Our Biggest Before and After of All Time
The Texas-Size Makeover That You Have to Know About
For our 2018 Idea House, we headed to Austin, Texas to take on a fixer-upper of our own.
As we started planning the 2018 Idea House, we had a few specific visions for the project: We wanted to do a real home makeover (rather than build new construction); we had our eyes–and hearts–set on Austin, Texas; and we were determined to complete the renovation with the best local talent. And so it began. First, we picked our Lone Star State dream team–including Hill Country native and designer Meredith Ellis, who spent over a decade decorating in New York and LA with Bunny Williams and Michael Smith before returning home with her husband, Hunter Ellis, who runs operations for her other business, James Showroom; Chris Sanders, the whip-smart architect originally from Lufkin, Texas, with a few dozen remodels under his belt; and David and Catherine Wilkes, the husband-and-wife contracting duo who have made careers overseeing hundreds of down-to-the-studs renovations in Austin. Our next step was to set the criteria for choosing the right property: It was important to have "quick access to downtown, be in a good school district, and be about 3,000 to 4,000 square feet with space for four bedrooms and four baths so a family could live comfortably," recalls Hunter.
After viewing 35 houses with an agent and combing neighborhoods for any "For Sale by Owner" signs, Meredith finally found "the one" while she was checking real estate websites at 4:36 a.m. "The listing had posted at 4:30 a.m., and it struck me as having potential," she remembers. Once the entire team agreed that this home (which is located in the Northwest Hills area of town) had good bones and plenty of room for improvement, everyone went to work on a tighter-than-normal timeline (four months—from January to May) to meet our magazine deadlines. "There were sleepless nights," admits David. But this year's fantastic fixer-upper was worth a little insomnia.
"It didn't totally lack curb appeal, but it had a lot of layers that needed to be peeled back so the house could speak more clearly," says Chris.
While the broad hipped roof and the wide front porch are classically Southern (these elements are both common to the West Indies-style architecture that migrated to Louisiana and spread from there), the white Austin Chalk limestone "ties the house to its Texas identity," says Chris, who didn't tamper with the home's striking form. Instead, just a few small tweaks were made to soften the exterior. Chris and his team edited down some of the facade's inconsistencies to achieve a simpler, more charming look. They squared off the front columns and dormer windows; swapped out ill-fitting windows and shutters for brighter, right-size pairings; and installed a new Marvin front door with sidelights. GAF's Slateline in Antique Slate shingles have multiple shades of gray, which soften the roofline.
Garden designer Julie Blakeslee of Big Red Sun Austin took down the heavy, boxwood-laden garden beds to keep "the facade friendly to the street," she says. She also installed blousy plantings, including palms and deer-resistant picks like lantana, oleander, and Mexican oregano. "Cover new plantings with deer netting for a few weeks," she suggests, since no plant is really safe from these hungry animals. Around the patio out back, Julie designed raised beds. "They knit the house into the landscape and help you appreciate the plants more because they are higher," she says.
The stairs did not meet today's building codes and overall the entry lacked much interest.
Architects Chris Sanders and Jena Hammond where able to disguise the stair expansion with a new archway below the landing that also gave this foyer a little bit of drama. To highlight the fact that the foyer is two steps above the dining room and living rooms, Meredith had her sister-in-law, Storey Ellis, a decorative painter, create a custom stencil to make guests notice the floors (and keep them from tripping).
Dining Room: Before
Chris took direction from the old saying “You’ve got to dance with the one that brung ya” to enhance the existing features of this nondescript space.
Dining Room: After
Removing the interior shutters and installing 7-foot-tall windows flooded the room with light, and a wall of built-in shelves elevated the room’s architectural integrity to align with the foyer’s archway.
"I wanted this room to be versatile," says designer Meredith Ellis. "I made sure to select good bones to start with: a traditional wooden dining table, bold but classic draperies, and upholstered walls for a great backdrop." Building on that foundation, Meredith says she layered in a seagrass rug to "freshen up the room," added slipcovered chairs "for a little touch of feminine," and hung the Coleen & Company Sarafina Chandelier in a verdigris finish to "tone everything down."
Family Room: Before
Hemmed in by a poorly planned den addition that ran across the back of the house and a barely used breakfast room, the old living room was too closed off for today's open-concept lifestyle.
Family Room: After
The team eliminated the breakfast room, and incorporated those spaces into a more casual family room that connects to the kitchen. The den wall was taken down, and the space was reappropriated as a sunroom, filling the main living area with more light.
Located in an open space that's opposite the kitchen and wedged between the foyer and the sunroom, this area called for tricky decorating maneuvers. "I had to make it work with the kitchen, but I wanted the family room to be its own separate space so someone in here could comfortably watch TV," says Meredith. The solution? Concentrate on a mostly blue palette to set apart the area, and devise a crowd-pleasing furniture plan. She faced the large chesterfield sofa by Moss Studio (it seats up to four comfortably) toward the large fireplace to create a division between the family room and kitchen island, but she turned the patterned club chairs (1077-01 Chair by Lee Industries covered in Schuyler Samperton Textiles' Nellcote in Sky) toward the kitchen to facilitate conversation with the cook.
Originally, the kitchen was in the back of the house directly off the side door to the garage. It was small with angled cabinetry, counters, and island—a common head-scratcher from 1980s homes.
Chris "reprogrammed" the layout of the house into a more centralized, open floor plan with a connected kitchen and family room at the heart of it. He reworked the majority of the old kitchen space into a mudroom and walk-in pantry.
"I wanted a blue kitchen but needed something that would look just as good in 20 years," says Meredith, who installed a blue-gray tiled wall (Idris by Ait Manos Field Tile, 4 x 4 inches in Pearl Grey) that runs from the countertops to the ceiling. "It's simple but casts pretty light and offers texture," she says. Continuing with the classic design discipline, she picked brushed nickel hardware (Cup Pull and Norwich Knob; emtek.com) for the putty-colored cabinets (Henlow Square Inset by Wellborn Cabinet, Inc. painted Sherwin-Williams' Repose Gray [SW 7015]). For the countertops, Meredith chose a tough gray stone (Caesarstone in Piatra Gray 5003). She says she preferred a honed surface to "be more approachable, complementing this home's indoor/outdoor way of living." Over the island, she hung a pair of lanterns (Hector Finch Lighting's Sir John Soane Hanging Lantern; jamesshowroom.com). Made mostly of clear glass, they maximize light but have a traditional frame.
Layered in Texture
As the demand for open floor plans rises, so does the need for convenient auxiliary spaces like this 6- by 6-foot walk-in pantry to stash your things. After hunting for attractive storage ideas, Meredith actually copied the grain bins from her childhood home. She used glass-front drawers (they're a customized version of the kitchen's Henlow Square Inset from Wellborn Cabinet, Inc.). "It's how my mother did our pantry growing up. We had one for beans, one for potatoes, and so on. It was such a cool design element and kept the counters clear," she adds, noting that the decorative plate rack also has a purpose. "There's always a need to store extra dishes that people tend to collect over time but don't use every day. This way, you can display them so you don't forget you have them."
Skip cafe lines with Thermador's 24-Inch Fully Automatic Built-in Coffee Machine and refrigerated drawers stocked with milk, juice, and water.
"In a city like Austin, you're outdoors all the time, so families need a place for storing a lot of gear," says Chris, who maxed out the hallway that connects the back door to the kitchen. Within this one space, he fit a washer and dryer (not shown), a row of cubbies with accessible open storage below and closed cabinets overhead, and a dog food station. "It's nice to have a place to close off the mess from the rest of the house," Chris says.
The walls are clad with James Hardie's Artisan V-Groove siding and painted in Sherwin-Williams' Cyberspace (SW 7076) for some utilitarian charm. The ceiling light is Clarkson Lighting's Academy Semi-Flush Mount size medium.
Hide holders for pet food and water bowls in the toe kick at the bottom of cabinetry, and insert food bins into large pull-out cabinets.
"When it's too hot to be outside in Austin, people still want to be in sun-filled areas," says Meredith, who conceptualized this room to mimic being on vacation. "It's also the place where you can sit and have a drink after the kids are in bed." To create that getaway vibe, she selected comfortable dark rattan furniture—fittingly, the sofa (Palecek's President's Sofa) is made with built-in cupholders on the armrests. Red, brown, and blue block print fabrics; a Hunter ceiling fan (the Bennett); and a scattering of blue-and-white Portuguese-inspired pottery complete the look.
The most ingenious design element in this home happens to be the most inconspicuous. "We needed a powder room in the part of the house where the living was going to happen, but having bathrooms right off living spaces is a real pet peeve of mine," says Chris. He collaborated with Meredith to design a 15 ½- by 9-foot wall of louvered doors that hide an almost 5-foot-wide powder room, a small wet bar, and a row of air vents that run across the top. "I wanted the doors on the wall to be special but not overly decorative," she says. For additional privacy in the bath, the door opens to a long and narrow vanity area with a small water closet tucked behind a wall at the back.
"I wanted to show that you can use a pattern on a pattern in a toned-down way," says Meredith, who layered two different printed fabrics in this small space. Worried that cloth will stain in a powder room? Meredith has all of her fabrics treated with Fiber Seal a professional stain treating company with locations all across the South. For a small fee, they will come treat your fabrics, rugs, and upholstered furniture which includes one year of on-site, stain removal consultations and removals. "It's like an insurance policy for fabrics," says Meredith.
Previously, the master bedroom didn't have any windows, which failed to satisfy 2018 building codes. Chris managed to oblige the requirements by keeping the original bedroom in its place but incorporating additional space from the old den that connects to the porch, making an inviting lounge at one end of the room. "Now, the master has views of the wooded backyard with great natural light and a cozy sitting area for hanging out," he says. "I wanted it to feel like a library so people would be comfortable walking through here from the porch during a party," says Meredith.
"Sherwin-Williams' Quietude (SW 6212) is a deep celadon that's perfectly calming for a bedroom," says Meredith.
This Theodore Alexander desk fits perfectly in the bay window for jotting down quick notes or working on a project.
New Marvin Clad Ultimate Double Hung Next Generation 2.0 windows situated in a corner flood the bath with sunlight. Meredith maintained the clean decor scheme by selecting Ann Sacks Calacatta Borghini Mosaics Tri-Weave marble tiles for the floor and Calacatta Daniele tiles for the walls. A freestanding, vintage-looking tub (Cast Iron Double Ended Clawfoot Bathtub; maidstonesupply.com) warms up the room. A moonlike pendant hanging above adds even more texture (O'Connor Chandelier; circalighting.com).
Extra-deep window ledges (about 10 inches wide) double as shelves to hold towels and candles. The windows are covered in Roman shades made with Tulu Textiles Alvin teal fabric.
Chris put every inch to good use. Case in point: the master closet. "We pushed the bedroom wall forward to grab an extra 75 square feet of space," he says. Then Meredith outsourced the closet configuration to a local company—More Space Place—who outfitted it with pull-down closet rods for hanging out-of-season clothes, a jewelry chest, and numerous other compartments.
A built-in ironing station, which is complete with a spot for the iron and a board that swivels and folds out, eases laundry duty.
Located on the top floor, the boy's and girl's rooms are both long and narrow with sloped ceilings. While not ideal for decorating, irregular spaces like this can give a home charm. Meredith and Chris embraced that notion by treating the boy's room like a ship's quarters, covering the angled ceiling with beaded board painted glossy taupe (Sherwin-Williams' Repose Gray, SW 7015) for a nautical look. Sticking with that theme, she selected twin beds (Suzanne Kasler Sophie Headboard; ballarddesigns.com) dressed in masculine navy, brown, and white. "To max out the impact of an upholstered headboard, match it to the bed skirt," advises Meredith.
"This distinctive iron bed was in a New York City design show house in the 1970s. I found it at the Original Round Top Antiques Fair and had to have it," says Meredith. Using the palm-topped four-poster bed as the room's kick-starter, the designer continued the look of girlie whimsy by covering the walls in a soft pink fabric (Siam in Shell by Carolina Irving Textiles). "The pattern helps disguise the sharp angles of the walls," she says.
Meredith has a knack for working with unusual colors. This spice-colored guest room (Sherwin-Williams' Cavern Clay SW 7701) is case in point. Most people would shy away from using such a rusty orange shade, but she embraced it (keep in mind that this is University of Texas Longhorn country) letting it steer the cozy direction of this bedroom. The pine bed with bamboo detailing was one another "antique" find that got for a steal and had it refinished.
The dark brown wood stain gives the classic Louis Phillippe a handsome, Texas twist. Ave Home is a New Orleans-based company specializing in traditional furniture that homeowners can customize with stains or paints. Sister Parish Design's new Appleton Paper Bag Brown wallpaper adds a tonally-appropriate cheery touch to the guest bath.
Back Porch: Before
The original porch was filled with a hot tub, a dozen stars of Texas set into flimsy lanterns or heavy limestone columns, a too-rustic iron railing, and (most problematic of all) rotten wood.
Back Porch: After
Removing the hot tub, repairing the rotten wood, and demoing the heavy design elements created a lighter, brighter space to hide from the Texas sun. It is replete with skylights, clean trim, and all-new Foundations decking from ChoiceDek.
"Because this area is high off the ground, it catches great breezes," says Meredith. "This is where people are really going to be in the evenings, so it needed to have both seating and dining areas. When deciding how to arrange the furniture, I put the table closer to the patio where the grill is," the designer says. The living area, which is furnished with pieces from the Tidewater collection by Bunny Williams Outdoor from Century Furniture, opens to the sunroom so people can easily move in and out during parties.
Meredith mixed Southern Living for Dillard's New Nostalgia collection pottery dishes with pots of herbs on the table to suit the porch's relaxed vibe.
Garden designer, Julie Blakeslee of Big Red Sun, and her team designed extra-deep stairs clad with Belgard pavers in Danville Beige to provide additional seating for guests. Blakesell also designed the walls (built with Belgard's Lamina Tandem stone in Danville beige) that contain the garden beds to be extra high as a tidy way to bridge the height difference between the windows and the patio.