Janet Lukens liked the way Debra Hudacek went after passing shots on the tennis court and regularly served up aces. Hudacek played like the match depended on each point. Lukens, an interior designer and owner of JML Interiors, and Hudacek, president/owner of D. P. Hudacek Contracting, belonged to the same tennis club and happened to be playing on adjoining courts.

After their games, Lukens marched over to Hudacek and announced, "I bet you and I would have fun playing together. You seem like a woman who isn't afraid to take risks." Little did they know how useful this trait would become off court.

The two had been tennis buddies for several years when Lukens approached Hudacek to redo a 50-year-old ranch she'd purchased for $200,000 in a stately, older section of Kansas City, Mo. The 1,500-square-foot house -- with two bedrooms and two bathrooms -- was the smallest and plainest on the block. Real estate values in the area ranged from $400,000 to $1.25 million, so Lukens planned to spend about $250,000 to remodel and still keep the house reasonably priced for the neighborhood.

She was renovating her life at the time, as well. Lukens' marriage had ended, and she was determined to turn the ranch into a haven to heal -- in less than eight months. "I arrived with a divorce and an attitude," she admits. "I was determined to have everything I wanted."

Credit: Cheryle St. Onge Before

Wishes and reality

Lukens imagined a warm plantation-style house with multiple entryways onto a front porch. She wanted space for her two sons to spread out and a large country kitchen that could accommodate onlookers. The house was positioned too deep on the lot to expand in back, so Hudacek recommended adding a second story.

Lukens approached an area architect with an outstanding reputation for classic, modernist work. She asked for working drawings that included an interior layout, a stairwell, and a new roof line for the added second floor.

To speed the process up, Hudacek's team started demolition while the architect drew up plans. The crew stripped the roof and the exterior facade and took the interior down to the studs.

But when Lukens got the initial plans back, she was dismayed. "It looked like an office building," Lukens says. "It was a stucco-and-metal box, way too severe for the traditional neighborhood." Most of the nearby homes were built during the first half of the 20th century in traditional styles. Split-timber Tudors and Colonials abounded.

Doug Method Photography

Lukens showed the plans to Hudacek, who identified problems that were more pressing than just the design aesthetic. "For one, it had grown to 4,200 square feet and was a $600,000 remodel instead of a $250,000 job." For another, the stairwell as designed would block the front door, and the house still lacked an entryway.

Lukens asked the architect for changes. After three or four meetings, she realized he was not going to produce a workable house for her, but it was too late to start with another architect.

Hudacek encouraged Lukens to use the architect's plans to get a building permit. Hudacek banked on coming up with solutions to soften the design as the project evolved. She had a strong sense of exactly the kind of house Lukens wanted. "It became a discovery process from this point forward, a true design/build project," Hudacek says.

From minimalist to manor

The two went to work to eliminate the more minimalist and hard-edged aspects of the plan. They kept most of the layout and spatial make volumes but changed materials, such as adding native stone to the facade. They eliminated the exterior retaining walls and tile roof. Then, Hudacek designed a wooden porch with a second-story veranda, and Lukens designed shutters to decorate the windows.

Doug Method Photography

The architect had drawn a small bathroom off the first-floor master bedroom that opened onto a large walk-in closet, but Lukens wanted a more spacious bathroom without losing closet space. Together, Hudacek and Lukens redesigned the 14-by-15-foot space into one large room lined with built-in cabinetry that conceals hanging rods and storage drawers. This actually increased linear hanging space, and the mirrored doors make the bathroom seem even larger. The extra-tall double sinks face each other as part of a marble peninsula, which opened up enough wall space to add a built-in vanity.


As the project evolved, Lukens started asking for more. She wanted to expand room sizes on the first floor. She insisted on replacing all the windows to call more attention to the many rooms with exposures on three sides--the master bath, the breakfast room, her sons' computer room, the family room, and the tower.

"There was no containing her," Hudacek says. "I tried to keep her focused on the budget." All work was done on a cost-plus basis and billed monthly. Hudacek sent reports that documented expenses to date and those still to come, valiantly trying to keep Lukens to the budget.

To give more livable space without more cost, Hudacek stole space from hallways and incorporated it into rooms. The house actually became nearly hall-less with only a small anteroom that buffers the master bedroom from the living room and a short hallway off the kitchen to an office, laundry room, and half bath.

Doug Method Photography

The final project costs were about $350,000. Considering the original designs would have run much higher, Lukens feels like she got more house than she expected. As a trade-off for increasing the scale of the house, she made concessions on some of the details and cut her furniture budget to offset some of the added costs. She chose 18-inch-square limestone tiles for the kitchen counters instead of solid stone. Custom iron railings for the stairway became wood spindles stained with a Gunite finish to look like metal. This reduced the cost per spindle from $70 to $6. A discarded piece of Corian removed from another client's kitchen became a bathroom counter. Lukens crackle-finished an old wooden desk, dropped in a sink, and turned it into a bathroom vanity.

She also worked alongside the construction crew. She painted first coats and insides of cabinets. "The crew wouldn't let me paint anything that could be seen." And, she did cleanup work.

The seamless working relationship between Hudacek and Lukens kept the project on schedule, if not on budget. "Janet made decisions quickly," Hudacek says. "Without an architect, she didn't have to call anyone acting in her behalf."

The pair was also able to recover quickly when something went wrong. The plans called for a two-sided cabinet wall that would separate the kitchen from the family room. When the piece arrived, it was way too massive for the space. The cabinetmaker created a single row of cabinets against a Sheetrock wall instead -- in 48 hours. He then used the original piece as an entertainment cabinet upstairs. "My cabinet guy is incredibly flexible," says Hudacek. "He does what it takes to make the client happy."

He wasn't the only one. Hudacek has built her business on flexibility and understanding that clients change their minds. "I've never told a client, 'This is what we bid, and this is what we're doing.' My clients hire me because I see their point of view. I work mostly with women. They know I understand construction, but they also know I'm not afraid to stop a project to show them other spaces, to make sure they've considered other options. I want them to feel confident they've made the best choices."

Credit: Cheryle St. Onge

Lukens has no regrets about the project. "I love the way the house flows. I wouldn't change a thing." She's well-adapted to her new life circumstances, as well. She even felt sorry enough for her ex-husband to send Hudacek to rescue him. He had been remodeling his own home for more than a year and the project had completely stalled. "His remodel was in trouble," Hudacek says. "So, a year after we finished Janet's house, we headed over to bail him out."

Hudacek proves the old adage that life is like a game of tennis: The player who serves well seldom loses. --Loring Leifer is a freelance writer in Shawnee Mission, Kan.

Stairway to Happiness

The most challenging aspect of the project was creating a stairwell to connect to the upper-story addition. The original home had no entry hall -- the front door opened directly into a small living room. Putting the stairway in the front of the house would have shrank the living room even further. At the back of the house was an enclosed porch addition on a poorly constructed slab.

Doug Method Photography

The architect suggested a center-hall stairway that borrowed space from the porch area. This solution, however, reduced usable first-floor space and still left the house without an entryway. The architect solved the problem by adding a tower on the front to contain the stairwell. However, the stairs as designed made the tower door unusable. Hudacek moved the stairs to the south and west walls of the tower, freeing the door and providing an entryway. Although constructing an entire addition just for a stairway was admittedly extravagant, it did free up interior space.

Thinking Like the Client

Debra Hudacek came by her ability to understand just what clients want by being one herself. Hudacek's husband used to traveled a lot. As a hobby early in their marriage, she began renovating their own home. The pair became part-time spec remodelers -- they would buy another home every few years, remodel it, then sell it at a profit. Hudacek learned the business from her perspective as a client. She branched out to investment properties, acting as her own contractor.

Then, about four years ago, the buyers of one of her homes tracked her down with a proposition. "We were so happy with the work you did on this house, but we've really outgrown it," they told her. "If we bought another house, would you do the remodeling work?"

Hudacek has been working ever since. Most of her jobs come by word of mouth, and she's worked her way through entire families. In one family alone, she has remodeled houses for a mother, a son, a daughter, and a daughter-in-law. Revenues last year reached $1.5 million, and she now has six full-time staff -- two lead carpenters, one electrician, a trim carpenter, a painter, and support staff.

She's put together a team that excels in communicating with clients as well as in craftsmanship. This lends a more congenial atmosphere on the site, and it shows. Her jobs sometimes look more like housewarming parties than construction sites. Past clients often drop in to visit -- usually bearing plates of cookies or cakes for her crew.

"My clients love my team," she says. "It's taken years to get the right mix, but when you do, it really makes clients happy."