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Name: Luke and Vanessa Dawson. Location: Hillsdale, New York

Square footage: 4,000 Years lived in: 4

Vanessa Dawson’s account of renovating a Greek Revival farmhouse reads like a love letter to her husband, screenwriter Luke Dawson. With “patience and sympathy” for one another’s individual tastes, they restored a center hall colonial rambler with energy efficiency and comfort in mind. The results are stunning.

Improvement Center:  What was the main goal of your renovation?

Vanessa Dawson: Luke and I both love the romance and history that comes with living in an old house.  Our Greek Revival farmhouse is a center hall colonial.  It has that lovely circular feeling on the inside with a ramble that makes geometric sense.  It wasn't modified with strange additions over the years.  That authenticity is important to us.  Our only real goal was to make the house a comfortable family home.  To that end, the first thing we did was contact NYSERDA to perform an energy audit.  Old houses are notoriously drafty with old forms of insulation like broken bricks and newspaper, and ours was no exception.  We removed the old rotting cedar from the exterior of the house and blew foam insulation everywhere.  That really tightened up the envelope, warming the house in the winter and keeping it cool in the summer.

IC: How would you describe your style?

VD: Our style as a couple is a combined level of patience and sympathy for our individual tastes.  We both hate new things masquerading as antiques.  I am much more of minimalist.  I love structures with old bones and detail furnished with modernist pieces and white walls.  My husband is a collector - objects inspire and comfort him.  Our house is still very much a work in progress, but I think we have found a peaceful way for our styles to coexist.  I have come to appreciate looking at old gears mounted on a wall.  Luke has discovered the virtues of curating over clutter.

IC: What’s your best advice for homeowners undertaking their own home renovation?

VD: If I could do anything again, I would have delayed moving in to our house long enough to restore the beautiful old floors.  That's an extremely messy job that would have been easily done when we closed and the house was empty.  We are so settled in here now that I just couldn't imagine opening that can of worms.  

IC: Which home features are most important to you and why?

VD: I think the rare characteristics that drew me to this particular 1840s house were the size and number of original double-hung windows, and the relatively lofty ceiling heights.  We viewed so many otherwise beautifully restored homes with bad replacement windows and low ceilings.

IC: What was the biggest challenge you faced?

VD: Trying to do renovations in a house that you live in full time with young children!

IC: What was your favorite part of the project?

VD: I love watching my husband work.  Dedicated and talented, he will research a project with such enthusiasm and commit himself to doing it the right way.  His creations have become as much a cornerstone of this property as the original details that have survived the last 150 years.

IC: Anything you’d do differently if you could do it all again?

VD: I would have hired a proper landscape designer to help with the entry garden.  I am on my third incarnation of plantings.  Unlike my methodical husband, I am impulsive.   

IC: What took the most time to finish?

VD: We are still in the throes of renovating.  But our biggest project to date has been building our 2000 sq. ft. modern barn.

IC: Did you use a contractor or undertake the project alone?

VD: We used a series of subcontractors to build the barn.  It was too big of an undertaking for Luke alone with his writing career and our family life.  He did GC the job though and did quite a few of the projects himself.  He taught himself how to install a radiant heating system, for example.  My biggest advice with any contractor is to always make them contractually responsible for cleaning up after themselves.  It never ceases to amaze me how many times I've been left with a filthy job site.  I also always negotiate a 10% retainage for at least six months after the completion of a job.  Sadly, I have found that otherwise it is very difficult to convince contractors to return to the site the address any work product deficiencies.

IC: Where to splurge and where did you save?

VD: I consider any renovation to be a splurge, unless it's a necessary repair.  We did save quite a bit of money by sourcing our barn windows from various Habitat for Humanity ReStores.  

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