Betsy Vohs’ starter home was like a lot of people’s first real estate purchase: small — just 875 square feet — with some charming features and plenty of room for improvement.
Over the first 12 years she lived there, Vohs, a professional interior designer, put her stamp on the 1948-built home, refinishing the wood floors and painting the walls.
“It was a great investment and a good canvas for me,” she said of the house in Minneapolis’ Regina neighborhood.
Last year, Vohs, now founder and CEO of her own architecture and design firm, Studio BV, decided it was time for an upgrade. She wanted more than one bathroom, as well as spaces for entertaining comfortably. She wanted a guest room, something she lacked in a two-bedroom house. “I was using one for my office, and I need my office,” she said. And she wanted a better kitchen.
“The kitchen was the worst disaster,” she said, with very little storage or counter space, plastic laminate countertops and original 1940s cabinets under layers and layers of paint.
Should she move? Or invest in the house she already had? “How do you grow into a house as you get older?” she wondered.
She decided to stay and transform her home into a place she could enjoy living long-term.
But she didn’t want to overwhelm the little house with a big addition. “I like the house,” she said. Instead she opted to stay within the original footprint and go up, claiming the unfinished attic for a new owner’s suite. “There was a half-story ripe for the picking,” she said.
There also was an unfinished basement that she could turn into a lower-level family room. Finishing the attic and basement more than doubled her square footage, to 1,975.
She worked with builder Erik Olson of Telos ,with whom she’d collaborated on other projects for clients. “Having a good relationship with the contractor was critical,” she said. “Good communication is important for making decisions.”
Here’s how Vohs improved her starter home, room by room:
The original kitchen was small — 10 by 10 feet — with two windows and two doors, leaving very little room for storage or counter space. Vohs removed an interior wall between the dining room and the kitchen to create better flow and space for an island. “The island is a game-changer,” said Vohs.
She gave up one window, but added a glass door to the deck, with a dog door for Freddy, her Bernedoodle. Because the kitchen was still small, she limited the number of finishes in the space. The waterfall island and backsplash, which she carried up to the ceiling, are Vermont marble, which has denser veining than traditional Carrara. “It’s typically used on exteriors,” she said.
Silver pulls were integrated into the white enameled cabinets. The rest of the main floor had original red oak flooring, so Vohs continued that into the kitchen, which had been vinyl. “Consistency makes spaces seem bigger,” she said.
Vohs wanted a large piece of artwork on one wall. “But it’s a tight space — even 1.5 inches of frame makes a difference,” she said. So she hired local artist Emily Quandahl to paint a mural directly on the wall. It’s protected from grease and cooking spills by a layer of shellac. Vohs once splashed tomato sauce on it, but it wiped right off, she said.
Vohs, who loves to cook, now has the counter space to prepare whatever she likes. “I can make pizza. It’s a life-changing kitchen.”
To gain space for a luxurious master bathroom on the second floor, the home’s dormer was lifted in back. “I need a sanctuary. I’m a big spa person,” Vohs said. “Spa is my golf.” Her new bathroom includes heated marble floors, a steam shower with a seat, a soaking tub and “wonderful lighting, to make putting on makeup as fun as it possibly can be.”
For her bedroom, she added walnut beams that echo the wood rafters of the unfinished attic space. “It adds a great touch to a space that doesn’t have height,” she said. The windows open out — “so you can have them open in the rain.”
Vohs also designed a large closet with custom storage for her extensive jewelry collection. “I have an addiction to jewelry,” she said. “I wanted to be able to see all my jewelry.” The back wall has pegboards for hanging watches, pendants and necklaces, while a peninsula includes storage for earrings. Shallow velvet-lined drawers hold her special pieces.
The home is set on a small urban lot with a small backyard. There was a deck, but Vohs wanted a larger one that she could use for entertaining. She chose cable railings for a lighter look than thick wood or metal. “You can see the backyard,” she said, which she enhanced with new rocks and plantings.
A gas fireplace, a gas grill, a bar, a TV and a hot tub complete her backyard oasis. “In the COVID landscape, it’s great to have amenities for stress-relieving,” she said. “A cocktail by the fire is a great thing. I can watch Netflix in the tub.” The deck added 500 square feet of outdoor living space. “The deck is a big joy,” she said.
Vohs’ former bedroom on the main floor is now a guest room. The small main-floor bathroom got a stylish accessible upgrade to accommodate Vohs’ parents. There’s a walk-in shower with a built-in bench, a rain shower head and a hand-held shower attachment that she uses for bathing Freddy. The bathroom was designed for utility, she said, but she dressed it up with a floating cabinet and decorative gray tile.
Outside, the home also got a fresh new look, with new stucco, roof, lighting, windows and doors. “The form is the same,” she said. “We redid the trimwork to make it cleaner and more modern.” Her old chain-link fence was upgraded to a cedar privacy fence.
Vohs is happy she chose to stay and invest in her home rather than move, she said.
“More people should take small houses and make them great.”