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Making themselves at home

After indulging their yen for travel, this Wayne couple settled down to take on a fixer-upper.

Jenna and Ed Brennan in the home they renovated themselves in Wayne. The couple had never done a renovation before tackling the project in 2005. They learned what to do from books and trial and error.
Jenna and Ed Brennan in the home they renovated themselves in Wayne. The couple had never done a renovation before tackling the project in 2005. They learned what to do from books and trial and error.Read moreLAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer

Not long ago, Ed and Jenna Ward Brennan lived the life of a successful young couple. They had good jobs - he as manager of R&D at Siemens Medical Systems in Malvern, she as marketing manager there. They could afford to travel to fabulous places: Budapest, Paris, Vienna.

But in 2005, they got the itch to buy a single home, a fixer-upper, with plenty of ground in a nice neighborhood. Before that, "we never did a renovation project," says Jenna, 38.

Since finding their house in Wayne, the Brennans have transformed it, their lives and their lexicon, learning what do-it-yourself truly stands for.

"We traveled a lot, but that's disappeared," says Ed, 35.

He's spent weekends, and often weeknights, at his now-all-too-familiar table saw, adding wainscoting and crown molding to numerous rooms. He's also put in a new banister, replete with at least 15 balusters - a project that took three months.

The house, which sits on nearly an acre, had been occupied for years by an elderly couple. Its roof and windows were in good shape, but the decor was, to be kind, dated: salmon tile in one bathroom, yellow and gray tile in another, dead-gray rugs covering hardwood floors.

When they first saw the house emptied of its contents, Jenna wept.

"It didn't look too bad with the stuff in it, but now that it was empty. . . . We didn't know what to do, so we tore up the carpet," she says. "We had no clue what to do after that."

Ed says, "I knew I'd have to do a lot of stuff in a hurry . . . she wouldn't go downstairs" into the family room.

The emotional outbursts soon stopped. Because the couple didn't have to vacate their old townhouse right away, they hired a floor refinisher for the new house. And with that first step, Jenna fell back on her project-management experience and devised a renovation plan.

Some couples, new to such projects, argue over color selection and design, and who is procrastinating the most. But the Brennans say that didn't happen to them. He was happy doing the heavy lifting; she was good with the design and the painting. She prefers bold colors, like raspberry and deep blues. Offset against white-painted, half-wall wainscoting, each room is striking.

The couple learned from reading books, from making mistakes (ask Ed about the crown-molding mitering in the living room), and relatives with home-improvement know-how. They learned the frustrations of making repeated trips to Home Depot for the right part, and how much time those trips eat up.

Besides table saws and routers, Ed has become well acquainted with tile cutters and sledgehammers. The gray- and yellow-tiled bathroom is now white with sky blue. Small white octagons grace the floor; 3-inch-by-6-inch white tiles line the tub. White wainscoting goes halfway up the wall.

This project wasn't easy, so Ed's dad, Ed Brennan Sr., agreed to add some muscle. Stripping the room down to the studs, the men built the bathroom back up, but got stymied at the last minute. The sink's new faucet leaked - it would take three trips back to the hardware store before they got one that didn't.

"They learned endurance," Jenna says. "They were in there for hours."

The one room the couple didn't want to design on their own was the kitchen. (Ed's brother-in-law helped demolish it, though. The day the Dumpster arrives is just the best, Jenna says.)

The kitchen measured about 12 feet square, and the couple opted not to expand it, which would have meant taking space from adjoining rooms. So they hired the Creative Nook in Paoli to handle the design.

The end result: Large windows that look out over the spacious backyard; built-in cabinets, including one in a corner; and an island-cum-snack bar that holds the microwave and wine cooler. The kitchen's colors reflect Jenna's preference for pure white on deep hues.

Alex Hall, owner of the Creative Nook, says it's difficult, but not impossible, to include everything a client wants in a small space. Young couples "want all the goodies." But he prefers clients who know what they want. "A talented designer can make it all work," he says.

The Brennans aren't finished with their renovations. A loft still needs conversion, maybe to a bedroom suite, and another bathroom and bedroom are beckoning. So is the backyard.

But for now, they're paying attention to money - Ed won't talk about how much they've spent. "I've been put on a budget," Jenna says. "Before, I was so freaked, he let me go."

"She did a great job," he says, "but now I am going to slow her down."

In reflecting on their last three very home-intensive years, Jenna says, "We went from weekends with things to do to no life. But I wouldn't trade it for anything."