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Falling for the Real Thing

After putting off a remodel for more than a decade, busy professors realize they love their Santa Barbara home's original quirks--and set out to restore it.


When Denise and Bill Bielby bought their faded Santa Barbara house in 1989, it seemed that an extensive remodel was in order.

Set on a wooded acre with ocean views, their 40-year-old house was burdened with an awkwardly designed driveway that connected to the street at a harrowing curve.

And the condition of the house itself was disheartening: original fixtures, metal windows, metal hanging lamps, old appliances and, most annoying of all, dark wood paneling throughout the house.

"The first thing we wanted to do was tear out the paneling," Denise Bielby recalls. She felt the same way about the dozens of matching metal cabinet pulls throughout the home: "Those have to go."

But 10 years passed before the couple, both sociology professors at UC Santa Barbara, got around to the remodel.

And during that decade, something surprising happened: They fell in love with their house.

"It started to speak to us," Denise explained, "and we started to respect it. We realized a lot of thought went into this house."

And so instead of gutting it two years ago, they set out to restore what they call its "understated elegance."

In fact, they liked the essence of the house so much that they built their new office and garage to complement it.

The house was built by a man with the surname Fong in 1959, they learned, and was situated on the lot between century-old oak trees. The Bielbys grew to love the Chinese elements of the high-pitched roof and wide eaves. The window placement turned out to be perfect for light and airflow, no matter what the season or weather.

The various woods used for the eaves (vertical grain Douglas fir), cabinets (birch), floors (oak) and paneling (oak) are of an exceptional quality not available today.

The couple finally saw that it wasn't the paneling that should go but simply the color it had been stained. And those offending cabinet pulls? Today Denise is "on a hunt" to find even more.

It was the couple's need for a large home office that pushed the remodel-renovation into reality after the 10-year delay. Their work, which over the years filled several spare bedrooms, was spilling over to the dining room table.

"Work can take over your life," Bill says.

"Work can take over your house," his wife adds.

To start the job, they called in Santa Barbara architect Dennis Thompson. They liked his willingness to listen to their desires and then make suggestions to improve on them.

"He's very collaborative," Denise says.

"He doesn't come in and say 'you should do this, this and this,' " her husband adds.

With Thompson, the couple struggled to find a place for the new office. They didn't want to destroy the roof lines by adding a second story. And the locations of old oaks limited where additions could be made.

Finally, it occurred to everyone that adding a separate building--a large office over a three-car garage--would solve many problems. The driveway could be moved and a badly needed courtyard could be created in its place, with a wall installed to block out road noise.

And the old attached garage could be transformed into a master bedroom, giving the couple sorely needed interior space.

Hiring the Rest of the 'Team'

While the design decisions were being formed, the Bielbys collected the rest of their "team." For construction, they chose Dennis Allen of Allen Associates because of his reputation for producing top-quality remodels and his history of working well with the architect. This would eliminate one problem that plagues many remodeling projects: friction between the architect and contractor.

"We knew his prices were a bit higher," Denise says of Allen, "but we also knew from our referrals that his costs were worth it in terms of quality, reliability and general peace of mind."

Other team members included designer Sue LeCabe, whom the couple chose over other designers who wanted, Denise says, to "tart the place up." Rejected suggestions had included tearing out walls and raising the ceiling to enlarge the entryway, adding elaborate window treatments, replacing all the kitchen cabinets and, of course, tearing out the paneling.

LeCabe instead suggested materials, colors and finishes to subtly highlight the home's quiet nature.

Landscape designer Charles McClure was recommended by Thompson after the couple had rejected a well-known landscape architect whose plans turned out to be "overblown and expensive."

With the team assembled--architect, interior designer, builder and landscape designer--the plans were finalized. The new garage would be built on a slope down the hill from the house, with a spiral stairway leading to the new office above. The new walled courtyard would then connect the office and house.

Construction began in May 1998 and ended in January 1999.

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