There comes a point of conflict in every home rehab.
For Rachel and Tyler Grace, it was the garage doors. The old carriage doors needed to go. The debate was over what to replace them with: pricey-but-stylish carriage doors or a cheap-but-aesthetically bankrupt vinyl, roll-up number.
"It was the classic battle between contractor and designer: The designer wants something unattainable and it's the contractor's job to be like, 'No, that's not realistic,' " Tyler Grace said.
In this case, though, that faceoff pitted Tyler, a carpenter with his own business, TRG Home Concepts, against Rachel, a freelance interior designer.
Rachel and Tyler bought their 1,100-square-foot house in Haddon Heights in 2010, when they were 25 and 24 respectively and just starting out in their chosen careers. For the last three years, it has served as not only their starter house, but also as a laboratory for experimenting with bold design choices and intricate woodwork - all on a starter budget of $40,000.
They joke that it's been a labor of love: labor for him and love for her.
Take those doors: In the end, Rachel (and good taste) prevailed. But instead of paying for expensive custom doors, Tyler used his woodworking know-how to build new carriage doors himself, hitching them onto the existing hinges.
"She's right all the time," Tyler admitted, "but everything she chooses tends to be on the harder side. Once everything cools down and the dust settles, I realize, 'Yeah, that was the right decision.' But in the heat of it, it's like, 'Are you serious?' "
They didn't quite know what they were getting into when they spotted the craftsman-style, 1920s house at an estate sale. But they fell in love with the tapered columns and broad front porch.
"I was like, that's the one," Rachel said. "And he said, 'We haven't even gone inside yet.' "
When they did, they found ancient carpets, drop ceilings, fluorescent lighting, and dingy beige walls. But the real estate agent peeled up a corner of the carpet and revealed hidden potential: oak floor underneath.
"We thought, 'This is great. We can refinish them, even bring back some of the charm of the original flooring,' " Rachel said. "Then demo day comes and we rip up the carpet - and the hardwood flooring is only around the border of the room. There's plywood in the middle." The plywood had at some point been covered with an area rug as a budget alternative to laying down a full hardwood floor.
So, new floors were first on the to-do list, followed by other cosmetic upgrades designed to restore and update the house's old-fashioned craftsman charm.
Because Tyler launched his carpentry business the same year they bought the house, it became the site of a great deal of trial and error. He installed his first-ever coffered ceilings in the home office/nursery, built bookshelves and wooden casing to surround the fireplace (whose brick had been painted bright red, with white paint lines over the mortar joints), and erected split-column room dividers to delineate the border between the living room and a separate, slightly more formal seating area.
"With everything in life, you have to figure it out by doing it yourself. And it's the same with construction: You learn by your mistakes," he said.
Every room includes a different type of millwork or woodwork - much of it scaled down from Rachel's original, elaborate vision to a more pragmatic, affordable alternative. Instead of wainscoting in the guest bedroom, Tyler built shadowboxes that, when painted, created the same effect with a fraction of the materials. In the master bedroom, a similar shadowbox technique gives the illusion of a wood-paneled wall.
Each room also received crown molding, and the couple ordered custom five-panel recessed doors to match the handful of original ones remaining in the house.
Rachel oversaw the finishes: white-painted trim to cover the mix of original woodwork, new millwork, and fiberboard Tyler used to save money. Soft shades of paint in gray, peach, and aqua on the walls serve as the backdrop for a bold mix of geometric patterns that adorn rugs, lamp shades, upholstered chairs, throw pillows, and even walls (with the application of decals).
Her tight budget forced her to stick to affordable pieces - but that means she can mix and match them over time, coordinating them with vintage mainstays like a midcentury coffee table and a brass bamboo tea cart that belonged to her parents.
Many other furnishings in the house are Ikea hacks, masterminded by Rachel and executed by Tyler: Instead of the pricey wall sconce Rachel had her eye on for the home office, they found a similar Ikea desk lamp and mounted it horizontally; and when a Restoration Hardware mirror was out of reach, they mounted an Ikea version with some Home Depot rope for a DIY knockoff.
Over the summer, the couple broke into a sprint to finish the renovations ahead of a new deadline: Rachel's late-August due date. Mere weeks before Rachel gave birth to the couple's first child, daughter Selby, Tyler and a few relatives were rushing to finish the living area. Tricks like adjusting the window-stops to fit standard-width bamboo blinds, rather than having the blinds cut to fit the windows, were cost effective but labor intensive.
They got the room done just in time, though the couple still have a kitchen and dining-nook rehab on their plate.
Rachel said that, given the enormous amount of work they've put into the house and the long to-do list still ahead, sometimes they wonder why they fell in love with the 90-year-old house in the first place.
But, she added, she already knows the answer.
"When we were looking at houses, you envision what the space will eventually look like, but you also envision what you'll do in that space. So when I looked at this house, I wasn't just thinking about crown molding, I was also thinking about having babies and starting a family, and the memories that we would make in the house."