a client means more time spent on redesign and revision, but the give-and-take process is ultimately rewarding. “It can be harder, but the end result is closer to their heart,” he says.
The final project grew to include updates that extended the lower level at the rear of the house. That made it possible to expand the girls' space to 750 square feet and neatly fit together shared and separate areas: two snug bedrooms, each with just enough room for a bed and a compact built-in desk with a pull-out writing surface, closets with built-in drawers and cubbies, a common room for TV watching and socializing, and a single bathroom with two small sinks and a tub with a hand-held shower. Sand-blasted glass panes allow the bath area to share natural light from the surrounding space.
Once the plan was agreed on, it became project manager Brian Krueger's job to turn concept to reality. The first challenge came from the weather. “When you tear the back of a house off, keeping it dry becomes the most important thing. Tennessee weather can be unpredictable. We had to pull the tarp back over the house every night.”
The age of the house made certain problems nearly inevitable, Krueger says. As expected, installing connections for the new bath — on the opposite end of the attic from the existing half-bath — meant bringing the 1920s-era plumbing up to code. Opening up the floor to access the home's antiquated knob and tube electrical wiring revealed the need for more extensive rewiring than had been anticipated. “We tell every client, in the demolition phase, we're going to find things,” Krueger says. “Sometimes it's not just a can of worms —it's six or eight cans of worms.”
The girls, temporarily camped out in the first-floor guest room/office, eagerly followed the project's progress. “They'd run up there every day after school,” Evelyn says. “They picked the paint colors, and they had the idea of adding bulletin boards. The crew made them out of the window trim.”
The changes to the home's rear facade included a reworking of the back entry. Now an overhang shields the kitchen entrance, replacing an awning that formerly served that purpose. And tucked alongside there's a handy storage space for garden paraphernalia, a must for Evelyn, who frequently offers gardening classes and tours. The tall, shallow cabinet was built in part to hide an unsightly vertical utility pipe that runs along the exterior. It's a good example of making a virtue of necessity, a not-so-big-space that answers a need and looks good in the process.
The final result delighted the family. Evelyn describes it as “beautiful from inside and out.” She's especially pleased with the balance of privacy and togetherness achieved by treating the bedrooms as sleeping spaces and assigning social functions to the common room, where built-ins accommodate TV and stereo, DVDs, CDs, and books. —Freelancer Judith Knuth is the former home editor of Midwest Living magazine and writes about design and travel from her hometown of Milwaukee.