Re-Storying: It’s the Little Things

One of the major lessons I learned when I began “re-storying” houses a decade ago was to start with the structure: assess the bones of the place from foundation to roof, and repair or rebuild as necessary. And then look at the infrastructure, the mechanical systems like heating and cooling, the wiring and plumbing; plus insulation and windows and doors. Fix or update those that are failing or simply not functional–before you think about paint colors or floor coverings or hardware.

Because until the structure is sturdy and the systems work, spending time and money on aesthetics is like putting lipstick on a pig–it may look better, but that’s still a pig under the makeup.

Which is a good metaphor for most endeavors in life, whether creative work or career, friendships and relationships, hobbies and recreation, or parenting. Start with the structure, make sure the systems are working, and then pretty things up.

There’s no point agonizing over every word in a 75,000-word novel, for instance, if the narrative arc doesn’t make sense, or the characters aren’t fully-fleshed and believable.

So I checked out this house’s structure to make sure it was sound. Almost, but for an area of floor that was sagging badly from the weight of a quartzite kitchen that the century-old floor beams had not been designed for.

After my contractor and I installed new support beams in the claustrophobic crawl space, I had the plumbing and wiring assessed. Both are what might be charitably described as eccentric, as is common in old houses added on to or modified over the years, but neither is dangerous.

There’s too much going on here….

That freed me to get creative with the aesthetics, the little things (compared to structure and infrastructure). I started with the bathroom, which was busy-bordering-on-frenetic, with too many textures and patterns fighting for attention: brushed stainless fixtures, bright chrome handles on the blinding white lacquered vanity, patterned matte-finish tile on the floor, shiny white and black subway tile halfway up the walls…. I had to shut my eyes to relax in the clawfoot bathtub!

First I replaced the angular chrome handles on the vanity with curving, dark bronze ones to echo the floor tiles. Then I painted the end wall a soft sage green, and put a leaf-patterned film on the window add to the natural feel (and offer privacy).

Those seemingly small details created a much calmer and more soothing space.

Next came trading out the heavy gray drapes that pooled on the floor by each window throughout the house for fitted Roman shades with insulating backing. The difference was startling, making my small house seem lighter and brighter, and also keeping it warmer as the nights dropped below freezing.

My library/writing room with drapes….

… and with Roman shades.

Lighter, more spacious and more energy efficient

Next, a project to make my kitchen food-prep area larger: adding an under-counter light to the dark corner opposite the fridge. That added four more running feet of usable counter, a big deal in my small kitchen. And the light is touchless: I can turn it on or adjust the brightness by waving my hand under the sensor end.

Adding an under-counter light was a simple and inexpensive way to add usable counter space.

Next, I decided the all-white bedrooms could use a little color. After a good deal of playing with sample colors, I settled on painting the window wall in each a soft blue-gray called English hollyhock. (No hollyhock I know of has ever bloomed in this shade, but it’s a lovely color regardless.)

The guest bedroom looks much better! (See the photo at the top of the post for my bedroom.)

Then I tackled interior doors. The two bedroom doors and the bathroom door had been painted a vivid teal on the outside, and a sort of battleship gray on the inside. Plus, the painters had splashed teal and gray paint over the trim, the floors, and the door hardware.

I took each door off, carried it out to the library where I had space to paint, set it on sawhorses, and carefully painted each side. I went for neutral–the same off-white as the walls–but added new door hardware, dark bronze levers in a style that seemed appropriate for my 1920 house.

Creamy off-white replacing vivid teal. Much calmer!

I also touched up the trim and cleaned the old paint off the hinges and floors as best I could.

The new door hardware in a design that is timeless and accessible.

Re-hanging each door by myself was a little bit of an adventure (there’s a door-jack contractors use, but I don’t have one), but I figured out that I could wedge the door in place with a  moving blanket while I screwed the hinge screws back in.

Solo door-hanging involves inventing props….

For the final touch, I found charming door-signs on Etsy to identify which room is which. I can’t wait to put them up! (They’re coming from Slovakia, so it may be a while.)

Bedroom sign….
Bathroom sign–pretty cute, I think!

As I wind down the calendar year of 2022, I remind myself of this lesson: tend the structure and infrastructure first, before diving into the aesthetics. I also remind myself that the little things are a lot of fun, and they can make an outsize difference.

May your year-end be full of joy, and your new year the best yet! Blessings to you all.

16 thoughts on “Re-Storying: It’s the Little Things

        • May Sarton was a model for me when I was first figuring out how to write (as a scientist, I learned all the wrong things about writing). So when Bless the Birds won the Sarton Award for memoir, it was a huge honor. It’s true, Sarton’s last few books were shaded by bitterness. But she was still such an amazing observer and thinker.

          • It requires incalculable inner strength to write words like Bless the Birds and I’m so blessed you have it so I could read it

          • Thank you. I think it was a combination of determination–as in, “I will make something useful out of this journey”–and the tendency of a writer to never waste a good story, no matter how difficult it may be to write. The hardest part of memoir for me is being real on the page. I’d rather write myself as the person I wish I were, rather than the fallible human I really am. But that would not make for a compelling story. 😉

      • I was looking at your tweet about sweeping snd this Watts’ quote popped into my brain:

        Bamboo shadows
        Sweep the steps
        But raise no dust

        Funny thing: I’ve been to China a number of times and have seen the elderly women sweeping leaves with a bamboo rake

        • That is something I have never seen, and Watt’s haiku evokes what I imagine beautifully. Thanks for sharing it, Art!

    • Sarah, Thank you so much! May your New Year’s be a lovely one, and the year ahead full of joys and wonderful writing!

    • Sometimes obsessing over the little things is a way of distracting ourselves from big things we can’t have much of an effect on. It’s still good to be aware of what we’re doing though. Foundations are critical. If they fail, and that applies to the human condition too, it’s catastrophic, as you know well. That may mean starting over entirely with a new structure/new relationship/new situation. I’m thinking of you and sending hugs your way.

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