Remodeling opens doors for family in Crestview
October 13, 2007
When David and Christiane Erwin got engaged, they knew David's 1950s-era house would not be big enough for their new family. The Crestview home had been just right when David Erwin bought it in 2000, but its 830 square feet offered a ridiculous lack of privacy for two adults, her two young boys and the growing family they envisioned.
They briefly considered moving, but they loved the neighborhood and the style of the flat-roof home, built in 1951. So the couple got out paper and pens and sketched a few plans. Without much backyard to spare, Christiane Erwin drew the ground floor, then plopped a nearly identical floor plan on top. Voila! A second story.
Amid planning for an October 2005 wedding, the couple made dozens of drawings, eventually transforming the tiny 2-1 into a 2,140-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bathroom house — at least on paper.
Soon the newlyweds were in the thick of a remodel that would fuel their passion for mid-century design details, become the subject of a popular blog and, unexpectedly, generate a family business selling retro doors, of all things.
Design it yourself
Though the Erwins' plans called for a large two-story house with an upstairs deck, they wanted their house to fit in with the simple post-World War II neighborhood and not look like an obvious addition lumped on.
"We wanted people to drive by and say, 'What do you think? Is that house original?' " said Christiane Erwin, 31.
The original house had a style that mixed old-school 1950s details with a dash of modern spunk, but it needed work. It had been a rental before David Erwin bought it, and former tenants included members of the punk band Squat Thrust. The structure had no central air-conditioning, and David Erwin, 38, had already put much energy into restoring the pink bathroom and its water-damaged subfloor.
When he had bought the house, he said, "The inspector told me not to let anyone really big sit on the toilet."
Believing in its charms, the couple went to work, staying true to the house's early 1950s-style, while still being practical. "We wanted to keep it neighborly and most efficient for the size of our family," Christiane Erwin said.
Though the house is not a textbook example of mid-century modern design, the couple still drew inspiration from the style's airy spaces, unusual roof lines and elements that bring the outdoors inside.
"I like the looniness of it. There's a kind of exuberance," said David Erwin, whose dark-framed glasses and vintage shirts exude a vaguely retro aura.
Being creatures of the Internet, the couple kept a blog on their home's transformation at www.erwinhouse.com. There, the homeowners could rhapsodize about the cut of the interior trim or panic about the relentless rain that poured into their then-roofless house. The Web site, subtitled: "Diary of a Mid-Century Modern Renovation," reached 1,000 visitors a day.
The blog was "a sanity saver," David Erwin said.
Nowadays, the Erwins' residence — half purple and half gray — catches the eyes of passersby on Grover Avenue, a major street running through Crestview. Its distinctive flat roof is now angled like the propped-up lid of a grand piano. The siding mimics that on some of the homes around them.
The original picture window still faces the street, though they pushed out the wall 2 feet, breaking its "boxy" look.
To retain the house's original look, they insisted the contractor install drip caps, small strips of wood jutting from the top of the exterior casing over each window. Such a small detail from the past might be lost on many observers, but was crucial to the Erwins.
"It's little things like that that make it feel like Crestview," said David Erwin.
Making it open
Walking in the front entry, visitors face the airy stairway with a railing that matches the deck. The ceilings were raised to 9 feet, to provide an open feel. The wall separating the living room and kitchen is covered with engineered Ledgestone, and throughout the house, the window and door trim was custom-made to match the original.
David Erwin did most of the work in the kitchen, setting tile and installing cabinets. Much of the hardware, such as drawer pulls, are chrome, which was popular a half-century ago.
Upstairs, the master bedroom feels like a tree house, with a sloped ceiling reaching 16 feet and plenty of windows to bring the outside in.
Fortunately, many mid-century elements are "plain, no frills," which helped keep costs down, said Christiane Erwin. They found simple bathroom sinks for $40 apiece and had them wall-mounted — without fancy pedestals or cabinetry.
The bathroom floors have small tile patterns, familiar in older homes, though David Erwin still laments that the tile walls in the upstairs bathrooms do not have the more authentic "mud caps," tiles with one curved edge used on the borders with the drywall.
"A mud cap looks like a true '50s bathroom," he said.
The Erwins didn't have the budget for an architect, so they designed the house themselves, reveling in the nitty-gritty details.
"I would never give the fun part to somebody else," said David Erwin, who works as an interaction designer for Coremetrics Inc. "I spent a lot of time studying architecture to inform (my) interaction designs."
Before signing a contractor, David made drawings by hand of the walls, ceilings and floors of each room. Late-night discussions and marathon e-mails between the couple eventually produced a spreadsheet, with every modification planned out, from lighting to flooring to paint colors; all the prices were figured in. They were able to keep the cost to about $90 per square foot.
Fortunately, the newlyweds discovered they were compatible for this type of project. Christiane Erwin, president of the Brentwood Elementary PTA, is a wizard of organization. David Erwin, who can expound at length about design theories, called upon his aesthetic sense.
"I am extremely focused on efficiency," she said, "and David is focused on making things pleasant."
With their designs and spreadsheet in hand, they were able to get a loan and sign on with a contractor from Superior Renovations Inc. in quick order. By February 2006, workers began ripping up the old house, and the family, living in a nearby rental home, hoped to have the project finished before the birth of their daughter, Ellie, in mid-JuneUltimately, after spending two weeks in hotels, they moved back in August 2006.
Birth of a business
A few things didn't go exactly according to the spreadsheet, such as their front door.
The Erwins had planned on keeping the old door, but the contractor said it was warped. Besides, they discovered it's more difficult to hang an existing door in a new frame than it is just to replace it.
They had looked for a store that offered the types of old-style doors still dotting their neighborhood, but found none. For their tastes, the selections were either uninspired or overly ornate, with beveled or stained glass and ironwork that looked like it belonged on a dungeon.
So David sketched out the door he wanted, based on a nearby house, with three large square windows stacked vertically. The contractor had one made, and their new door attracted attention right away.
"People kept saying, 'Oh my God, where did you get that?' " said Christiane Erwin. People would stop by or e-mail them about it. "I think that's when we realized we had the opportunity to offer more options."
Though they hadn't been looking to start a business, when opportunity knocked, they answered. They came up with door designs evoking the 1950s and 1960s, featuring square, rectangular and diamond-shaped windows. The first doors were named after local streets, such as "the Grover."
In March they launched Crestview Doors (www. crestviewdoors.com) and immediately got a dozen orders, many from out-of-staters who had found their blog. They were overwhelmed, so the business went on hiatus in June while they refined the logistics. In August, they came back online, and have been steadily receiving orders.
The Erwins now look out over their balcony onto their street, at the mid-century homes all around them, pleased that their house fits in.
And their efforts have been appreciated.
"I was struck by how well (the Erwins' house) blended in with the neighborhood, even though it's a much larger home," said Ben Phenix, an mid-century modern aficionado who started the Web site modernaustin.com. "To me, that's a hallmark of good design."
Nowadays, the Erwins continue blogging, eagerly sharing their enthusiasm and experiences with other homeowners.
"For us," David Erwin said, "it's our happy story."