Whether they chose Vermont or Pennsylvania, Kim and Phil Szymanowski were always going to find a way to bring the outside in.
“We have always loved the cabin look and feel,” Kim said, standing on her porch in Pipersville, Bucks County, on a recent rainy day. “Our original dream was to move to Vermont. The job was better here.”
Growing up in New Jersey near each other in homes with postage stamp backyards, the couple met in middle school. When they were newly married, they found their simple, three-bedroom ranch after Kim landed an engineering job in the Newtown office of Johnson & Johnson.
For the last 30 years, they have worked to turn the 1,400-square-foot home into their dream cabin.
The basement had a dirt floor. There was no front or side porch. Every time it rained, they had to drag things into the house. But the house had good bones, and Phil had a vision.
“Her mom was upset when we bought it,” Phil said.
They started in the back of the house, removing a bump-out that served as a dining room, which was not structurally sound. Doing the work themselves, they rebuilt the space as a family room, which for years held a ping-pong table. Now, the cozy space features a wood-burning fireplace, a cozy couch, and wall-to-wall windows that overlook the spacious yard.
“In the winter for me, it’s like a snow globe,” Kim said. “It’s the coziest room. I love it.”
Next came the kitchen. They vaulted the ceiling, taking out fake beams and popcorn ceiling. Kim remembers one night, while their two children were eating dinner in their high chairs, watching her husband’s leg drop through the ceiling.
Phil, who has been a craftsman since he was a teenager, made new cabinets. Like the rest of the house, they decorated the room with rustic decor, including metal saw blades, a toboggan, and a wagon wheel.
“He came home with this filthy, dilapidated thing,” said Kim, pointing to the wagon wheel, which hangs high on the wall. “You just have to trust him. You just ask, ‘What are you thinking?’”
Next came a side porch to replace a blank white wall. They turned the garage into a sound-proof music room and built a mudroom, laundry room, and bathroom.
A large back deck followed. The stylish space now serves as an outdoor living room, complete with a composite deck and a modern railing. The porch overlooks a rustic woodshed, raised garden beds, and a fire pit inspired by one they saw on a mission trip to Africa.
Originally, the basement became Phil’s walk-in workshop. The large space, now inhabited by their daughter because of quarantine, holds a bar, second kitchen, and furniture made mostly by Phil. Piece by piece, he handcrafted the stairs.
In the main bedroom, where a wall mural of the mountains replaced 1970s wallpaper, he turned a rusty, dilapidated carriage seat into a bench. He loves to recycle from job sites and repurpose objects.
“I love to see the potential in things,” he said.
On the exterior, they replaced the existing siding with brown siding and green trim, built a large, rambling porch, and added a corrugated roof. In 2001, they broke ground on the two-story barn, which now serves as Phil’s workshop for his business, Philbilt Custom LLC.
After all these years, they have never felt the need to expand on the home’s original footprint.
“We never ascribed to have a mansion,” Kim said. “For us it was a find that we could afford and make it our own. We’ve been here 30 years and are still enjoying it.”
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