In 2014 my husband and I decided to leave the fast paced life of the California bay area and move somewhere slower, quieter, and allow us to focus on quality of life. After finding a house on Zillow we flew out to Iowa to see it in person. Once at the location we new we had to buy it mainly for the land but we also knew the house had good bones. Unfortunately it was in need of a lot of updating.
Renovating a house isn’t something that scares either of us so it was an easy decision. The land was unique and house could always be changed. What you need to understand about this house is it has gone through many renovations and the fact that it’s isolated out in the country means there’s no permits or regulations. If you want to do the work you can basically do whatever you want… and pervious owners did.
The original footprint of the house was built in 1910 and from everything we can tell the house went through at least two major renovations and expansions since then. The problem was it started forcing a lot of odd spaces, bulkheads, and passage ways that just felt wrong. However, since this was a large house that had a guest room on the main floor we knew we didn’t have to move into the upstairs right away.
With the sale of our condo in California we had a little chunk of change to hire some help in renovating the house. We got a local contractor in and talked about our ideas. The first was to dig out the finished basement and drop it another foot and a half to make it a full height space and convert it into livable square footage but underpinning the foundation. This wasn’t something he had experience in but gave us a few leads on. After much debating we decided we would start in the second floor rather than the basement. This was the smallest area of the house coming in at just about 800 sq ft. It’s tucked up into the pitched roofing but there was still a lot of very usable space. The issues were the ceilings were at about 7ft 8in making the space feel claustrophobic, there was insufficient lighting both wired and natural, it was covered in a lot of dark paneling which made it feel gloomy, heating didn’t have decent ducting so it seemed colder than the rest of the house, and the layout was utterly confusing. (Oh, and did I mention it was all early 1900’s plaster lathe?)
When you came up the stairs straight ahead was a narrow opening about 28 inches into a large room. Later it was discovered that the original chimney that was no longer in service was never removed when they capped it off. This meant we had to contend with a massive brick column to be able to fit a door to this space. As the layers were pealed away we also discovered that the original roof was left behind the existing ceilings and walls making this a much more involved demolition than we bargained for. (This was the “House within a house” phase.)
Another issue with this space was tucked in the slope of the roof there was yet another bedroom that was an odd 8ft x 20ft with a tiny window and a closet. This meant for anyone using the only bathroom on this floor they would have to pass through the main bedroom that had no door in order to access it.
To be able to wrap my head around the challenges I had to make a line drawing of the space and see what there was to work with as well as how it would best make sense to use this space. After a little back and forth with my ideas it came to me. The upstairs would be for just my husband and I. We would make a large master suite as well as put the home office up there. Then any guests or future children could be situated on the main floor in what had been listed originally as the master bedroom.
So even before we started with our contractor I worked through all the ideas on paper, well on a computer, but the same idea could apply to paper. The key to working out the dimensions started at the end. The furniture. Knowing things like there would be a queen sized bed allowed me to have generic measurements. Then working to scale I was able to place the furniture in to see what space I would have and if it would even fit.
All to often homes are built and then you have to fit your furniture in to door spaces. I can’t even tell you how many master bedrooms I have seen where there’s not sensible space for bed placement let alone a chest of drawers. So I put together a wish list with my husband of everything we could imagine wanting in the space and worked from there.
For the bedroom space we took into consideration that we wanted a TV in the bedroom. Not that we watch TV all that often in there but it’s nice every now and then to be able to stay in bed when you’re not feeling well and veg out. So this meant I was going to need a way to put a TV directly across from the bed. This lead to the inspiration of the “feature wall” which I ended up designing a faux fireplace to help everything feel anchored. Then by having the TV recessed and the alcove for it pained a dark chocolate brown it made the TV seem to disappear.
The next two major pieces came into the design to give the room balance. First, the windows on either side of the bed had to not be covered by any part of the bed and could not be too high or low with the side tables I had chosen. These tables were actually small kitchen islands from IKEA but their height, size, color, and storage capacity were all perfect. Secondly, having a dual entrance to the closet. To give the bedroom an even bigger sense of space I chose not to do closet doors. I knew with my closet organization this would not be an issue as it might be for most. Seeing the continuos flooring run further into the closet it made the space feel more open.
The final and maybe most dramatic aspect of the room came when we opened everything up and discovered just how much height we actually had in here. We quickly made the decision to vault the ceiling giving the illusion of high ceilings and the clearance to add a chandelier for drama. I say illusion because the wall with the windows, where it meets the ceiling is still only the same 7ft 8 in. Then by adding valances out of the same wood I made the mirror frames and mantle with I was able to had a little more consistency to the space. They also allowed me to hide the hardware for the window panels. Having the window panels go all the way to the floor allowed me to also create the illusion that the walls were taller than they are.
As for the electrical of the bedroom one thing that is often overlooked are outlets next to the bed. Sure most rooms will be set up for an outlet on one side but less are laid out to have them on both. Not only that but we chose outlets that in the top space instead of a conventional outlet it has to USB slots and one is a higher capacity so it can also charge things like Apple’s iPad without the specified brick it comes with. This allows me to plug in my iPad, my Apple Watch, and my lamp with ease.
Finally for the decorative details I always liked the look of very clean wainscoting but it was outside my budget. So instead I installed trim at the height I wanted it to go to and then verticals to create defined square spaces. To finish the look I painted the lower half pure white, which is traditional for wainscoting, and the upper half a cream tone picking up on the lighter neutrals around the room. The ceiling is painted Swiss Coffee. This is just off of white. What I love about this color is it doesn’t look dingy like white can after a while. For the feature wall I went with a taupe which accents the hues from the bedding and the chair. Then for the final touches I framed photos I took while we lived in London for two years. It’s where our journey truly began as a couple and is a great theme for our master suite.
When looking at how we wanted to layout the bath room there were a few things we knew right off the bat. One, we didn’t want to have to take turns getting ready in the morning. This lead us to the conclusion of both dual vanities and dual showers. We had a brief conversation about having or not having a tub but decided against it because of how infrequently we would ever use it. If we ever do end up with the tub it will probably be in the bathroom on the main floor whenever we get to renovating that room. Second, the toilet had to be in a separate room. I don’t know about anyone reading this but when you share a bathroom with someone that’s the one thing that I think should have total privacy.
For the inspiration for our bathroom I looked to a trip we had taken to Bali for my aunts weeding. With it being in the 80’s year round there they have a lot of indoor outdoor living spaces mainly their bathrooms. There is something both romantic and seductive about their bathrooms that just spoke to me. To bring that feeling back to northern Iowa where we can get into double digit low temperatures outside I worked on achieving this feeling through texture, color, and a huge heaping of natural light.
Since the lowest part of the room was the side the shower was going to end up on we quickly decided that since we loved the vault in the bedroom we would do the same thing in the shower. This gave us ample room. Then scouring the internet I found a stock 4ft x 4 ft skylight that perfectly floods the bathroom with light. With it being so large it also gives the feeling of being outdoors just like we had in Bali. It then made sense to paint the little bit of ceiling a sky blue color helping the whole thing just disappear.
For the textural element it was all about tile but the key was real stone. That lead me to slate on the walls of the shower and a sliced pebble floor appropriately named Sliced Bali Ocean Pebble. This is AMAZING under your feet in a shower. It offered just enough texture to not be slippery but isn’t so rough like trying to stand on actual pebbles. For continuity and balance we did the same tile treatment in the toilet room as well. The slate I had found offered dark blues, greens, and grays. Most slate I was finding was too multi colored but this one offered a very clean look. The one I finally settled on was Indian Black Slate that came in varied sizes to make a unique pattern rather than just normal brick or block patterns. The tradesmen I hired to do the tiling even taught me how to tile and had me use all the scraps to do a wonderful herringbone pattering in the faux fireplace in the master bedroom.
In the center of the bathroom where the vanities are I chose floating vanities. Which only furthermore supported this idea of a beach spa resort feeling. As an accent for vanity I did more of the pebble but for something slightly different I went with unsliced pebbles and a sand colored grout. The floors through this space were done in a polished travertine and the wall going into the shower was done in a rough cut travertine mosaic. This all lends itself to the idea of sand an nature. To not feel so isolated I connected the vanities with shelves I made out of more of the reclaimed wood from the demotion. For the paint color I went with a slightly sandier color than the bedroom but within the same hue so when looking from one room to the next it wouldn’t be jarring.
Other details in making this space come together are things like the frog statue which is an exact replica of the frog statues in Bali where we stayed. The split-leaf philodendron gives more of that feeling of the tropics and the framed prints are from that trip as well. As for towels I went with hooks rather than bars. I both didn’t have the space for two bars and I am not a fan of them. By placing hooks right there on the shower wall it makes it easy to grab your towel at the end of a shower. Some may wonder if they stay damp but I have never had a problem with that. I also opted for a shelving unit rather than a linen closet. It both looks nicer and makes staying on top of a towel rotation much easier. We usually never go more than 3 days without fresh towels.
This might have been the funnest space to design, with sloped ceilings, and pre-fab organizers, it was a challenge to get the most out of the space. When anyone sees my closet they first think “can you come do my closet” then I think they quickly realize it would mean they would have to keep up with it after it was done. Then they start to think I am crazy for having no doors but I need to let you in on a little secret. I worked in clothing retail for over a decade and much of that was as a Visual Merchandiser. You know the person whose job it is to make those beautiful displays of clothing where everything is just so, folded just so, hung just so, all to make you look “Wow! This is awesome! I need to buy this!” Yeah that was me. So folding, handing, and displaying clothing is second nature to me. Funny thing is I have even somehow convinced my husband that this is normal and easy to the point that he’ll happily help me.
So to start I go the dimensions of every piece I was going to use. The system that I chose is IKEA’s PAX. This system is awesome and fully customizable. I had the framers leave spaces just large enough to allow me to get the pieces in with a little wiggle room that I then covered up with trim. I then continued the wainscoting into the closet since it was open to the rest of the room but to not be too distracting I painted it the deep chocolate that I had chosen for the rest of the trim. When thinking about pain colors for the closet I was thinking I wanted it darker. I didn’t want it to be pulling from the bedroom but I didn’t want it to look to dark and cave like. To achieve that I picked the next darker color than the feature wall in the bedroom to do the upper half. This subtle difference could just be dismissed as light and shadow rather than a different color but the subtle change offers a slightly darker closet which was the goal.
As for the clothing itself it wasn’t willy nilly. I first measured how much space our clothing was taking. This gave me the linear footage I had to have. Knowing I wasn’t going to have all the space I wanted I devised a seasonal rotation system. One small section alternates from tank tops to long sleeve t-shirts depending on the time of year. A key to having a well organized closet isn’t just something like color coding but stylizing as well. Putting all your t-sirts together, all your polos together, all your dress shirts together, all your hoodies together, and so on. Then organize them within those subclasses. The other major component is wooden hangers. This is not only much better for your clothing than flimsy wire hangers but they look great too. Sure they take up more space and you can’r get as many in but that’s a good thing! I have a set number of hangers that are allowed in any given space. So if I want to buy a new t-shirt that mean I have to get rid of one. This is an excellent habit to get in as it forces you to end up with either a closet of clothing you love and/or it limits how much impulse shopping you’ll do on clothing.
As for the folding? I only fold pants, shorts, sweaters, socks, and underwear. Then for those few pairs of dress pants I installed a pull-out pant hanger rack under the stack of drawers on either side. I the center there are also two slanted rack for shoes. These are just the shoes that are special occasion. Our everyday footwear is down at the front door. The final accent for this was adding pulls. This wasn’t something that was part of the IKEA package nor is it necessary but I loved the way it completed the look.
Swinging around to the end with the laundry you can barely make out the PAX unit next to the washer and dryer. This is where I store all my laundry stuff like detergent, dryer sheets, spot remover, and so on. I also store my extra winter blanket here and the alternate set of sheets. At the bottom are two laundry “baskets” one is white and one is black. This was something I that was shown at the IKEA showroom. This works perfectly. There’s never any confusion as to where to put dirty whites or dirty colors so there’s no need to sort the laundry. It’s already sorted!
As a fun accent to this space I got some rough cedar and trimmed out the opening to look like you could see some of the original beams of the house. Originally I was going to just close this space up but the carpenter I was working with talked me into having a large built over the washer and dryer giving me more space to work with. I ended up adding another shelf in the middle of that space this gave me a place to put my laundry basket and hand out backpacks. It also gave me an out of the way spot to set up the sound system for the master bedroom. Then above that I have 6 bins that house all of our seasonal apparel.
When we moved into this house I hated having the laundry in the kitchen. I’ve never liked having to lug my dirty laundry to where the washer and dryer are and then back to put them away when clean. This lead to the idea of the laundry in the master closet. It may seem odd to some but has been one of the best decisions we made.
Using the rafters that had been removed allowed me to make pieces for the space that cost little to no money, tell a part of the story to the house, and hide the electrical cords for all the tv accessories.
By thinking through as many of these details as I could both ahead of the time and during the process, I was able to end up with a design that met and exceeded my needs. Thinking about how the space will be used and could be used in the future definitely allowed me to achieve a master suite that makes me proud to share with others.
THE BEFOREs & AFTERs:
(The before’s are actually the listing photos for the house when we bought it.)