Home & Design September 14, 2009
Of Llamas, Churches and Trees
Three young families create their dream homes.

If only remodeling a home was like molding clay. Beat, stretch, shape and—voilà!—an abstract vision achieved in one therapeutic day. Reality is a different story. There are constraints posed by foundation footprints, bizarre antique layouts, environmental concerns and engineering puzzles. Visions for a property’s potential can be big, but the ambitious homeowner’s skills (and finances) are often stretched thin. Add the stress of starting a new family, and even the successful remodel can seem like man versus manor. Undaunted by such challenges, three stalwart and inspired Blaine County families have carved, sanded and soldered Western dream homes from the relics they once were.


The Treehouse

Billy Mann wanted to honor the forest wood that comprises, surrounds and, in winters’ past, heated his family home.

Prior to remodeling his log cabin north of Ketchum, Billy Mann burned seven or eight cords of firewood each winter. The hours he spent collecting the wood and preparing for central Idaho’s frigid winters sparked his imagination. The forest fueled his visions for a one-of-a-kind log home.

Wrestling with questions of consumption and sustainability, Mann and his wife, Tifney Stewart, elected to capture more than the forest’s carbon output. Through two years of painstaking workmanship, the couple transformed their cabin into an environmentally responsible woodworker’s treasure.

Having visited the Wood River Valley throughout their lives, Mann and Stewart pulled up stakes in California in 2000 and aimed for central Idaho’s abundant elbowroom, more lenient leash laws and inspiring natural resources and vistas.

“We said, ‘Let’s go back to Idaho, the land of not so many rules, no ticks or fleas,’” Stewart said. “We have single-track trails right off the corner of our land—a big piece of land with a sweet little house.”

While searching for firewood on an undisclosed ridge in the Boulder Mountains, Mann discovered one hundred acres of dead whitebark pine. “Almost all of them had been killed by pine beetles and had been dead-standing for three to five years,” he recalled.

Armed with a permit from the U.S. Forest Service, Mann eyed specific trees for use in the ambitious renovation. Some were peeling, and, in spots where rainwater had been trapped between bark and wood, mold had left behind beautiful blue striations. These recycled, blue-striped whitebark pines would eventually become the gnarled posts and lintels of his dream home.

As he allowed such organic discoveries to dictate various facets of his remodel, Mann found inspiration in other unlikely places. Reading a copy of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, to his children—Ry, two, and Elle, seven—he had a vision. With the salvaged evergreens and his deft woodworking skills, Mann would build a fantastic storybook space. The rooms would resemble drawings and dreams rather than the humdrum norms of a typical suburban home.

a pine bannister leads to upstairs bedrooms; Billy Mann and family sit atop a bunk bed perch in daughter Elle’s room; a barn-style sliding door encloses a second-floor bathroom.

He saved one of his most imaginative ideas for Elle’s second-story room. A ladder propped next to her soaring bunk bed leads to an even higher perch, a lofty garret tucked under the ceiling like a treehouse’s secret passageway.

“Maybe it’s what I wanted as a kid,” Mann mused.

A cozy guest room at the top of a wild-hewn fir stairway banister is another testament to Mann’s imagination and ingenuity. Connecting with the handiwork, running your hand slowly along the knotty rises, evokes a childlike wonder. How did he do this?

Wild imagination may have fueled the charm of Mann’s remodel, but without technical know-how the project could have never begun. As a kid in North Carolina, Mann hung around his two grandfathers’ woodworking shops and later took on carpentry jobs between college and graduate school. Once in Idaho, he built Elle a custom treehouse and was so pleased with the result, he took out a classified in the local paper selling his skills. In the months that followed, he built four more backyard log treehouses. He didn’t know it at the time, but each was a study for his ultimate project.

Mann eyed specific trees based on
how he imagined using them
in his budding renovation.

Once into the remodel, Mann consistently raised the bar of ambition. When he wanted some extra space, he squared the cabin’s original L-shape structure using classic mortise and tenon joinery and shifted an entire wall like so many toy Lincoln Logs. The transferred wall fit its mate like the teeth of a zipper, leaving no discernible signs of the operation, but plenty of extra room to wander.

“We only added a little space, but we maximized what we had,” Stewart said.

Of the many challenges faced, wall surgery was at least anticipated. Before the cabin’s transformation even began, basement sump pump alarms alerted Mann to a subterranean stream running beneath his foundation. A new drainage system became the first of the home’s extensive remodels.

Six years later, in mid-renovation, the Castle Rock Fire swept through the hills above Hulen Meadows, and for a few nervous days it seemed as though Mann’s storybook visions would go up in smoke.

“With all the material I had leaning against the house, it looked like a bonfire ready to go,” Mann said. “I even had 25-year-old shakes on the roof.”
He recalled the pessimistic expression on a firefighter’s face during the neighborhood evacuation. “He shook his head and said, ‘Dude, you’re toast.’”

But the Castle Rock Fire changed course that night, and the cabin’s metamorphosis continued unimpeded. When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, Mann launched a new company, Sagebrush Solar. He outfitted the cabin with a system to provide hot water and radiant heat year-round. Surrounded by locally harvested wood finished in non-toxic varnishes, Mann has achieved a sustainable building maxim: “The idea is to build a home like a bird builds a nest, with materials that are local and natural and non-toxic,” he said. In his masterpiece treehouse, Mann found ways to incorporate and mimic nature, rather than merely use it. >>>


For more pictures of the Mann home click here


The Church

Scott and Carrie Douglas discovered their own town’s rich history, among other surprises, while restoring an Old Hailey church.

For Scott and Carrie Douglas, renovation of an Old Hailey home was a history lesson from floor to ceiling. Excavating the century-old Baptist church they purchased in 2000, the Douglas family unearthed a tale chronicling the building’s deep Western heritage, along with a pair of pink panties (circa 1920, size XL) and a petrified cat. They discarded the panties and cat, but left intact most of a concrete baptismal font beneath the kitchen floor.

Built in 1904 as the First Baptist Church of Hailey, the structure went on to become a social hall, school board meeting chamber, and elderly center before passing into private ownership in 1984.

Despite these transitions, the original building envelope remains today exactly as it was when the church was first built.

While living on the archaeological jobsite, Scott and Carrie also began their own family history. Zander Trout Douglas was born on Dec. 28, 2004, and, as the family grew, so did the livable space. Scott added a second floor, expanding the original church from 1,400 square feet to 3,000 square feet, all without altering the building’s external envelope.

Ripping up a dusty, decades-old carpet revealed yet another surprise: the floor was four inches out of level. Scott poured a new foundation, installed a level wood floor and then turned his gaze upward.

“I think the most interesting thing about the house is the catwalk,” he said. “The original space is vaulted and goes up to the original tin roof,” an area that “has a feeling of being bigger than it is.”

Carrie Douglas found wrought-iron balusters at the Building Materials Thrift Store in Hailey; the door to a former schoolhouse that neighbors the renovated church; an add-on stained-glass window honors the church’s past

He wanted to build a second floor and upstairs rooms for the first time in the building’s history. He did, and now the finished space includes a glass-tile bathroom, a lounge and the catwalk that circumnavigates the living room—the original church nave—and leads to Zander’s bedroom. An open play area with views of the first-floor living room offers a lively finishing touch to the second floor.

In historic homes, ceilings and attics can also hide relics. Before closing on the house, the Douglas family discovered sheets of stamped ceiling tin above and behind a short-lived drop ceiling. It was a major selling point. “To me, the tin was the crux of the job,” Scott said. “It was part of the inspiration for doing the renovation.”

Today, fans and globe lights dangle from the high ceiling above the living room, an open space once used for Baptist church services, miner’s union meetings, school district functions and senior citizen gatherings.

“I’d call it a labor of
love . . . we love our home and
the reward was worth it in the end.”

At the renovation’s outset, Carrie salvaged as much material as she could find. She scoured Hailey’s Building Materials Thrift Store and the classified sections of local newspapers for deals on everything from light fixtures to cork flooring. Among the items she discovered were wrought-iron balusters the couple used for the beautiful Douglas fir-and-iron handrail that runs the length of the stairs and around the elevated catwalk and landing.

Today, the Douglases share the renovated property with an on-site neighbor, Michelle Meixner, a massage therapist, and her 5-year-old daughter, Adri. Michelle and Adri live in a one-room schoolhouse that was moved to the property by a former owner. The dwellings are linked by a garden that boasts a festive, lava-rock fire pit and outdoor bar.

A central Buddha garden, one of several individual garden plots that comprise the greater backyard design, features xeriscaping in a handsomely fenced, low-water yard. The garden is Carrie’s masterpiece. It replaced a gravel parking lot and a giant taupe storage container that sat for the duration of the old church’s renovation.

For those who reinvent within the confines of an old home’s limitations, the reward is greater than pride of ownership, Scott said. It is self-expression, plain and simple.

“Seasoned builders told me, ‘Raze the place and start over,’” he said. “I disagreed with them, but now having done it, I’d say they have a really strong point. It’s not to say there wasn’t anything worth salvaging, but it was a lot of work. I’d call it a labor of love. It was a total can of worms and an extremely challenging experience, but we love our home, and the reward was worth it in the end.” >>>


For more pictures of the Douglas home click here


The Llama Shed

Or how one skateboarding punk grew up and learned to love domestic life.

How does one prompt a hip, tattooed skateboard punk from Portland, Oregon, to move into an old llama shed in rural Idaho? Answer: Sink a concrete skateboard bowl in the backyard.

Andy Gilbert and his wife JaNessa expanded a 1950s llama shed along the Big Wood River six miles south of Ketchum. But for this urban kid, the move to a country ranch home with an acre of grass to mow was a serious leap. The image alone—Gilbert in cut-off Dickies and skate shoes pushing a lawn mower on a Sunday morning—was difficult to picture.

“At first I was like, ‘No, no way,’” he said.

Andy has lived in the Wood River Valley for twenty-three years of snowboarding and skateboarding. As a father of two with fifteen years coaching local riders with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (eight years as director of the Sun Valley Snowboard Team), play is a significant part of his business.

Even becoming a pseudo-country bumpkin hasn’t squelched his young-at-heart ways. But Gilbert happily credits his wife with the vision for their property—an urban-infused mountain ranch house.

“What would you do if we didn’t have our house?” Andy asked his son, Angus, seven, during a tour of the property.

“Just go live in the forest,” Angus replied, unfazed.

Clean gable roof lines and an industrial finish elevate the Gilberts’ hip profile, while classic, perennial gardens ground the property in tradition. Extracurricular outdoor amenities include a playground, plenty of skate-able driveway, a trampoline, garden benches, paths in the woods and a couple of skate ramps.

Becoming a pseudo-country bumpkin
hasn’t squelched Andy’s
young-at-heart ways.

“It follows in the tradition of a ranch house where people used to add on as the family grew,” JaNessa said.

The original 960-square-foot building was completely rearranged by adding 1,340 additional square feet. The addition’s exterior was finished with a durable fiber-and-cement siding called hardiboard, which is often used on cell phone towers. The living room floor, Andy’s favorite part of the renovation, is a patchwork of Masonite panels, very skatepark-esque. The material has also served him well for the skateboard park ramps he has built in the Valley. Exposed, laminated beams and barn-style hardware on sliding doors add extra, modern-rustic touches.

corrugated siding is hip and affordable; Andy banks a turn off the lip of his backyard skate pool; Andy and JaNessa with Angus and Olive, the home’s most critical residents.

“I want to feel like I am outside,” JaNessa said, showing off the master bathroom’s glassed-in shower with a view of the yard greenery.

The original llama shed is now the kids’ wing of the Gilbert home, and a square tower reminiscent of a grain silo, finished in corrugated steel siding, links the new addition via the kitchen. Andy’s office loft can be accessed from the dining room by way of a rolling library ladder. He stores hundreds of vinyl records up those steps, mostly mid-to-late- ’80s hip-hop and heavy metal and punk rock “rarities” (e.g., a pink-and-white-swirl record by Poison Idea, a Portland punk band).

The interior decoration is a smart mix of edgy and traditional. Probing eyes move from photographs of Audrey Hepburn and Frank Sinatra to a large collage JaNessa painted as a student at Wood River High School. A larger-than-life cutout of Colonel Sanders hangs in the kitchen, and throughout the house, antique furniture inherited from JaNessa’s grandmother works improbably well alongside more modern picks from IKEA.

The interior is nothing if not eclectic, but it’s economically orchestrated as well. The Gilberts reused old finishes, like restored cherrywood from the llama barn and tile in the master bathroom that was recovered from JaNessa’s mother’s house.

Personal artifacts have guided the Gilberts’ remodel as well.

“I based the whole design off of a piece of 1950s fabric that I collected from Déjà Vu in Ketchum,” said JaNessa, who owns Tater Tots children’s boutique in Hailey. “It’s like industrial-farmhouse mixed with a retro-50’s Sputnik feel.”

So, what’s next for this eclectic, playful home?

“A full-pipe,” Andy said, envisioning skateboarding into his golden years. “My wife said, ‘As long as you can get it for free—and as long as it doesn’t mess up the gardens.’”


For more pictures of the Gilbert’s home click here


This article appears in the Fall 2009 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.