Some of you know this story so I’ll try to keep the history lesson brief: way back in 2015, I was hired to fix up a sweet funny little house in the woods that a couple friends of mine—Adriana and Barry—had recently purchased. This was intended to be a fairly straightforward undertaking—eliminate a weird half-bathroom, enlarge and replace the kitchen, plus various cosmetic updates throughout like new flooring and paint. Stuff like that. Make it simple and Scandinavian-inspired and ready to hit the growing market of short-term vacation rentals. We, full of innocence and naïveté, called it Olivebridge Cottage.
And then I got started and all was NOT AS IT APPEARED. Never before or since had I encountered a house so determined to present every possible problem a house could have, so adept at hiding them (yes, in fact the home was inspected before purchase!), and able to reveal them in such rapid succession. Siding? Rotted. Sheathing? Rotted. Roof? Leaking. Rafters? Undersized. Electrical? Eaten by rodents. Foundation? Basically non-existent. Drywall? Moldy. The insulation had been essentially consumed by aforementioned pests. Framing had been compromised by structurally unsound alterations over the years. It was an absolute, unmitigated train wreck—which, as it happened, seemed to closely mirror the season of life I was in.
Everything. Was. Terrible. Like truly terrible, not ha-ha terrible. I’d essentially taken this job as a paid favor, a quick in-n-out nice little spring gig to pay the bills for a few months so I could afford to get back to work on my own projects. Supporting myself with my blog wasn’t exactly working out, but nothing was really working out around that time. Other things that weren’t in the plan: all of a sudden living alone in Upstate New York, my little family having (amicably, but sadly) dissolved a few months prior. I was trying to date, and doing a spectacularly bad job of it. A neighbor encouraged me to run for public office, so I decided to go ahead and do that. A local housing-insecure teenager had taken up residence in my own very under-construction home. I was being treated for depression, which didn’t really address the high-highs and low-lows that come along with Bipolar II, the diagnosis I was eventually assigned years later. Every part of my life—including the multiple home renovations—felt totally out of control and exceptionally bad. And at the center was this nightmare house that I was just trying to fix and make cute, and it simply would not cooperate. A real-life metaphor if there ever was one.
As spring gave way to summer, the house kept throwing unwelcome curveballs. The scope continued to spiral while the change orders piled up, and eventually the engineers were called in. To say I was out of my depth is an understatement: I was, let’s recall, 25 years old with no formal training. My qualifications pretty much started and ended with being a blogger who’d fixed up a couple apartments for myself, did some decorating for clients, and was still in the early-ish stages of rehabbing my first house with no idea what I didn’t know. Even the original scope of a kitchen renovation was, technically, beyond what I had ever really done—but that seemed achievable. Salvaging this insane house with every problem in the book from its foundation to its roof? I needed an out.
And I tried to get one. The engineer’s report was not kind. Basically we were looking at a full rebuild, which would typically involve an architect. Which I am not. New construction is a totally different game than renovation, and one that I was neither equipped for nor even really that interested in. I like fixing old stuff. Building new? Meh. Pass.
So I told my friends/clients/homeowners such. That I wasn’t abandoning them but, I could assure them, they did not want me to do this. They’d be in better hands with somebody more experienced, perhaps with a new build or two under their proverbial belt. I was happy to help pick finishes and/or even come back to decorate the place once everything had been sorted.
This pitch did not work. They insisted that I could draft the plans myself and run the construction start to finish. This would have been flattering if it didn’t feel so incorrect, but for reasons I cannot fully explain they believed in me more than I believed in myself. But still—imagine if you’d never driven a car before, and your first experience was behind the wheel of an ambulance transporting a critically ill patient to the hospital. It felt like that.
So anyway. I design the house in free software on my laptop, pretty much a lightly improved version of the old house. The back two additions (comprising about 1/3 of the square footage) are more or less OK, which is a good thing for the budget but a difficult thing to design around.
I hand my elementary plans to the engineers, who return them as similarly elementary construction drawings. We re-apply for permits. We have a start date. Now it is fall of 2015 and this two-month job has taken six months and we haven’t even broken ground.
And then two weeks before the foundation pour is scheduled, the owners request a call. We hop on the phone. I think they have come to their senses and I am surely getting fired, finally. Instead, they want to talk to me about their new little idea to add a second floor master suite to the house, bringing the house from one story to two and from a 2-bed/1-bath to a 3-bed/2-bath. I have no words, but I mumble some objections about how much space a staircase takes up and how I would have to redesign the whole house and then the engineers have to turn that around and this isn’t the permit we applied for and I don’t even know what this means budget-wise and we’re very close to running out of time before winter to pour concrete and OMG PLEASE DON’T DO THIS.
The thing I mostly loved and occasionally hated about these clients was their decisiveness. Once an idea took hold it didn’t go anywhere and quickly became the plan. Presenting three tile options and having them pick one in a few minutes? Awesome, super helpful. Deciding to add an entire additional floor to a house with already-approved plans right before construction? Not ideal. But once again, they knew I could handle it more than I knew I could handle it, and I set to work. A few rounds of redesigning later—and running it by Adriana’s architect friend to make sure we weren’t doing anything stupid—and the new plans were sent off to the engineers.
Edwin and Edgar—the cousins-turned-contracting-duo I’d worked with on some projects previously, set about demolishing the majority of what remained of the house after the previous spring/summer of demo.
We moved the old wood stove into the yard and refashioned it as a sort of outdoor fire pit. We used it to burn off-cuts, stay warm, and reheat pupusas that Edwin’s wife packed for his lunches. I remember they pulled the old roof down by tying a thick extension cord around the ridge and using it as a rope. We were a scrappy team, to put it mildly.
Because of the time crunch before winter, i vaguely recall that we started building with only a foundation plan in hand, re-sized to hold the load of two floors. The earth was excavated, new footings were poured, and a guy named Douglas built the new concrete block foundation.
Eventually the plans arrived back from the engineers, at which point I realized that whatever blind spots existed in my plans would also exist in theirs. The general space and location for the stairs was included, but no detail about the stairs themselves. Little things like the locations of windows or the height of the ceilings were notably absent. But we knew that exterior walls had to be framed in 2×6 fir, that our rafters were to be 2×12 with an LVL ridge beam, and the header for the opening between the living and dining rooms was sized. Mechanical plan? Keep dreaming.
Because I was wearing so many different hats, construction was grueling. You don’t really realize how many micro-decisions go into building a house until you do it, and can’t even really account for it later either. But it’s non-stop. You always have to be thinking ten steps ahead, which is hard to do if you don’t totally know what those steps are. I was on site everyday. I got too little sleep. I drank too much. I shot a finish nail directly through my finger by accident, which I promptly yanked out, wrapped up with a paper towel and some electrical tape, and kept working. This particular move ended up being an effective shortcut to earning the respect of a bunch of lightly homophobic straight subcontractor bros twice my age who I was in charge of bossing around, but fuck if it didn’t hurt like hell.
And yet, about 9 months later, we had a house to show for it. A pretty damn nice house, in my humble opinion. A well-built house, albeit one that involved a LOT of on-the-fly decision-making. I’ll likely never forget the day that we literally figured out the staircase while we were building it, or the day the plumber pointed out that I’d planned a second floor bathroom but nowhere to run any of the plumbing for it, or the day that I made the guys re-cut the rafter tails because I failed to specify one of the multiple valid ways that exist to treat an eaves return.
A funny thing happens with projects like this. On one hand, this thing is now your baby. On the other hand, you hate it and never want to see it again. That’s the push-pull. And then at the end, you hand over the keys and—if you’ve done your job well—it’s pretty much onto the next thing. All that time and effort spent creating a structure and a series of spaces that are intended to be used a certain way, but you never really get to see it happen. Whether the design “works” can remain a mystery.
And for me, it remained a mystery for a while. This project was so intense and unexpected and difficult in so many ways, and by the end I think everyone had to spend some time in their separate corners. My once-easy friendship with the owners had become more fraught, sort of in the trauma-bonding way that family members can want to kill each other sometimes but are forever bound by shared experience and unconditional love. I think sometimes that’s just how it happens—because as much as projects like this are physically and financially draining, the truly taxing part is emotional. You know people at their best and then see them at their worst, and it requires an incredible amount of trust and patience and empathy—all things that can run in short supply when you’re, say, spending months of your life on a thing you didn’t want to do or hemorrhaging tens of thousands of dollars you didn’t expect to spend. As evidenced by the fact that I’m writing this post now instead of 5 years ago when I finished this project, I didn’t even want to talk about it when all was said and done. I’d gained 20 pounds of whiskey weight and torn my own house to shreds in an act of self-rebellion and just wanted to move on.
And then, after a while, things became OK again. I accepted a dinner invitation. I can’t remember the occasion—I want to say it was holiday-related—but I know the house was full of people. Adriana—an excellent hostess and fabulous cook, among other talents—was busy cooking and chatting up guests in the kitchen. Barry was manning the bar in the living room, which normally acted as a kitchen island, but I’d built it on casters for this very reason. The dining table was expanded with all of its leaves, music was playing over a speaker, and everyone was having a good time. There was more than enough—in Adriana-speak—“butt space” for all. And that’s when, I think, it all became worth it. Because ultimately these spaces don’t exist for pretty pictures; they exist as a backdrop for life to play out. For a moment, I got to stand in a structure that started as a nightmare renovation, morphed into an idea on my computer, made its way into physical form, and now was doing exactly what it was supposed to do. People connecting. Sharing laughs. Clinking cocktail glasses. Like Dr. Frankenstein screaming “it’s alive!” when his cadaver-quilt monster sputters to life. After all the “I’ll never forget” moments that I experienced with this job, this is the one that I feel most confident will stay with me forever, and how I want to remember this house that will always, in some way, be mine.
Adriana called me about a month ago to let me know that Olivebridge Cottage is going up for sale. They never could have anticipated that a global pandemic would push their little upstate getaway to act as a real primary residence, a task at which it’s actually performed admirably. But living and working there full-time has left them itching for more bedrooms and dedicated office space—they’ve outgrown it, the market is hot, and it’s time to move on (this time, intentionally in the direction of new construction in the form of a mod pre-fab that I’m sure will be totally awesome). One thing I know to be true of Adriana and Barry is that they thrive on these kinds of big decisions, exciting projects, and major life changes. Staying put for too long just wouldn’t be them, and I’m so happy and excited for them and can’t wait to see what this next chapter brings.
I wasn’t sure I’d ever say this, but now I mean it: I love you, Olivebridge Cottage. There’s no other world in which a 25 year-old totally inexperienced mess of a blogger person gets to design and build a whole house from the ground up. There’s no other world in which otherwise sane, responsible adult people entrust him to do it. I can now recognize what felt like an immeasurable burden at the time for what it really was—the opportunity of a lifetime, and a learning experience like no other. I’m so grateful for this project, and I really hope whoever buys it shares a fraction of my affection. It’s a special house.
So. Wanna see it? Here are some snaps I took after completion, which I proceeded to let languish in a file on my computer for years. Whoopsie.
We supplemented the old v-groove paneling with new where necessary. The shelf is a floor joist I sanded and sealed from the original house we took down. The light fixture was from the West Elm outlet store, and I think the mirror/coat rack is also West Elm. The sofa is IKEA, and coffee table and rug are vintage.
The prints on the wall are by Anna Dorfman, Christopher Gray, and Aino-Maija Metsola for Marimekko, respectively. The 8′ front door is by Simpson and painted in Citrus Burst by Benjamin Moore. The walls, ceilings, and trim are Ultra White by Benjamin Moore.
In the living room, I pulled out the tried-and-true Fauxdenza trick, this time with BESTA units from IKEA (they were deeper at the time than the kitchen wall cabinets). I wrapped them in shiplap that I salvaged during demolition of the original house, sanded and poly’d to keep the character but avoid the splinters. The shelving is just simple and cheap track shelving by Blue Hawk, available at Lowe’s.
The soffit above the built-ins was the most elegant solution I could come up with to house the plumbing for the second floor bathroom, because I was too stupid to design a more logically-placed chase. The addition of the faux-beams made it feel less weird, and I had 4 light fixtures added to the soffit to make it feel more intentional. The light fixtures are just keyless porcelain utility lights that I spray-painted high-gloss black, paired with a brass-tipped incandescent bulb, making each light about $10 a piece (at the time).
In the dining room, we reused a huge picture window from the original house to frame a view of the amazing boulders in the back. A set of 8′ tall sliders leads out to the side where the grill lives, but were placed there in anticipation of Adriana potentially buying the neighboring property and building some sort of passage between the two houses. They did, eventually, buy that property, but elected to demolish the house instead. All of the new doors and windows were either lucky scores or new orders from The Door Jamb.
The light fixture is from West Elm, the rug was CB2, the dining table was IKEA, and the chairs came from Wayfair.
I still love this kitchen! The cabinetry, sink, faucet, and maybe range hood (can’t remember!) is IKEA. The stove and fridge were reused from the original house. The sconces were from CB2 and I think the stools were Target. The tile was from Home Depot, of all places! The countertops are black formica—not our first (or second or 10th) choice, but we all ended up loving them and couldn’t beat the price. I found the wood handles secondhand at a vintage store, and there were EXACTLY enough of them to do this kitchen. The island is on casters to make it easy to shift around or into another room to serve as a bar for large parties. I used reclaimed shiplap from the original house’s roof and wall sheathing to add some texture and history. Also I just like it. The beams on the ceiling are also purely decorative to allow for shorter lengths of the salvaged v-groove paneling to be used without a billion joints.
Even though I tend to hate open floor plans for old houses, I totally see the appeal in new ones. The opening between the kitchen/dining area and the living room is enormous, and the whole space just feels so bright and happy and much bigger than it really is.
The new master bath was fun! I ran the v-groove paneling two ways to create a continuous line between wall and ceiling. The floating vanity, sink, and faucets are IKEA. Brass towel rods/TP holder were CB2. The sconces were by West Elm. We were able to reuse one of the windows from the original house here, since it was a good size for this space and didn’t really have to match anything. The knots were NOT supposed to bleed through the paint, but we all kinda didn’t mind it when it happened? The house has since been repainted and I think now it’s all consistent, which was the original intention. The faux-stone ceramic tile was from Home Depot and selected by Adriana—I remember fighting her on it, but I actually ended up really liking it! It was super duper inexpensive.
My favorite corner! Up in the bedroom, six big-ass windows wrap the corner that faces the woods. It’s kind of like being in a tree house in a great way. I also saved every piece of 1x molding from the original house, all of which got ripped to size and reused as the new moldings. I wanted all the windows to have sills (stools, technically) instead of the same casing on all four sides. After it was way too late, I realized I should have put a single 2×4 between each window unit rather than two so that the moldings between them would be slimmer. Live and learn! When we ran out of 1x we could reuse, we finished the rest of the moldings in 3/4″ MDF which was way cheaper than solid lumber but looks fine once painted! It’s held up really well.
One of my favorite little spots ended up being the old enclosed porch on the side of the house, which we essentially rebuilt from the inside out. It’s a very narrow long space, but Adriana insisted on a queen size bed which left only about 1′ on either side of the mattress. To solve for that, I built a headboard out of shiplap sheathing from the original house—the top is on a piano hinge, and there’s a big cedar-lined storage space in there for extra linens and pillows and stuff. Pretty sure those sconces are IKEA!
I could go on and on and on about all the little things in this house, but it’s probably more than anybody really wants to know. Instead I’ll just leave you with a selection of Nicholas Doyle‘s fabulous photos taken for the listing—I just love how he captured everything, and I got a little emotional seeing the house shot through somebody else’s lens for the first time. It kinda feels like a parting gift that wasn’t intended for me, but I’ll take it anyway—ha! It warms my heart to see how little has changed since I wrapped up my work those years ago. Nicholas’s whole portfolio is totally gorgeous—if you need a great architectural photographer, he’s for hire!!
UPDATE: That was fast; Olivebridge Cottage is in contract! I’ve been told the buyers follow me on Instagram, so…hello, buyers! I hope you love your new digs!!
Thank you, Nicholas Doyle for letting me use your great pics! And, of course, thank you to Adriana and Barry for taking a chance and believing that I could do this, even when I didn’t believe it myself.