Jan and Rob enjoy the tranquility of their home that is more reminiscent of a Northern Michigan retreat with views of woods and river than its college town location might suggest. But this wasn’t always the case. Helping their home make the transition through the growing pains of several disconnected additions, to a space that felt like a balanced, expansive whole, required a team effort of creativity, flexibility, and collaboration.
Becoming the latest stewards in 2009, their house revealed a multitude of additions and updates since its original construction in the early 1900s. If there was any consistency to be found, it was a shared sense of respect and appreciation for the nature of its scenic setting. This sentiment was expressed by the natural warm finishes, and was one that Rob and Jan didn’t want to lose. While no strangers to renovation projects in previous homes, they weren’t quite sure the best way to proceed, and began to look for partners to help.
For starters, bringing in light to brighten the small dark kitchen was paramount. As cooking partners, Rob and Jan needed a bigger kitchen with more counter space, two sinks and a feeling of spaciousness. It was also important to have the new space tie in naturally with the rest of the house and incorporate their scenic setting overlooking the Huron River.
As much as lists of aesthetic must haves and need to haves is central to every renovation story, it quickly becomes apparent that Rob and Jan put as much thought into the process of the project, and the working relationship with the design and build partners. The importance of finding the right contractor was on the top of their essential list. After talking with a few builders they decided Giraffe was the right partner for them. “When we talked with Martin from Giraffe he really listened. We immediately felt like he was a friend and was looking out for us”.
On this project, Rob and Jan knew what they wanted but were not as clear on how to achieve it. “When we met with Martin, he was approachable, personable, and listened carefully providing us with many possibilities and ideas to help us realize what we wanted”. During the discovery process, Giraffe owner Martin, and designer Steven listened, understood, and suggested creative ideas. Right from the start, the process was collaborative and stayed that way through to the end.
This type of partnership was important to Rob and Jan, and was most important at pivotal moments such as the decision to shift the axis of the kitchen from East-West to North-South. This afforded an expansive vaulted ceiling to open the space and bring in the light for a transformative feeling of spaciousness. Figuring out how to incorporate an underutilized hallway was another opportunity for creative problem solving. Steven suggested using large pillars as a way to make the space bigger and taller while tying it in nicely to the rest of the house. “Even though it wasn’t originally what we had in mind, we love the space the pillars were able to provide”.
The kitchen doubled in size in its evolution to a functional space with appropriate scale in the home, while keeping the original aesthetic with the selection of natural materials, including an exquisite granite countertop with deep earthy tones and texture. Combined with the floor, cabinet, and ceiling finishes, the result evokes a Northern Michigan cottage retreat without sacrificing any functionality of a modern day kitchen.
The final project was more involved than they initially imagined, but it was still important to Rob and Jan to remain integral team members. Giraffe’s flexibility and willingness to let them do what they could was important. Berry, the lead carpenter, mentored Rob throughout the build process. Rob volunteers, “I became Berry’s ‘gopher’. I would remove insulation, Jan and I busted out the floor, and we did a lot of the grunt work ourselves. Berry became my coach and mentor, and I enjoyed learning.”
As with any big renovation project, they experienced both challenges and joys during the process. Their biggest strain was living in the house with no kitchen. Over the holidays the house was filled with family, including 5 grandchildren. Jan explained that “Giraffe tried to help as much as they could They built a temporary kitchen sink and stand with makeshift plywood counter tops so the family could help with the cooking. They built a temporary hook up for the washer and dryer so we wouldn’t have too many trips to the laundromat.” It was the day to day living in construction that was the biggest inconvenience.
Luckily they also had daily progress. Their biggest joy was seeing Berry there every day during the entire project. From beginning to completion Berry was there working hard to get it done. “Previous renovations in other homes we never knew when someone would be there. With Berry we saw consistent progress everyday. We knew he was dedicated to getting it done, and it was exciting to see our dreams come true.”
They also enjoyed reusing some of the materials from the original house and incorporating them into the design. The ceiling was finished with the redwood that was carefully torn out of the old kitchen and recycled with renewed purpose.
Rob used more of the wood to build a bench, keeping some of the old, tying it into the new.
Their advice for others considering a renovation project?
First, “Patience and flexibility, that’s what everyone involved has to have. When you’re renovating, nothing is straightforward. There are always surprises so you have to be flexible and willing to change as needed.” An example was when Jan and Rob tore out the kitchen floor they found 4 different levels of sub-flooring which required a weekend’s worth of custom cutting the boards for the new floor so it could be all one level.
Next, “The client has the final say. When the designer suggests options, the client always gets to have the final decision.” That said, they described a great way they used to resolve all differences of opinion with three votes between Rob, Jan, Giraffe. If they couldn’t reach consensus, everyone would vote and the 2 vote majority won. It worked well for Rob and Jan, and they highly recommend it.
Finally, hire a design build company. “This was the first time we worked with a design build firm. It’s worth the investment. We really recommend it and it made all the difference. We would not be as happy with our design as we are. We worked with them and decided on the design. We also have to say that everyone from Giraffe was excellent. The designer, lead carpenter, office people, they were all professional, personable, warm, and they listened. We always felt that they wanted to do the right thing and they always made it right!”