Real-Life Renos

An 1890s Farmhouse Gets a Purposefully Slow Rebuild

One couple makes a case for slow, intentional renovations—here's how their kitchen turned out.

January 15, 2022
Photo by Matthew James

Welcome to Real-Life Renos, where we’re pulling back the curtains to the home renos we just can’t get enough of. Tag along as our favorite designers, chefs, and cookbook authors welcome us inside their spaces and share the behind-the-scenes stories behind their transformations. We’ll explore their takes on sustainable living, how they express their identities through design, how they create beautiful spaces that center around accessibility—and so much more.

At the height of the pandemic last year, my partner Casey and I bought a second home. We had always dreamt of owning a place we could escape to on the weekends, as so many in the city long to do. We began our search just prior to the outbreak of COVID.

The house, pre-reno Photo by Matthew James

After looking at several houses online during the lockdown, and viewing one property in person, we came across the 1890s farmhouse we would eventually purchase. It was a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home nestled outside a village in the Catskills, with a small stream running through the property, and views of a larger creek across the street. However, even with its strong bones and picture-perfect location, it was hard to ignore the work that was needed to make the house habitable. The roofing was on its last legs and needed replacing; the porch required a new foundation; and we had to deal with a minor mold and mildew problem (that’s ongoing). Undeterred, we closed in November 2020—a Thanksgiving weekend during which it rained cats and dogs.

Fast-forward to several weeks later, and what we thought was going to be a quick refresh on the kitchen: As we were removing the existing cabinets to install a modular kitchen, we discovered that the load-bearing back wall in the kitchen was soaking wet. After removing the soggy drywall to view the extent of water damage, we discovered that it extended all the way to the studs and the header, making the entire back wall unsafe. What was supposed to be a straightforward update turned into a nightmare as it became painfully clear this wasn’t something we could fix ourselves. We spent the rest of that weekend haphazardly DIYing a repair to keep water from seeping into other walls.

One month and three contractors later, we found our eventual contractor, Mark (our saving grace), to manage the reconstruction work that needed to happen to keep the house from tumbling down. Shortly after, we embarked on what often seemed like a never-ending, several-month journey of planning, debating, drawing, and rebuilding the 300-square-foot kitchen that we hadn’t anticipated rebuilding for some time.

Post-exploration—when the full scope of work became clear to Matthew and Casey. Photo by Matthew James

The emergency renovation turned into a complete rebuild from the ground up. With so much that needed to be removed and reconstructed, my partner and I spent hours upon hours considering how we wanted the new kitchen to be built. It gave us the opportunity to reconsider how we wanted the space to function—and approach the entire house with a new perspective.

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Top Comment:
“with a kitchen that size, if someone buying the place as a second home or otherwise wanted a second bathroom, they could add one. I would have pushed to boat out at least to have the first floor plumbed while everything was torn up, to make that option more viable. Laying pipes in an open space typically doesn't cost that much. Finally, I grew up out in the country in an ancient farmhouse with a well and one bathroom. Having water issues is no fun, and much more difficult to resolve in rural areas. ;o)”
— AntoniaJames

One idea that resonated with us was to strip the house to its simplest form, slowly adding back to it only when absolutely necessary. This was partially to ensure that our lack of experience wouldn’t come in the way, but also so we wouldn’t just get caught up in replicating the latest design trends. It was also at the core of how we wanted to utilize the house—and the relationship we wanted to foster with this space. Casey and I both wanted this renovation—and the ownership of the house—to hold us accountable to every decision we made while restoring it. It became less about what we could add to the space, and more about what we could live without.

With the idea of stripping the house back in mind, we began by taking away anything that didn’t seem efficient. We questioned the importance of every room to our lives, and the attributes we wanted them to have. What were our priorities to make the space functional without over-designing—or adding modern conveniences—for the sake of it? Did we really need a bathroom downstairs in the back addition when there was one upstairs? Since we were used to having just one bathroom in our Brooklyn apartment, would we even miss it?

One of the other impactful decisions we made was to take down the small addition that extended off of the kitchen. It had added some much-needed square footage to the overall space, but was poorly constructed (and barely standing when it was stripped to the studs). As much as we both wanted to keep it, it became obvious it wasn’t up for long-term use. It also kept the downstairs from flowing seamlessly between the kitchen, living, and dining rooms.

Mid-rebuild of the kitchen with new framing for the windows and doorway. Photo by Matthew James

We also made other decisions for ease of maintenance and practicality. Changing the heating system from oil-fired hydronic heat to wall-mounted panel heaters would mean more flexibility and fewer risks of water leaks—and it wouldn’t require us to be dependent on oil. We also knew there’d be a second heat source in the form of a wood stove, so the electric bill wouldn’t be astronomical.

The other major modification we made to the original kitchen was to remove the existing soffit that housed the plumbing and the piping for the previous heating system. Instead of keeping the soffit, we opted to remove it completely to make the kitchen one continuous space without visual breaks in the back wall. We even managed to push out the back wall by 10 inches.

After the structural rebuild was complete, Casey and I spent our time slowly picking and choosing materials and furnishings to install into the newly built kitchen, but also for the rest of the unfinished house. We could’ve wrapped everything up in a few weeks, but knew this didn’t fit in with being intentional and letting the work develop on its own. It took us several months (and one canceled order) to choose the flooring for the kitchen, for instance: a sustainably-sourced watershed ash we serendipitously received that was a surplus from a larger project.

We questioned the importance of every room to our lives, and the attributes we wanted them to have. What were our priorities to make the space functional without over-designing, or adding modern conveniences, for the sake of it?
The corner from which the side addition extended out of the kitchen. With it gone, more light enters in and the space feels seamless. Photo by Matthew James
Matt found the white ash flooring by accident as it was the remnant from a larger project in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Photo by Matthew James

Because we also understood our needs might change over time, and wanted flexibility to modify the kitchen in the future, we ensured it was as modular as possible. This not only simplified the selection of items for the kitchen, it helped with our budget. From the utility stainless steel sink to the standalone pieces used for counters and an island, it creates a sense that the house is a living and breathing entity that can change and adapt to fit our needs.

Each item I sourced for the kitchen was purchased keeping simplicity and ease of maintenance in mind. The trims and mouldings are simple, while the light fixtures are either bare-bulb or open-bottom shades. Keeping the kitchen unfitted also allows us to engage with the space before committing to things like custom cabinetry—and we have the flexibility to move things around. We can now test things out without feeling like we are committed to a style, design, or material we may not enjoy later.

Matthew and Casey intentionally kept the kitchen unfitted to be able to modify the space as they begin using it. The range is electric, as well as the heat, to allow for easier upkeep and maintenance. Photo by Matthew James

As we’re nearing the final stretch of completing the kitchen, last year’s journey has been a deep dive into the world of home ownership. This slow, intentional design process has allowed us to fully explore what options suit our needs, and to take our time finding the right materials. With many more projects to tackle, and rooms to complete, it will be interesting to see where we are this time next year—and how the house has evolved with us.

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Matthew James

Written by: Matthew James


Food52!!! March 9, 2022
Hello, I love what you've done to the place! Can you please provide info on your beautiful electric stove? What brand is it? Thank you!
Food52!!! March 14, 2022
Hello, just following up on this. Thank you!
Arati M. March 15, 2022
Hi! Just got word from the writer! It’s the Cosmo electric commercial-style range! Hope that helps.
Food52!!! March 16, 2022
THANK YOU! It helps A LOT! I so appreciate you! All the best! <3
Amber February 15, 2022
I love hearing about other people's renovation choices. Since you haven't had a chance to live in the space for long, it makes complete sense to me to leave your options open.

My husband and I purchased a second home in NW CT on about the same timeline as you. After living there full time during the first lockdown, I felt confident enough to go ahead and renovate the kitchen in the 1760s portion of the house. But it ultimately ended up costing 3 times the contractor's estimate because of unexpected issues found in the structure. (Having to reframe the entire floor and exterior walls at lumber's peak price didn't help.)

I have renovated old apartments before, so I know that you should budget A LOT for contingencies, but even with a thorough inspection, sometimes you still encounter significant, unpleasant surprises.
Matthew J. February 18, 2022
Thank you! Yes, keeping it as flexible as possible until we settle into the space made the most sense for us. Our priority was getting the space structurally sound and having a good foundation so if, and whenever, we decide to make any further changes it will be easier to do so.
Ruth February 15, 2022
I can't tell from the photos, but are you going cabinet-free? Or just putting off the decision about what to get until later.
Matthew J. February 18, 2022
It's hard to tell, but we're going cabinet-free in the kitchen. There's a back storage room that will have more storage but it will mostly be open shelving!
Myra M. February 14, 2022
Could you send me info about the white tea kettle on your stove? Handsome.
Matthew J. February 15, 2022
Hi! It's the Hario Bona Enamel Pouring Kettle.
cinamibun February 14, 2022
First of it was good that they created the kitchen space they wanted but I couldn't understand how they were totally unaware of the underlying wall structure problems which should have shown up in the same requisite house inspection that told them of the roof problems. As soon as they heard roof problems they should have been checking for interior leaks and from the damage, they found that was no recent leak damage. Too many houses on the market have hidden damage passed on to the new owners by the sellers. I did like that in redoing the pipes there's a chance to add another bathroom even if it is just a half bath (sink and toilet) and at least the bones of the building are worth the remodeling. It is always nice to have lots of natural lighting in the kitchen. I do hope that the heating change from oil to oil-fire Hydronics (steam heat) will keep the house warm enough.
Matthew J. February 15, 2022
Thank you, I appreciate your comment. Overall the house had many issues and unfortunately this was one that wasn't caught as the leak didn't come in directly from the roof but from water runoff coming off the back addition (sans gutters). Of course, if we ever do this again there won't be any nook and cranny left unturned! As for the heat, it's now actually converted to electric. The old system was poorly installed and it made more sense to remove than repair as it was too costly. This house will not be used as much in the winter so it won't be too much of an issue.
AntoniaJames January 20, 2022
I'm perplexed how structural problems of this magnitude were not discovered during your home inspections, prior to removing all contingencies before closing. This is a lesson to anyone reading this - especially people buying old houses. Moisture detectors that can detect leaks and general moisture levels behind walls can be purchased at Home Depot for under $50. That said, nothing can substitute for engaging the best home inspector in the county, and climbing with a bright flashlight into the crawl space under a house, if necessary, to see for yourself how it all looks.

About the one bathroom vs two decision . . . . with a kitchen that size, if someone buying the place as a second home or otherwise wanted a second bathroom, they could add one. I would have pushed to boat out at least to have the first floor plumbed while everything was torn up, to make that option more viable. Laying pipes in an open space typically doesn't cost that much.

Finally, I grew up out in the country in an ancient farmhouse with a well and one bathroom. Having water issues is no fun, and much more difficult to resolve in rural areas. ;o)
Matthew J. January 20, 2022
I completely agree to always due diligence when purchasing a home, especially an older one. Even so, things can go unnoticed! There were already so many issues with the house that we were aware of and this one, unfortunately, went undetected and even when it came to light, we wouldn't have known the full extent until the walls and floor had been removed... A lot of poor craftsmanship to cover up preexisting issues!

Luckily, the plumbing lines up if we ever want/need to add an additional bathroom. The back is on a concrete slab so any additional plumbing for drainage can be easily installed since the floor will have to be raised to accommodate the pipes!

Yes! I grew up in rural VT so am fairly familiar with water issues! My concern has always been power outages :)
luvcookbooks January 20, 2022
This is the best article on renovations! I love the approach and practicality. Thank you!
Matthew J. January 20, 2022
Thank you! I know this approach isn't for everyone but it was important for me to be as intentional and practical as possible!
M January 18, 2022
Modular is a really good way to explore what you need in practice rather than vision. Homes are boxes of unanticipated curveballs, no matter how much prep you put in, or rational thought you give to a choice.

Today's practical bathroom decision might be tomorrow's biggest regret if luck doesn't stay on your side. (If "roughing it" is no water for a day, let's hope those curveballs aren't bathroom related.)

I am curious what made you opt for electric and not induction, since sustainability and electric bills are influencing your choices?
Matthew J. January 18, 2022
Yes, keeping it unfitted allows us to fully utilize the space and remove/add pieces whenever needed without having to think too much about how it will affect the space. We can always create a formal kitchen later, but for now this gives us a chance to interact with the house and see how we use the space.
That's so true as well, no matter how much is considered there's always something around the corner!

This is something we've learned immensely over the last year with so many curveballs along the way (and definitely more to come!) Since this renovation was unplanned and never budgeted, we had to make a lot of concessions and the house is no different than our apartment - we would have no bathroom in both scenarios if something happened.

For the range, we went with electric because of cost. Most inductions are at least double the cost and, again, since the renovation wasn't planned we didn't have the budget when the majority went to rebuilding the house. It definitely might be something we consider for the future!
sihuf January 17, 2022
Seems foolish to remove a bathroom if it only leaves you with one. The negative impact on resale value aside, having a second bathroom is invaluable when you have a full house, or when the other one is out of commission (clogged toilet, broken shower, etc). Not to mention leaving the first floor without a bathroom. As someone who has been on crutches more than once…yeah. Dumb dumb dumb. I’m looking for a second home upstate and will only consider houses with a two bathrooms.
Matthew J. January 17, 2022
I completely agree that having a second bathroom on the main level can be beneficial, but in this circumstance it didn't make sense. The room where the bathroom was located had too many issues to support a second functioning bathroom and the renovation was unplanned. We had to cut many things to pay for the work and unfortunately this included the downstairs bathroom. We live in an apartment building so we are use to having our water out of commission for the day and having to rough it. Having two bathrooms is a luxury and not something that is necessary - especially for a second home with two people that isn't being used every day.
Arati M. January 18, 2022
While I see the logic in both points of view, it's important to remember that the decisions we make for our homes are personal... that's what makes them our homes, for us to navigate... It's always interesting for me to learn different perspectives, and watch those choices unfold.
Scottso65 January 16, 2022
Rebuilding the 2nd oldest home in town I am living in,1880’s it was built,found a 1915 license plate under the floor
Matthew J. January 17, 2022
That sounds like a great project! I can't say I've come across anything too exciting in the renovation - the house had been mostly gutted in the 80's/90's so it's all "new".