Architect Amy Vaughan and builder-husband Warren convert plain ranch-style homes into contemporary showpieces.

Amy Vaughan knows about reinvention. After practicing architecture for nine years in Manhattan, focusing on commercial work and public housing, Amy came home to Atlanta to renovate her mother's ranch-style house and contemplate the next step in her career. Turns out she'd already taken that step.

"I liked redesigning my mom's house, and I thought, 'I'm on to something with these ranch-style houses, so I think I'll just stay,' " she says. Nearly 10 years later, examples of Amy's thoughtful reinventions dot the rolling hills of Valley Brook, Garden Hills, and Buckhead, where her reputation continues to grow by word of mouth from one happy homeowner to the next.

Good Bones
"We had a little split-level, and we'd gotten bored with it," says Amy's mother, art gallery owner Frances Aronson. "One builder who has done beautiful homes told me, 'This is the kind of house we bury.' Well, I liked some things about my home, and I didn't want to just bury it!"

Amy designed around the existing footprint and what she calls the "good bones" of the house. She transformed it into an Italian villa, complete with a terra-cotta-hued stucco exterior and a wisteria-draped pergola, and launched her new career in the process.

"She worked with what we had, took out walls and ceilings, exposed the beams, and opened it up," says Frances. "It doesn't have that much more square footage, but it seems spacious. She made it comfortable."

Amy and her husband of six years, Warren (a contractor, who is also her business partner in Amy Vaughan Inc. Design/Build), nearly doubled the square footage of their own ranch-style home. They kept only the foundation and some interior walls.

"We like the idea of taking a ranch-style house and actually transforming it," says Warren, standing amid stud walls and carpenter's dust in the evolving foyer of their all-American ranch-turned-Colonial home. Even when the couple tears down much of an original house, they try to save some of the old and blend it with the new.

"Warren and I can find great shortcuts with our plans because we've worked together so much," says Amy. "I'm such a different kind of architect now for having done design/build projects. I used to say, 'That would be so beautiful, but let's just see what it would cost.' Now I come in and say, 'Cut this; cut that,' and make it work within a budget. I think that's what clients find valuable--achieving the look they want but controlling costs."

Investing in Each Other
Clients come calling after seeing Amy and Warren's work, loving it, and hearing positive feedback about the couple.

"I really like Amy's sense of scale and proportion," says Jaime Davenport, who with her husband, Jim, had renovation in mind when they bought a Buckhead ranch-style house. "I like what she did in our old neighborhood of Garden Hills, and when I met her, we just seemed to connect. She's really laid-back and is very easy to work with."

Many clients like the fact that this builder-and-architect team is also a husband-and-wife operation. "I had seen some of my friends' projects where the architect and the contractor sometimes pointed fingers at each other, saying, 'You designed it wrong,' and 'No, you just can't build what I designed,' " says Jaime. "I thought, 'Well, these two are married, so they're going to have to work it out!' "

A handful of other Atlanta firms specialize in this type of renovation. Although business has slowed with the economy, several homeowners have called upon Amy and Warren recently with investments in mind.

"The new twist that wasn't there a year or two ago is the investment value of remodeling," says Warren. "If you take 15% of the cost of your house and put it into renovation, whether it's just redoing your basement or improving the shell of the house, you're looking at 60% to 75% return on your dollars. People are pulling some of their money out of the stock market and looking for another direction to go with it. Right now, there's no better choice than home improvements."

Renovating proves particularly wise for Atlantans who want more living space but not a longer commute, Amy says. "Some of our clients bought their houses for about $180,000," she says. "We put $200,000 worth of improvements into them, then see them appraise for more than $1 million--all because of the location."

Staying Close to Clients
Most of their clients' homes are within 10 minutes of each other, and all of those are a short drive from the Vaughans' home-based office on West Wesley Road. The backseat of Amy's car, splashed with milk stains by the couple's 2-year-old son, Austin, reveals her working-mother status.

"Many of our clients have children and like children, so I've taken Austin to lots of meetings," says Amy, who graduated with a degree in architecture from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1982. "Doing this, we've met the greatest people. They're all trying to get more space for their growing families. That's the best part of what I do. I like contributing to the creation of a nice home where kids will grow up."

Living With Change
Jaime and Jim Davenport and their two children, who were ages 5 and 8 when their home was renovated, opted to live in the basement while Amy and Warren worked on the house. "The minuses," says Jaime, "were being rained on when our tarp blew off, getting gypsum drywall dust in our faces, cooking on portable appliances, and feeling cramped down there. The good thing was being here every day to check things out and follow the progress. It also helped that our kids were younger then--the mess didn't bother them so much."

"Updating the Ranch-Style Home" is from the October 2003 issue of Southern Living.