Renovation Inspiration, Small Project winner: With $5,000 and elbow grease, a couple renovates a kitchen


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Sean Derry and Coreen Farris entered only their kitchen in the small project category (under $50,000) of the PG Renovation Inspiration Contest. Turns out they could have entered their whole house rehab: They estimate they spent about $40,000 redoing this 1920s' house in Swissvale, including $5,000 on the kitchen.

Wait a minute. How do you redo a kitchen with new cabinets, appliances, counter tops and flooring for just $5,000? Buy scratch-and-dent appliances and do it all yourself, including pouring concrete counter tops, making cabinets out of birch plywood from Construction Junction and cutting and laying real linoleum floor tiles.

The result made the couple winners of the contest, which is judged by staffers of the Post-Gazette and Design Center Pittsburgh and sponsored by Dollar Bank. At 12:30 p.m. today, they will be honored at the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, along with Helene and Regis McQuaide of Mt. Lebanon, winners of the large project category.

Mr. Derry and Ms. Farris, high school sweethearts from Homer, Alaska, moved here several years ago for work. He is an art professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and she is a behavioral psychologist. She said they chose to buy in Swissvale because it appeared to be a neighborhood "starting to come back." This house, which had been vacant for a year, was painted a bright turquoise. Neighbors were delighted to see their rehab begin with new paint, a more subdued brick red.

But the interior is where their combined talents are most evident. Having renovated a small bungalow together in the state of Indiana, they had developed basic carpentry skills to go with a design aesthetic that is mostly mid-century modern.

"He's the designer. He has theories," Ms. Farris said. "I'm a psychologist. I tend to do the persnickety things like finishing drywall."

That doesn't mean he calls all the shots on design, however: "I have opinions," she added.

Four months pregnant when they were working on the kitchen, she had to put her foot down when her husband was polishing the counter tops he had poured and cast in the garage. He was thinking about starting over because of some barely noticeable rough spots.

"That wasn't happening," his wife said firmly.

Both psychologist and artist were pleased to find cabinet-grade birch plywood at Construction Junction, a nonprofit retailer of used and surplus building materials in Point Breeze. Mr. Derry fabricated cabinets in the workshop/art studio the couple built above their two-car garage. Upper cabinets have a natural finish and the lower cabinets were painted gray.

Although they replaced some upper cabinets with floating shelves for glasses, the new kitchen has 50 percent more storage space, thanks in part to new cabinets on both sides of a longer dining peninsula. The three steel stools next to it came from Design Within Reach and a wire chair from Craiglist.

The final step in the two-month kitchen rehabilitation might have been the most inspired. To get to the subfloor, the couple removed layers of carpeting, laminate and vinyl. Then they cut and laid linoleum tiles in a 1960s' textile pattern.

"It was a way to create a focal point in that room in a really cheap way," Mr. Derry said.

The kitchen -- the project they had saved for last -- was done in plenty of time before the birth of their daughter Emory, now 2.

In the nearly three years they have lived here, the couple has seen improvements in surrounding houses. They're too modest to take credit, though Mr. Derry acknowledged that their neighbors were excited to see them working on this old house.

"It's a function of where this neighborhood is right now. It's a super affordable place for young professionals who bring their own design sense," he said.

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Kevin Kirkland: 412-263-1978 or kkirkland@post-gazette.com.


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