Home & Garden

Remodeling Your Dream Home: One Family’s Story

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When Brad and Michele Huffman decided to take their existing home from 1,500 to 3,500 square feet, last year, to accommodate their newly-blended family, they knew they were in for a major challenge. Now that it’s finished, they couldn’t be more pleased with the result.

Brad and Michele Huffman, enjoying their spacious, newly-remodeled riverside home.

When Brad Huffman bought his Machesney Park home in the early 1990s, he did so knowing that one day his residence would probably need a major renovation.

For many years, the 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom two-story on the Rock River was adequate for the divorced United Airlines pilot and daughter Hannah, although it was a bit cramped. “I’m a guy, and I had stuff piled everywhere,” he chuckles.

But when Brad proposed to Michele Bradley, a pharmacist with her own teen-aged daughter, Leah, it became obvious they would have to either move or expand his house – a lot. And soon.

To Move or Remodel

Paul Knopp

Brad has always been attracted to the beauty and activity of the river and loves his flood-free location on a high perch not far from his boyhood home in Loves Park. He soaks up the spectacular sunsets, the changing seasons, the sight of a lone coyote walking along the frozen water. “I always wanted to be on the water,” he says. “That’s what attracted me to this property in the first place. When I saw this place, it was love at first sight.”

Michele, too, enjoys a lazy ride down the river in their 21-foot fiberglass Larsen boat, and the changing moods of the river. So, the couple decided to stay in their location and remodel. And they reasoned that if they were going to go through the expense and hassle of it, they wanted to end up with a space large enough to share with family and friends.

“We entertain quite a bit, and I have a fairly big family who comes over for the holidays and at other times,” Brad explains. “It’s always a lot of people.”

Working with a Contractor

After interviewing several contractors in early 2010, the couple selected Paul Knopp, of Knopp Construction, Rockford. Knopp has specialized in home improvement, remodeling and residential construction since 1976. “We talked to other contractors, who turned out to be unreliable,” Brad says. “Paul was there on time, every time we had a meeting. He wanted to go for it, and he was as serious about this project as we were.”

For several weeks, Knopp met with the couple to discuss their vision. “We threw out as many ideas to discuss as possible,” Knopp says. “It encouraged creative thinking on both of our parts. Customers are always right, in the final design, because it’s their house.”

One thing was certain: The family wanted a roomy home that offered a North Woods-lodge feel. At first it appeared that the project would involve just a family room and master bedroom addition. When all was said and done, however, 2,000 square feet of living space was added to the south side of the home. Along with the family room and master bedroom with large bath, the Huffmans now enjoy a much larger dining area, a roomy second-story loft, a finished second basement, a renovated kitchen, two new half baths, and a new breezeway and laundry room.

The kitchen was once closed in by three walls; now the former exterior wall opens into the hallway of the new addition. (John Mattison photo)

“It was a complex project,” says Knopp. “You don’t run into these things every day. That’s the fun part of what we do. It’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity. It really helps when you have people who are willing to work with you and are willing to listen. Brad and Michele were phenomenal.”

It wasn’t always easy, given everything that was going on in their lives. The newly blended family, along with Michele’s two dogs and Brad’s two cats, melded against a backdrop of construction noise, as dozens of workers streamed in and out of the home nearly every day, from May to September of 2010. In the midst of this, and while working full-time, the couple planned and carried off a large July wedding.

“I’m sure we’re going to look back and say, ‘My gosh, how did we plan a wedding for 200-plus people, and live in this demolition zone for the summer?’” says Michele. “But we all got through it, and it was a great experience.”

Before the Change

The original footprint of the home included a small living room, dominated by Brad’s grand piano, with seating space for no more than about six people. A screened-in porch blocked the river view from the dining room and kitchen. The laundry area met guests at the front door. Brad’s “office” was a desk wedged between the dining table and an outside wall. As a bachelor, he used his wall oven door as a Post-It sticker center; his kitchen counters were jam-packed. Closed on three sides, the kitchen felt confined.

Family get-togethers were warm weather only. Most were held in a large second garage fondly dubbed “Huffman Civic Center” in the front yard, where the river view was blocked by the house.

Today, the Huffmans entertain year-round and invite as many people as they wish. Best of all, the Rock River can be enjoyed from nearly any room in the house.

With Brad often away on international flights, many day-to-day decisions fell to Michele or were discussed across an ocean.Knopp hired an architect to draw up plans, which took three weeks to complete. Not all jobs require drawings, Knopp says, but this one was large enough that he wanted a document to hand the Huffmans, so they could better visualize the concepts.

“It’s our responsibility to decide, with them, which concepts are feasible and within their budget,” Knopp says. “For instance, with 16-foot walls and no intervening floor, we needed to be sure the walls were structurally strong enough. I also wanted to work with an architect on the connection between the old house and the addition, to make sure the roofline was going to work, the water was going to drain, things like that,” explains Knopp.

Upstairs in the loft, dubbed “the pinochle-playing room” by Brad’s extended family. (Tom Clabough photo)

Knopp’s crew removed two walls in the kitchen, two more in the dining room and tore out the 9 x10 screened-in porch, its ceiling and south wall.

To keep rain out, the contractors had to seal the opening, tack boards on top of plastic, and apply plenty of caulk.

The existing walls were carefully removed by peeling off the siding and sheeting from the outside, then removing plaster, dry wall and trim work from the inside.

“Structure is very important, and, in this case, it was extremely important, because of all the beams we had to install, as well as the weight of the roof and the second floor of the old house, in addition to the weight of the floors, and the walls and the roof of the new addition,” explains Knopp.

Staying on top of the day-to-day activity was the most difficult aspect for Knopp. “A homeowner comes home and talks to somebody on the job about doing this or doing that. If that doesn’t get communicated back to me, I might not hear about it for two or three days, and that can set us back.”

To make sure the project would be finished on time, Knopp maintained a consistent presence. “I was there every day, in some cases more than once a day,” he says. “You have to live it.”

The Result

The spacious new family room is anchored by an Indiana limestone fireplace that reaches 16 feet high and definitely says “North Woods.” It was built one stone at a time by Rockford mason Jim Pokrant. There’s a hardwood mantel anchored into the stone. “I always wanted a really nice fireplace,” Brad says.

The Huffmans worked with painting contractor Ruben Zagros to select sage green, wheat gold and merlot for wall colors. “Our inspiration was the grand lodge look of national parks, the arts and crafts style that works so well in a North Woods room,” says Zagros. “These are colors that harmonize with the natural vista outside, rather than compete with it.” Bronze light sconces are both functional and beautiful. From the entryway, visitors are struck by the horizontal expanse of windows showcasing the Rock River on the back of the home.

Overlooking the new family room is a 525-square-foot loft, originally designed to be much smaller with a spiral staircase. One of Knopp’s crew members suggested the loft could be made into an L shape and be extended over the bedroom, as well as the family room, for minimal added expense.

“It didn’t cost that much more to make it bigger,” says Brad. “We were early enough in the process to make the change, and it fits well with the lodge theme.” The Huffmans are thinking about building a library in the loft.

Because a spiral staircase would have hampered the river view on the west wall, a full staircase was built instead, on the east wall. The builders also suggested adding a door off the loft, to connect it to a second-story deck that’s a perfect place to relax and enjoy the riverfront view.

The renovated kitchen stayed roughly the same size, 10 x 12 feet, but is open on two sides now. “I’m fine with a small kitchen,” says Michele. “If you have a big kitchen, you have a bigger mess.”

In addition to Knopp, the Huffmans worked with Kitchens by Diane, 6346 E. Riverside Blvd., Loves Park. “My goal, when I design a kitchen for someone, is to improve the entire layout,” says owner Diane Feuillerat. “You want to have nice things to look at, but you also want it to function well.” All of the appliances are new, including a freestanding range with decorative hood. Feuillerat made sure the built-in microwave is just the right height for Michele, who is petite. Bright white Grabill cabinets offer ample storage. A stunning granite countertop with pull-up stools is ideal for a quick meal, or as the serving headquarters during a party.

Special touches in the new kitchen include an open wine cabinet, roll-out shelves, a built-in spice rack and a lighted glass mini-hutch for showcasing keepsakes. “It’s not overstated, but it added a nice touch,” says Feuillerat. “We packed in as many interesting features as we could.” Both the flooring and the backsplash tile in the kitchen, installed by Knopp’s crew, are a grey matte finish stone tile purchased from Lonnie’s Carpet Max of Rockford.

The new master bedroom is located directly across the hall from the kitchen. It has a spacious walk-in closet and a spa-like bathroom with his/her sinks, a large glassed-in shower with a seat, and a bathtub with tile surround. “Michele likes bathtubs so we made room for one,” Brad says.

After: The back of the home after the remodeling, with new family room at right. New walkways with steps down to the river and a large patio with firepit were added as well.

The couple decided to add a basement under the new addition. The old basement doesn’t connect to the new one, because Knopp was careful not to disturb the original foundation. The old footing is encapsulated in concrete to prevent movement on its sand base. “It seemed a shame to put up all of this new space, which required us to put footing underneath it, and not have a basement under it,” Brad says. “It wasn’t that much extra to go a little bit deeper and have all this space available.”

The Huffmans didn’t neglect the original part of their home, realizing it’s important for old and new to flow together seamlessly. Older walls were freshly painted; old carpeting was removed, revealing an oak floor that refinished beautifully; and the girls’ bedrooms were redecorated. The changes have given new life to the old living room, which flows into the dining area and family room.
“The original living room is a great place to sit and converse,” Brad says. “When we have guests over, some gravitate to this room, while others watch a ballgame in the new family room. The nicest surprise has been how the old space has flowed into the new space in a natural way.”

Lessons Learned

As with any project of this magnitude, there were obstacles along the way. Two large trees had to be removed; underground utility lines had to be rerouted; and rainy weather was a constant concern, especially after the entire south wall of the home was removed.There was unexpected extra digging required for the foundation, when a high amount of sand was discovered underground.

“We became pretty good friends with the carpenters, who said that no project ever goes the way you think it’s going to go,” Brad says. “You have to adapt to changes along the way. Most of the changes came out of the crews’ suggestions, not from me, and were really good ideas. They knew what was doable and could visualize it and explain it to us.”

Before: The back of the home (which faces the river), just before the remodeling began in May 2010. Notice how the screened porch at right obscured much of the river view.

Because of those modifications, the project went over budget, but the Huffmans deemed each change worthwhile. For example, a large patio with steps leading to the river was added to the backyard, off the new family room, so that heavy equipment wouldn’t have to be brought in again down the road, after landscaping is completed. “We decided to get it all done right and enjoy it,” Brad says. “You have to plan to spend a little more than you thought.”

“You have to find someone you can work with, because there are a million decisions to make,” says Michele. “You have to be flexible. We all worked well together.” To express their gratitude, the Huffmans hosted a party for the workers and their spouses after the project was completed.

“My favorite thing in the whole world is helping people to dream a little bit, and then creating from their dreams,” says Knopp. His work on the Huffman home is in the running for a national remodeling association award.

These days, the Huffmans find it much easier and more enjoyable to entertain family and friends year-round. Brad was especially happy to have the space he needed this winter to host his mother’s birthday bash – she turned 90 this February.

Now the family will devote time to landscaping their yard, which took a beating during the renovation. Not that they’re complaining. In fact, they wouldn’t change a thing. “We love coming home. It’s so relaxing,” Brad says. “We couldn’t fully appreciate it when we were looking at it on paper – but we sure do now.” ❚

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