As you lean back against a comfy armchair in Barbara and Gene Noller’s family room, you can hardly grasp what they’re telling you: This used to be a garage.
Nothing here speaks the architectural “language” of a dreary, drafty garage: not the wood floors, the French doors, not the sheer swag curtains at the windows or the custom bookshelves on the walls.
But this room did indeed start its life as a garage, attached to the house through the service porch, with a cement slab floor, exposed wall studs, tarpaper, and overhead wood rafters.
A few years ago, the couple transformed the room with $12,000 cash and what Barbara calls “sweat equity.”
The Noller’s bought their two-bedroom house in anticipation of Gene’s 1996 retirement from Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The sturdy, ranch-style house was built in 1953 on a 1/2-acre lot in the upscale Friendly Hills area of Whittier.
Their previous house in San Gabriel, where they lived for 34 years, had grown too large after their three children left home.
But eventually, this house grew too small.
Once retired, Gene needed an office for consulting and an art studio for painting. Barbara needed a crafts room. And they wanted space to entertain their growing circle of retirement-era friends.
And mostly they needed somewhere to entertain and supervise their seven grandchildren, all of whom were younger than 11, when they came to visit.
“That’s it,” Barbara had said one Thanksgiving, a few years ago, when the grandkids were underfoot. She was ready to turn the garage into a family room.
The first step was building a new garage behind the house. The city required it, and the large lot allowed it. The 24-foot-by-31-foot structure includes a studio for Gene and a crafts room for Barbara.
In remodeling the old garage, the couple had several assets: Gene’s skills (he did the design, plan and much of the engineering), his and Barbara’s labor (they painted the walls and installed the parquet floor), and Barbara’s decorating talents.
All of these skills have been honed during the couple’s four decades of remodeling experience. Their previous home was remodeled so thoroughly that by the time they sold it, not one original wall remained.
Plus, for this remodel, the couple had the abilities of to the tile installer and brick layer they had used on other projects.
“They’re like family,” Barbara said.
Most important, they had the services of Whittier general contractor Raul Camarillo, who had previously fixed their roof to specifications even more rigorous than those called for by Gene.
“It was super-right,” Gene said, still in awe of the superior flashing Camarillo installed on the roof. “He’s like a second cousin.”
However, as with nearly all remodeling projects, there were some arguments. Barbara was adamant that the floor of the garage, which was on ground level, be raised up to be level with the floor of the house, which is on a raised foundation. But a 14-inch supporting beam in the garage hung so low that, if the floor were raised, there would not be enough headroom to meet building codes.
Camarillo tried to talk Barbara into raising floor just a little, leaving it one step down from the house.
“I didn’t want that,” Barbara insisted. “That would always feel like it was a garage.”
Finally, a structural engineer found a solution that would still carry the load of the roof: Fashion a beam that is twice as thick and but only half as deep. Rather than taking away from the aesthetic of the room, the beam adds charm.
Once the height of the new floor was determined, the room began to take shape. The ceiling was drywalled and recessed lights were added. From the beginning, the couple planned to leave one wall free of furniture in order to display their art collection, both purchased by them and painted by Gene. Several ceiling lights focus toward the art wall.
On another wall, Gene built and installed bookshelves deep enough to accommodate his collection of large gardening and art books.
The two-car-garage door, which faced the back yard, was replaced with a solid wall punctuated with a large picture window and a hunter green door.
Barbara, who considered a career in interior design before she got married, made elegant swag curtains. The high-quality Pella brand windows include narrow Venetian blinds between the panes of glass, keeping the blinds dust-free. The window in the Stanley door was recently retrofitted with a similar product. Because she was made clean blinds as a child, Barbara has no appetite for that.
On the opposite wall, the original window opening was enlarged. From his reading chair, Gene looks out the new French window, set between his bookshelves, to the liquid amber and birch trees that the couple planted, and which he festoons with twinkling red and white lights during Christmastime.
For the floor, the couple wanted a corridor of tile, matching that in the service porch and kitchen, to run through the room from the back door into the service porch. The idea was to avoid tracking mud from the garden onto a more delicate wood floor. “It hasn’t been entirely successful,” Gene said, though Barbara keeps after him to wipe his feet and provides a small collection of boot scrapers just outside the door.
For heating and cooling, Gene bought and installed a small wall unit, eliminating the need to adjust the size of the whole-house systems already installed. Extra insulation in the ceiling, walls and floor gives the room a steady comfort.
According to Barbara, the garage remodel is the last major remodeling project they will ever do on this house.
Before this, the couple added a wall of French doors in the dining room, built a redwood deck and brick pathways in the back yard, created a luscious shade garden, built a new brick porch out front, changed the house color from yellow to sand, and remodeled the kitchen.
“We’ve been in process for nine years,” she said. “I think we’re coming to an end.”
# # #
At a glance:
Project: Transform garage into family room
Duration: 2 months