This is a story about life and death. About the life cycle and recycle of houses and the people they hold and protect.
KELLY FORSYTH and her 14-year-old son, Lex, are finally lugging the last of their things into their just-finished, bright, sustainable and roomy contemporary house in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood.
And, darnit, if they’re not nostalgic about that sad-looking trailer out back.
The one with no hot water or working toilet but lots of drafty fresh air. Where they lived, using a Porta-Potty, for more than a year while their new house went up in front of them.
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“Lex and I were getting pretty reminiscent,” Kelly says. “We took some photos, and I want to blow one up so we can do a nice photo for the house. The experience was so emotional with my dad’s involvement, so I don’t want to forget it and say, ‘Oh this is just a new house.’ How many people get to build a house and have their dream realized?”
This is both a happy day and a sad day for the Forsyth family. Kelly’s dad, Walter, was supposed to be here, too, moving into his accessible apartment downstairs, his daughter’s vegetable garden right outside the door. But, in the middle of construction, Walter contracted shingles and died. He was 90.
This whole thing was his idea, actually. To move here from San Pedro, Calif. To put the money that would have gone to a professional-care facility into a new home for the three of them, family helping family across generations.
“Unfortunately, my dad waited until the last minute to move in with me,” Kelly says. “That’s my only regret, that we didn’t start this sooner.”
DOWN THE ROAD, in Ballard, Kyle and Lauren Zerbey are on a deadline. They’re working nights and weekends to finish their down-to-the-studs, six-year-long remodel. From tiny and tired “beginner Craftsman,” 750 square feet, to modern, bright and 1,300 square feet.
The Zerbeys beat out six other bidders in 2006, the heat of the housing market and the economy running on high, for the privilege of paying $344,000 for the cottage with the sloping front porch, listing chimney, rotted roof, sagging floor, one bedroom and one bath.
It was what they could afford. And they felt lucky to get it. But baby Avery will be here soon. They need to be ready.
“We feel pretty strongly about making this house work with kids, and we think we can do it,” Lauren says, sitting at the dining table beneath a patch of cloudy daylight framed by a large new skylight. She looks young and is pretty. But this is a woman who helped pour the new concrete floor in the basement while almost eight months pregnant.
“We tried not to make it so much of a jewelbox that we could never leave,” she says. Bailey, the Zerbeys’ lumbering golden retriever, slaps his tail on the dark-stained cork floor. Barn doors painted ocean blues slide aside to reveal the baby’s room, their bedroom. Another glow from above comes from the new loft, the attic reclaimed. Open, white and bright, it serves as an office for now.
“Down the road we’re thinking of a two-story, 800-square-foot DADU (detached accessory dwelling unit) and having the option to rent it out or use it as an office,” she says, nodding toward the backyard. Outside is a garage, a big yard.
“And you never know what’s going to happen to our parents,” Kyle adds. “It could be a mother-in-law.”
THIS IS A story about life and death. About the life cycle and recycle of houses and the people they hold and protect. For some, sharing living space is a choice that encourages closeness and bonding across generations. As of 2010, 4.4 million U.S. homes held three generations or more under one roof, a 15 percent increase from two years earlier, according to U.S. Census data.
For others it’s an economic necessity. Having a baby is expensive. A middle-income family who had a new child in 2011 can expect to spend $295,560, adjusted for inflation, to raise that child to age 18, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The largest portion of that? The roof over the child’s head: 30 percent.
But pulling together and making the best of it is what we do, stuck in this slow-crawl of an economy, the longest-running downturn since the Great Depression. Despite recent upticks in the local housing market, we are not yet recovered. What the Forsyths, the Zerbeys and others like them require of their homes is flexibility and the ability to make what they’ve got work for them. A growing family, aging in place, room to dance, space for an office, rental income.
A house must serve.
The Zerbeys are young architects with the know-how to do almost all of the work on their remodel themselves. Kyle has designed homes at Balance Architects for the past seven years, and Lauren recently left a local architecture firm to open Studio Zerbey and do the same. Kyle figures their project, less than $200,000, would have cost twice that had they not been their own designers and laborers.
Kelly, meanwhile, quit her job in human resources to shepherd her project: the deconstruction and recycling of the old house she had lived in for the past 14 years and the building of a new home, designed by architect Brad Khouri of b9 architects. Her efforts kept her on budget at $172 a square foot for her 2,100-square-foot home.
KELLY FORSYTH and Lex live in the kind of neighborhood where folks wash their cars at the curb. Joggers are free to run down the center of the road. Big yards and no sidewalks give the area a rural feeling just a block off busy Greenwood Avenue.
Kelly’s property is on a triple lot. “I bought the house for the land, really. I even had a trowel with me to check out the dirt.” She laughs.
Waving an arm across the dining area of the open main-floor living space she says, “I just wanted a big table and a long, built-in bench in here. We’re just a bunch of old hippies, and we like to have our friends over for dinner, push the table aside and we dance.” She shoves her hair aside, long and wild, tributaries of gray through the black. She is not yet 50.
Kelly is more Seattle free-spirit than hippie. If she can make it, why ever would she buy it? (Something she learned from her dad.) If it’s a nice evening, why not take a bottle of wine and have a sit at the picnic table out front? Perhaps a neighbor will drop by.
It’s a spirit she intends to instill in her son.
“When I built a chair with my dad, he even made me make my own dowels. It made me appreciate the concept of how we use stuff. I want Lex to have something similar,” she says. “And he helped me make a dropped ceiling for the powder room.
“With all the computers and technology the kids have, it was not easy pulling him away from that. But it’s so empowering to be able to do things yourself. I refuse to let him walk out of this house at 18 or 22 without some of these basic skills.”
And, for that, their new house has already served. Lex, however, might not walk out of the house at 18 or 22. According to the Pew Research Center, one in five adults ages 25 to 34 live in multigenerational households. Pew defines multigenerational as homes with parents and adult children 25 and older. Perhaps the downstairs apartment will be there for him. And maybe later for Kelly, because there are also numbers to support that move: One in four U.S. households now cares for an elderly relative, according to the AARP, citing one estimate.
Kelly, a single mom, could not have afforded her new home, as environmentally friendly and healthy as possible, without her dad’s help. Father and daughter worked together during construction. Just like they did when she was a kid and he taught her woodworking, let her help remodel the family house.
Their house remains his, too. The things he taught her and the things she is teaching her son live on. “I’m excited to celebrate the house,” Kelly says. “All of this concept of reusing stuff is from my dad. He was just a stingy Irishman!” She laughs and a tear threatens.
“I knew my dad needed me. I thought, yes, how can I now repay him? I was overwhelmed by the concept of perhaps taking care of my dad, but there was no question in my mind I wanted to do that. Not only was he asking to live with me, he was helping me do stuff I loved.”
A BIG PART of the motivation for the Zerbeys’ remodel is due any day now. The new “flex room” has already flexed into Avery Elizabeth’s bottom-of-the-sea-blue nursery.
On the verge of growing their own, the Zerbeys very much miss their families in Oklahoma. “We go back to Lauren’s for the holidays: It is so much fun there with everybody running around,” Kyle says with a grin.
“Kyle’s grandfather was a master woodworker, and Kyle inherited his wood shop,” Lauren says, nodding toward the garage, now her husband’s shop.
Months before she arrived, Avery’s room already displayed a photograph of five generations of the women in Lauren’s family. To stay in touch, Lauren started a blog about their construction adventures at www.chezerbey.com. It begins like so:
“We met as first-year architecture students in 2000 and became an official studio couple by 2001. Although we both grew up near Tulsa, after graduating in 2004 we decided to move west to Seattle. We soon found that we liked each other even more when we weren’t pulling all-nighters and surviving off Easy Mac, so we decided to get married. Then we got a dog (Bailey, our bigheaded golden retriever). Shortly thereafter, we did what any young architect couple feels compelled to do — we bought a crappy old house. In 2006, after six months of searching and six different offers on other houses, we closed on our fixer-upper and have since been immersed in the remodel, retrofit, and reconstruction of what we have affectionately named chezerbey.”
Her honest approach, step-by-step explanations and photographs caused word of the blog to spread. It now gets about 40,000 hits a month.
Doing what architects always advise their clients not to do, the Zerbeys lived in the house during the work, two years without heat or insulation. “When we did the bedroom we slept in the living room,” Kyle says. “And when we did the kitchen, we cooked in the basement. With a George Foreman grill, a microwave and a toaster we tried to maintain healthy eating.”
Six years later, the little bungalow-gone-modern-right-at-the-ipe-front-stoop has appraised for $500,000. The architect pair were particularly adept at wringing usable space from every square inch. One bedroom, one bath is now three bedrooms, two baths, a loft. The house is trim and was strictly budgeted — sliding doors, Ikea cabinets, homemade wall décor, no closets — a vision professionally executed by two designers who now require that their tiny home function in their new roles as Mom and Dad.
“We don’t want anything bigger than it needs to be,” says Kyle, spoken like a true architect.
But it was just this sort of can-do ingenuity for good design that lured the couple to Seattle in the first place.
“Seattle had this density of architects who are achieving high design with all kinds of projects,” Kyle says. “People in Seattle seem to value that design offering.”
Rebecca Teagarden writes about architecture and design for Pacific NW. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.