November 29, 2022

our great room

For me to truly tell you the story of this house and this room, I need to go a bit further back than the room itself… to our life before I ever saw the room.

How We Got Here

As I wrote about in my books, we’ve got a roaming real estate eye. Even when we’re in love with where we live, we look. (It’s the reason we started our real estate brokerage, Property Collective, with our friends Maura and Daan!) Our interior design business has always been our main business but buying houses and selling them at the right time became an unintentional side hustle for us that’s helped us build financial security. We opened the brokerage so we could buy and sell houses and not always have to move to do it, but we’re also always keeping a close eye on the real estate market, what our house is worth at any given time, and looking for houses in need of a little love.

Three and a half years ago, in the summer of 2019, we were road-tripping out to Wisconsin to visit my dad and of course I broke out the phone to look at house listings. We came across a new listing in our town for FIFTEEN acres. A 70s stucco house sat on it and from the photos, I could see it was very close -or could be with some work- to the “dream” house I’d had in my head for years. The fifteen acres was subdivided with a 3 acre parcel, a 5 acre parcel and a 7 acre parcel with the house on it. We knew we could only afford the 7 acre parcel but when we got back from the trip, we took a drive to snoop at the property anyway. We didn’t drive down the driveway, only looking at it from the road where the 3 and 5 acre parcels can be seen. From that view, we decided we didn’t want the property because it would feel too close to the houses that would eventually be built on the 3 & 5 acre parcels.

Fast-forward to summer 2020, on next year’s road trip out to Wisconsin when I pulled up the listing again. (We’d been looking at it all year but our roadtrips give us a chance to take a step back and really look at our life, slow down and think.) As we watched our housing market heat up -with people moving out of DC and into the suburbs in droves during Covid- we realized a move could be life-changing for our family. Our house had gone up tremendously in value and, even though a new property might not have been ideal, we felt like we had to at least look into things.

Over the years we have moved a total of eight or so times around the Northern Virginia area. We had gotten ahead -unintentionally until the last couple of moves- by initially buying houses with slightly more value than the houses we’d moved from for our first few moves- essentially buying the nicest homes we could afford and adding as much value as possible to them and when we sold, we recoup’d the cash we’d put in to use towards buying a nicer house on the next move. The turning point came- and our moves finally paid off- when we’d added enough value to a house that we were able to sell it for more than the next house we were buying but knew that the next house we bought would be worth more than the other when we’d finally finished with the renovations. At that point we realized what we’d been doing and knew that any moves in the down direction with houses that could eventually be worth more could really set us free financially. We realized that because of the hot real estate market situation in our area, ONE more right move could be financially life-changing for our family and we owed it to ourselves to look into it.

So, we made an appointment to walk the property. We were alone with the kids, and Dave and I inadvertently split up as we explored. I stared at vistas and pastures and forest. And solitude.

When we circled back ten or so minutes later and we looked at each other, I just knew. I could feel the tightness in my chest that I feel in the houses we get… that scared feeling like something is happening that I’m not in control of. I could see it in his eyes.

I knew this move would throw our life into chaos and I was so emotionally attached to where we lived... But when place calls to me I can’t really stop it. So I exhale.

We still had no way to afford all of the property (because only if we bought the 7 acres parcel ALONE could we get below the price of our current house) but my heart felt that place.

Almost a year later -after putting the idea down and thinking it wouldn’t work due to price and negotiations, and subsequently truly letting go of it- in early Spring of 2021, we had a ratified contract on the house. We were also under contract on 5 acres with our builder Mike Carr to build a spec house, and our PC co-founders, Maura and Daan, had secured the 3 acre parcel to build a home for themselves on. It was surreal. We rushed to put our house on the market as quickly as we could, finishing up the renovation of the house in rooms we hadn’t yet gotten too like the secondary bathrooms. Leaving our house would be emotional as we all loved it so much and it had been the most amazing place for our family to grow in- both figuratively and literally… Rory, our fifth, was born while we lived there, and we’d amassed quite a menagerie of dogs and birds too! But a new adventure was calling – as it always seems to- and it was time.

When our house went under contract, we started thinking about where we’d need to live while we renovated the new place. Up until this point, we’d always lived in our projects the entire time- which definitely was hard on us the last time around- but with the roof coming off on this one, that would be impossible. We looked into rentals and with all of our animals- we need a goose pen and a chicken coop and a place that would allow 3 dogs- I found myself googling “farms for rent” and “house with chicken coop for rent” and other similar search terms that aren’t really search terms at all. We realized how much money we would lose renting for a year or so for our house to be finished and we also realized how difficult it was to find something and an aha moment hit. We’d simply live in our next flip project! We were always in the market for flips so why not live in the next one for as long as we needed? Within the week of our house going under contract, we were house hunting AGAIN.

Here’s where our house (and this room I’d initially intended to write about) came in. We had driven by this house and had seen the “for sale” sign in the yard but it was listed as “under contract.” Dave and I were in a later meeting at the studio when our agent called us saying he’d found out that the house was back on the market as of that day but that it already had an offer in on it. Their agent was willing to let us walk through if we could do so immediately. The offer they had in hand was from builders who planned to tear the house down and they knew we intended to rehab the house. I couldn’t leave the meeting so Dave went to check it out on his own. Thirty minutes later as my meeting was ending, he called me saying I had to see it, and I raced over.

The foyer was unconditioned and I could see it needed a lot of repairs and work. When we knocked on the door and were let into the main house and I saw the great room, I knew I could love it. It reminded me of one of my favorite houses we’d lived in and I have a serious soft spot for a warm, natural 70s modern vibe. I loved the character of the lavastone fireplace and of course the beams. There was a sunroom/ porch cutting into the room, but it was easy to see that symmetry could be created in this amazing space. We met the homeowner who has raised her family there, and she was so sweet, and I got so excited about the possibility of keeping the home intact and bringing it back to life. I didn’t know how long our family would live there but I knew it would be a good home for us. We were under contract on the house in less than an hour.

the great room “before”

I shared the entire process of the renovation via video (you can see them all here) and both talked and wrote about my love of the “conversation pit” (above.) I’ve always loved them (and really wanted to make one work finally!!) but wanted my dining table there more. The house has a few sitting areas in it, but we would only have one table in the house. We’d be eating most dinners at the table and I pictured how sweet it would be to get to eat in front of the fireplace, so the conversation pit had to go.

As I mentioned, I wanted to create symmetry around the fireplace so we incorporated the porch room/ sunroom into the great room. It’s resulted in a nice, big open room with intimate smaller spaces delineated by the posts and beams:

photo by Helen Norman

If you’ve seen my old houses, you probably recognize most of the furniture in the room. Our old Anthro sofa- though a little worse for the wear since our dogs used it as a chew toy when they were puppies- is still standing and we brought over my favorite sofa in the world, the “lady” sofa from my collection with Taylor King. I did lots of sit tests with this one to get it just right and had it done in a machine washable white linen waterfall slipcover. (There’s a considerable lead time on it right now but if you’re in the market, I can’t recommend our sofas enough for quality, comfort, and durability.) I brought over our “joinery” side tables – tiered end tables are a favorite of mine for corralling books and toys in houses with kids- from my collection with Woodbridge and the “leila” chair from Giannetti Home which has been in past bedrooms of ours until now.

Photo by Helen Norman

Our lamps are almost 15 years old (discontinued Arteriors) and still have yellow crayon marks on them from when Christian (our oldest/ 15 year old) was a toddler exercising his newfound art skills. I remember being so heartbroken that he’d written all over them at the time, but I was on the couch the other day having forgotten all about them when I noticed those yellow scribbles and actually got a little teary. I wondered- how could I have ever not wanted yellow scribbles on my lamps??

The walls (and house exterior) are Sherwin Williams PURE WHITE. I pick whites fresh in each and every project depending upon the materials going in the house and the light etc. and Pure white made sense for the exterior here, and because of the exterior board & batten foyer transition, I brought it inside and used it throughout.

photo by Mark Weinberg for Rugs USA

Here’s the living room area set up for our recent RUGS USA photoshoot featuring the “Oak” sisal rug. (Most of the rugs in my collection are on super sale right now at 75% off!!!) The coffee table is an African Dogon door table from Anton & K Antiques and one of the few new purchases in this house… I bought it for our next place as it’s about twice the size of our old coffee table which is much too small for the living room in our next place. (It’s now living very happily in our basement as a LEGO table.)

We eat most dinners at the dining table (below) and I’m verrrrry glad to have this space now.

photo by Helen Norman

I kept the floors bare her because we’re a hot mess but maybe one day we’ll get a rug. I’ve almost always had hides under our dining tables – which are super easy to care for and keep clean/ they require NOTHING- but I wanted a clean, open feel in here.

I mentioned this in the video tour but we did something a little different in here… there is NO light fixture over the table. We have two spotlights on the stone fireplace which light it prettily at night. After the light fixture I’d spec’d was backordered for months and we’d had the chance to live with candlelight at almost every meal, I realized life was better without a dining room light fixture. I’d gotten attached to the big ol’ seasonal arrangements I was making:

My favorite “baby’s breath” flower hack (video here)

Here’s what I’ve got going on now (the Maiden grass from the front garden):

I like to hang dried flowers and herbs on the beams, some of which are original. CarrMichael Construction worked tirelessly to match the new beams we had to add where the screened porch was (above left) with the old beams, which we’d sanded down. It required staining, sanding and staining again and playing some more to get right.

CMC did an amazing job matching the new wood with the old

I realized that the lack of a light fixture had created what I like to call “habits of joy” in my life (candlelit dinners + opportunity for more creative expression with arrangements) and decided to cancel that pendant order. (I have an entire chapter in my newest book Feels like Home devoted to “Habits of Joy” if you’re in need of something special for your own holiday gift list! 🙂 ) I do not have plans for a light fixture over the dining table in our next house and we just did our first client project with a hanging candelabra in the dining room in lieu of an electrified fixture and they’re loving it too.

Using interior design in a way that forces us to live in a way that inspires joy in everyday life is what it’s all about for me. Anytime I can figure out how to create those moments (and then being able to share it in hopes that it makes others happy too!) I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

In the photo below, also taken on the rugs USA shoot, we styled the dining room with the striped sycamore rug from my Rugs USA collection and I was IN LOVE with how cozy this felt!! (I simply know how much food is spilled during any given meal at this phase of our life and we’re not ready for it.)

photo by Mark Weinberg

I loved the rug so much in there though that I got one for the living area instead and have it out now:

a dark pic taken one fall evening

I have such a pull in me for pattern vs. no pattern so I will probably keep it like this for some time and then bring our other old rug (which is literally falling apart) back at some point when I need more calm.

Here’s a pic I snapped the other day to show you what real life is like around here… There is almost always a shoe or multiple shoes in the living room because our dog Coal, grabs them to comfort himself every time someone walks in the door. I prefer rugs slightly larger than this on rooms but I thought this would be good to show you. In the photo below- if I were designing for a client.. lol I have lower standards for myself!- the rug would need to about 18″ wider or so.

random iphone pic from the other day

Although not picture perfect, I do not think this room is “messy” and the truth is, this is about as messy as it ever gets. There are seven of us and a bunch of dogs living here but this house stays pretty neat with the exception of our some of hardest working spaces which get bombed daily: the kitchen, the family room which usually has laundry folding happening in it, and the kids’ rooms. We keep the majority of our kids’ toys in the basement and though they bring them all over the house, we’re all pretty good about throwing them back downstairs. I’m crazy about clutter and am not a fan of shopping and we are constantly sending thigns out this door to try to live with less stuff. There’s a place for almost everything in this house which I’ve never had in a house before. So much of it is due to that large foyer/ mudroom but this house is surprisingly easy to keep neat and I’m here for it.

One of the other biggest changes we made in this room was opening up the living room wall to the foyer:

photo by Helen Norman

It added so much light and makes the entire house feel more connected. I looooove the flow in this house and we worked hard to get it by opening up rooms and doorways on every level.

You can see how the beams really create separate “rooms” within the one space. Aurora is a big fan of the beams (below) and is always monkeying up them. (She hasn’t gotten any splinters yet and I’ve checked them and they’re pretty smooth but at this point they bring so much fun to her days that I’m not that concerned with a splinter she may or may not get.)

I would say that we use the dining room almost every night and the living room really gets used on the weekends if we have downtime. Except for the girls… the girls use it almost every day to read in after school (and for climbing of course!) so there’s usually a pile of books they’re reading on the coffee table. (You can spy one in the overhead pic above)

I sometimes have plants on the coffee table (below) and other times it’s an arrangement or dried flowers/ grasses or gemstones etc. but it’s another spot I like to play with every now and then.

The last photo in the group above was taken from one of my favorite little spots in the house… the corner chair by the bar. (shown below in my crooked Iphone pic)

I RARELY sit there, but when I do, I’m for sure relaxing and having a good time. There’s only room for one and there’s something nice about that. We’re almost always together, but when I go to this little spot, I’m either alone or sort of watching the family from a removed place. There’s usually music on when I’m sitting there and I’ll read a book or have a glass of wine. This is a rare thing like I said, but I’m going to try to do more of it.

And that is about it folks!! The entire renovation was done by CarrMichael Construction and designed by Lauren Liess Interiors. To watch the whole house tour on video go here (episode #25) . I’ll be sharing the kitchen next and can’t wait!!! Hope you’re well!! xo

To work with me on your next e-design project, go here.

To schedule me for a one-on-one video consult, go here.

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