As you relax in Barbara and Gene Noller's comfy family room, you can barely grasp what they're saying: This used to be a garage.
Nothing here speaks the architectural language of a dreary, drafty garage. This room has wood floors, French doors, sheer swag curtains at the windows, custom bookshelves on the walls.
But the Nollers' family 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, tar paper and overhead wood rafters.
Two years ago, the couple transformed the room with $12,000 cash and what Barbara calls "sweat equity."
The Nollers bought their two-bedroom house in 1991 in anticipation of Gene's 1996 retirement from Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The sturdy ranch-style house was built in 1953 on a half-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, their new house grew too small.
Once retired, Gene needed an office for consulting and an art studio for painting. Barbara needed a craft room. And they wanted space to entertain their growing circle of retirement-era friends.
And mostly they needed somewhere to entertain and look after their seven grandchildren, all of whom are younger than 11, when they come 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-by-31-foot structure includes a studio for Gene and a craft room for Barbara.
In remodeling the garage, the couple had several assets: Gene's skills (he did the design, planning and much of the engineering), Barbara's decorating talents, and their labor (they painted the walls and installed the parquet floor).
Four Decades of Remo Experience
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.
For this job, the couple also enlisted a talented tile setter and a bricklayer they had used on other projects. "They're like family," Barbara said of their craftsmen.
Most important, they had the services of Whittier general contractor Raul Camarillo, who had previously repaired 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 at ground level, be raised 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 the floor just a little, leaving it one step down from the house. "I didn't want that," Barbara said. "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 replacement support beam twice as thick but only half as deep as the original. 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 to display their art collection, which includes work by others as well as by Gene. Several ceiling lights were installed to highlight 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 backyard, 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. (Barbara has no appetite for blind cleaning, one of the jobs she had to do as a child.)
Original Window Opening Enlarged
On the opposite wall, the original window opening was enlarged. From his reading chair, Gene can look out of the new French window, set between his bookshelves, at the liquidambar and birch trees that the couple planted.