Home & Design September 11, 2008
Urban Urbane
Chic results from innovative couples

Imagination and spunk. That’s what it takes for a new generation of young families who envision a dream home in this idyllic but high-end mountain town. They defy the idea that this is a place to have a second home, not build a first. They have used ingenuity and adjusted priorities to become part of the Valley’s great lifestyle.

“I think that people realize what a better quality of life you have coming to a community like this,” enthuses local businesswoman Tracy Lee.

“People can work by Internet or phone so much more easily than they used to. And I think people are beginning to prioritize their quality of life over job quality of life.”

The really big question is how can a young family afford a home in this upscale tourist town? No problem, say these young couples—if you have the energy and the gumption to roll up your sleeves and pick up a hammer.

Some of their stories recounted here have similar elements, and some, unique challenges. Most designed their own space without an architect or interior designer, relying on their own talents (with a little help from friends). They discovered older structures (like a barn) and transformed them. They picked up sledgehammers to knock down the walls and then built them up again. One couple found a tumble-down shack, pulled it apart and used it to give their home the rustic look they wanted without the expense of buying reclaimed wood.

In the end, these ingenious hard workers have a special attachment to their homes because they built them with their own hands and in their own way. Their homes are their own original works of art.



Barn Raising:
The Smith Family
West Ketchum


“It was a shambles,” declares Jennifer Hoey Smith about the historic West Ketchum property her husband Cory discovered. He was biking around town searching for a place to raise their now one-year-old daughter Sophie and found a ranch built in the early 1900s. Their part of the property included a barn surrounded by a smokehouse, bunkhouse, dog pen, chicken coops and outhouses.

“It took some serious vision,” Jen admits. “Everybody thought we were nuts.”

They spent two summers cleaning up the coops and pens themselves before even thinking about remodeling the 430-square-foot barn into their new 700-square-foot home.

After researching the price of labor, the couple decided to remodel the barn themselves, with a little help from friends and family. Their individual talents synchronized. Cory, who works at Smith Sport Optics, provided the construction on weekends and after work, while Jen, who runs Jennifer Hoey Interior Design, planned the space.

No chickens can be detected since the Smiths gutted the old coop-turned-cozy-cottage home in West Ketchum. The kitchen was designed galley-style to maximize space. “Found” windows were the home’s foundation, which meant a sunny master bedroom and well-placed mirrors in the bathroom to make it appear larger and lighter. Keeping an eye on toddler Sophie is easy as the rooms fuse together.


They added two bedrooms to the original barn structure. “I drew the entire addition and the plans were stamped by an engineer,” Jen continues.

The project was launched with a lucky find at a local thrift store. “We were down at the Building Materials Thrift Store and saw this group of matching windows. All five Pella windows were only $900.

“I designed the house around those windows,” says Jen. From then on, the couple was determined to be environmental, using more recycled and energy-efficient products. The big windows inspired them to be budget creative, she said.

The recycling adventure continued in the search for exterior siding. “We knew that we wanted reclaimed wood,” Jen declares, “but it was too expensive.” So Cory went on a hunt one night. “I found an old barn in Fairfield. It was caved in and just going to waste. I knocked on the door and bought it from the guy who owned it.” The result is their rustic Douglas fir home exterior.

The building process continued at times like an old-time barn raising. “I did just about everything,” comments Cory, “all the demolition, all the pre-building, but I had friends in the trade that would help me. We took it down to the studs. It had to be gutted.

“I have a buddy that lives up the street who helped me put the roof on. Another friend drove out from Salt Lake to help me strip the old roofing off and get it resheared.” Cory’s rusted-steel roof is topped perfectly by the striking original barn peak.

“I poured the foundation, ordered the addition and put it all together,” continues Cory. “It’s actually made of SIPs—structurally insulated panels—made in a factory and sent back to the homeowner. We stood up the wall sections in about one day. Using SIPs greatly reduces labor costs.

“It’s become increasingly popular because it’s really efficient—less waste, less expensive and it’s quick.”

Jen adds, “I drew it, told them where I wanted the windows and then a few weeks later the walls showed up. It’s really amazing.”

All the hard work and friendship shines through inside their beautiful home—a perfect blend of rustic and contemporary. The first thing you notice is the reclaimed fir floor. “I wanted to play off that old barn feel,” says Jen. The small space requires efficient design, thus the galley-style kitchen. For the contemporary touch, the Smiths found Ikea an economical and stylish choice. Oil-rubbed bronze hardware adds charm to the clean, modern cabinets. Frosted-glass cabinet doors give a sense of openness but without the clutter. “My brother installed the cabinets,” says Jen, “and my father did the cabinet hardware.”

The kitchen opens to high hayloft ceilings in the living room/dining room area, offering a welcoming social space. Playing with the traditional and the modern again, an antique farmhouse table is accented by modern Kartell plastic chairs. Sliding barn-style doors save the space needed by swinging doors.

In the master bath, a display of vintage mirrors from Jen’s collection of antique vanities adds character to the modern limestone countertops, as does the black and white chinoiserie wall covering. “I wanted to keep more with blacks and whites and neutrals so it wasn’t too busy,” comments Jen. “When you have a small space, if you get too bright, it makes it feel small. It’s better to keep things in the range of neutrals. That was one of my concepts with the whole house—that we could add some color here and there but that it needed to be in art or in pillows.”

About the home they have crafted together, Jen says, “I definitely like the intimacy of the house.” Cory agrees. “I think the whole project is an example of being resourceful.” >>>


Click Here for more pictures of the Smith Home.

To visit Jennifer’s website click here


Knocking Down the Walls:
The Marx Family
Warm Springs


“Joe and I with sledgehammers! It was really fun,” laughs Amy Marx, sharing the story of how she and her husband actually knocked down the walls of the “total disaster” of an old ski bum house in Ketchum to turn it into their family home.

“To pull off a project in a town like this has to involve a lot of creativity,” declares Joe Marx, “if you’re not just going to pay somebody to do it.” Adding an upstairs master bedroom suite and a pop-out dining room expanded the original house from 1,400 square feet to 2,200 square feet. “It was a remodel but, yes, it was environmental, since we used the existing footprint,” he continues.

Joe is a partner in Idaho Mountain Builders, which helped, as he was able to do most of the construction himself. Amy’s family had a friend in architect Carolyn Wicklund, who advised them on an overall design.

With the limited amount of space, the couple decided to open the whole house up (with their sledgehammers). From the living room, which opens to a front patio area, you can now see all the way to the family room, kitchen and backyard, giving a sense of spaciousness. And right in the middle is an almost transparent work of art—a wood and glass staircase. “Stairs were the biggest challenge in the design of the house. They usually are because they have to be centrally located,” Joe explains. “We were trying to figure out a way not to break up the open feeling.”

The Marxes wanted a house that was open and then got one with the front path leading to a view straight to the backyard. The staircase could have been disruptive as it was situated in the home’s center. They got around that by building one of glass.


One night at a party they ran into architect Dates Fryberger who suggested glass. Joe created the dark wood staircase with horizontal strips of glass hanging above, blending seamlessly and transparently into the home.

To save money, the Marxes ordered their walls made in a factory in Canada. (Joe is originally from Canada.) The windows, exterior siding, and Douglas fir flooring came along too. It was quick and efficient. “They came up on semi-trucks and then we stood up the walls,” says Joe. “I did the whole project.”

They decided to splurge on the kitchen. “We pretty much made a commitment that we were going to spend a lot of money in the kitchen because we entertain so much and we both love to cook,” observes Amy, who owns Idaho Mountain Real Estate. A luxurious expanse of Calcutta gold marble enhances the kitchen island. “Marble was our big splurge,” says Amy, smiling. “It’s so soft. Everyone likes to touch it.” A stylish rounded sink from Rocky Mountain Hardware has a built-in strainer for pasta and vegetables. There’s a double oven “so we can have a huge Thanksgiving!” she beams. The mahogany cabinets were built by Dave Milligan, and the concrete counters poured by Joe himself.

Many young couples find the Internet a great source of creativity. Design Within Reach (www.dwr.com) was the website where the Marxes found their dining room table as well as the modern light shade inside the front door—wood veneer wrapped in circles.

The striking walnut and metal front door was custom made by local Adam McNae. “We have a lot of metal and steel in the house,” says Joe. The living room mantle Joe built is steel and, impressively, the crafty couple is learning how to weld steel in their garage workshop so they can lay a steel frame for their flower bed.

Up the glass-enclosed stairway is the master suite with a high ceiling and a wall of windows looking out at Bald Mountain in winter and a privacy-enhancing forest of trees in summer. The striking turquoise floor (Joe used an acid stain over concrete) in the master bath gives an ocean and beach feel alongside the sand-colored Ann Sacks tiles.

The kids’ bedrooms downstairs are small, which suits the family’s outdoor lifestyle. Ethan, 5, and Abel, 1, “play T-ball, bike and have skied Baldy since they were one,” says Joe. (He’s planning a skateboard area in the backyard.) Each family member has a metal locker (classic high school lockers) to organize sports stuff in the laundry/mudroom.

The Marxes have definitely designed their home to suit their lifestyle.

“Every space is used almost every day all the time,” Joe comments. “There are no dead rooms—no showrooms anywhere. More space would be a waste.”

“We use every part of this house,” Amy agrees. “We built it from the foundation up,” Joe continues. “We have a real attachment to it.” >>>


Click Here for more pictures of the Marx Home.


Creating Their Own Tradition:
The Lee Family
Lower Board Ranch


Drive out Warm Springs just past Penny Lake and you’ll come upon John and Tracy Lee’s home, surrounded by old cottonwoods with a spectacular view of Warm Springs Creek and the Smoky Mountains beyond. The Lees chose the Board Ranch area because of the importance of family. “It’s vibrant with young families and young kids,” enthuses Tracy Lee.

Like the Smiths and the Marxes, the Lees decided to do it themselves. Having built three other homes together and with John running Lee Gilman Builders, they had plenty of experience to draw upon. Tracy came fully equipped with a tool belt to work on their previous homes, but this time around John took more of a hands-on approach while Tracy was involved with him in the decision-making.

“John built this house. He had a couple of guys working with him throughout the whole project but he was here every single day for the better part of a year from 7 a.m. until six or seven at night. He did the whole thing as a labor of love,” Tracy says.

Using their experience and a lot of innovation, the couple found economic ways to create what they really wanted. On the exterior, “We wanted to use reclaimed wood because it would have been a great opportunity to re-use old materials and we love the look—but it was cost prohibitive,” observes Tracy. Instead, John used circle-sawn fir—a striking, rough-patterned exterior with a contemporary texture and the look of reclaimed wood without the expense. “We get so many compliments on it,” adds Tracy.

Inside the beautifully stained and grained fir-and-glass front door, the style is modern combined with rustic. The floors are polished cement crossed by oak inlays, giving an Old World look—something they discovered they liked in designing their prior homes. The fireplace is Montana Brown stone—a mix of earthy colors—rusts, browns, and gray. They handpicked the stones from the Sun Valley Masonry Center.

Using the do-it-yourself method of interior design, while honoring their roots, the Lees collected their own historic family pieces which appear throughout the home. “It’s fun to collect pieces that have meaning to you,” says Tracy, “rather than having someone else come and decorate your house . . . ” she adds, laughing, “which from time to time I wish somebody would.” In the living room, a classic black and gold antique Singer sewing machine belonged to Tracy’s mother.

The living room opens to the kitchen and dining area. John handcrafted the patinaed steel cabinet doors and stove hood that feature a striking leathery black and rust look that is accented by black granite counters—modern in their conception but with an Old World look. The European look continues with a Finnish soapstone fireplace combining old and new again. The new—they found the idea on the Web. The old—soapstone fireplaces have a century’s-old history. And they’re efficient—a three-hour burn will heat the home for up to 24 hours.

Adjacent to the living room is an important room for most locals. “Here’s a room we’re quite proud of,” says Tracy, referring to the large mudroom with individual floor-to-ceiling wooden lockers and quaint-looking cloth cubbies for each member of the family to organize sports equipment and clothing.

The oak staircase with modern steel railings was again designed and built by John himself and leads to an airy, spacious second floor. Three bedrooms with sliding barn doors, the laundry room, a playroom, and an office all open to one central area.

The natural beauty is an important reason many families settle here and the Lees have taken advantage of every possible view. Big picture windows which appear throughout the home open the whole floor to light and wonderful views of trees, mountains and river. Even the laundry room, where John built the black concrete counters, has a view. “We tried to make a house that had rooms we could enjoy,” says Tracy. Laundry folding with a view.

Old World meets little kids in the spacious kitchen where the Lee children use the island for meals. Clever chalkboard doors on the fridge mean art replaces bothersome fingerprints.


The master bedroom features an almost floor-to-ceiling window that actually opens to the feel of mountain breezes and the sound of the river. The tan cement master bathtub, a work of art in itself, was designed by local concrete guru Cliffhangers’ Jon Nasvik. It is surrounded by black pebbles which also decorate the combination steam bath/shower.

The couple’s joint office overlooks the whole house from a balcony so they can keep in touch with family even while working. Nearby, one-year-old Bodin’s room has a desk John made when he was 12. Silver airplanes and boats act as whimsical knobs in his bathroom.

The first project the couple ever built together—a log handcrafted bed—is in four-year-old Tanner’s room. She is also lucky enough to have her grandmother’s antique makeup table. “The first thing she did to decorate the room herself was to go through our old wedding and family pictures and put them all around,” says Tracy smiling.

Seems creating your own space is a family tradition.


Click Here for more pictures of the Lee Home. 


Crystal Lee Thurston is a long time local freelance writer who built her first home here with husband Ted Dale with plenty of help from an architect and contractors. She was amazed at the do-it-yourself gumption and talent of these young families in building their dream homes.

This article appears in the Fall 2008 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.