Dusbiber house

Loft bathroom before renovation

Name: Bree Dusbiber  Location: Detroit, Michigan

Years lived in: One  Square footage: 2,200

Dusbiber returned to Detroit after a decade in Northern California and moved into a downtown loft in the historic Eastern Market neighborhood. Renovating a place wasn’t her original goal, but having grown up in a farmhouse that was under constant rehab (and still is), she didn't discount the possibility of taking on a project when she saw one.

Improvement Center: Tell us a little about the building and why you picked it.

Bree Dusbiber: The property I fell hard for was built for the Ekhardt and Becker Brewing Company in 1891, surviving prohibition until it closed its doors in the mid-1960s. At six stories, it’s the tallest in Eastern Market, and the building was among the first within city limits to be converted to residential loft space in the 1970s. The current owner recently completed renovations on the top four floors, leaving the lower two in their original – and very raw – 70s state. I saw three new units and one of the old guys. I went for raw and the project was on.

IC: When a place needs such extensive renovations, how do you know where to start?

BD: My initial priority was just getting the place clean. All the bones remained solid, but the space had suffered from decades of both tenant and owner neglect; the patina was three inches thick. My overarching goal was to preserve some of the older juju while creating a bit of my own. And as there weren't any structural challenges, this was going to be pure design, and a swimming pool of paint.

Getting surfaces clean and colored – or perhaps uncolored – was next. Nearly 2,000 of the 2,200 sq. feet had been preserved in what a tenant in the 80s obviously thought was progressive: cartoon walls of safety orange, what a current neighbor deemed 'Kermit the Frog Green,' semi-gloss black, and coral. Anyone's guess what color the floor actually was, but I'd bet my right arm it hadn't been mopped… ever.

The orange, green, and black, all had to go. The coral hit some Art Deco notes, and also happened to be one of the more challenging walls to recover. It was staying.

Painting took a solid month and meant extensive patching, one to two coats of Killz, and three coats of color to mask the original. The floor took some tough love from an industrial floor scrubber, followed by three passes with a mop, and two coats of floor/concrete paint. While the patching was a real time drag, the trim work was fairly important to get right. There were some priority decisions made on how to separate space by color, as well as how to delineate certain architectural features of interest: conduit; beams; rafters; floorboards. Trim was created where it hadn't been, and torn out where inappropriate or poorly executed.

IC: How did you find your contractor?

BD: Actually, neither a contractor nor professionals of any kind were put to work on this thing. There were, however, the consistent and always mind-blowing energies of both my parents, working with me more days/nights than not, and often exhausting me long before themselves. My mother spent four hours chiseling mold from the bathtub grout, my father – an entire day reframing the dishwasher. These are my genes, my curse.

IC: So once everything had been cleaned, patched, and painted, what was next?

BD: Painting gave way to the fun stuff; furniture, more tightly focused design choices, nesting. And because I had sold most of what I owned before driving cross-country to get here, the slate was blank. The challenge was more financial than creative, as I knew exactly what I wanted but not necessarily how to make it happen on a tight, self-employed budget. The very last thing I wanted to do was turn the place into an urban IKEA showroom. Sources ultimately ran the gamut: antique malls, Home Goods, Target, Craigslist, IKEA, family garages/basements, garage sales, church sales. New, old, broken and to be fixed… all states of being.

The additional benefit of a nearly entire possessions-purge was the opportunity to retool my personal and now fully-grown adult style. Though I hadn't lived at a single address for more than two years over the last twenty, I had somehow hung onto just enough artifacts of my young adult years that I was starting to feel stagnated by my own stuff. This was the perfect time to take a running leap away from 'funky bohemian' and toward something a bit cleaner. I won't say sophisticated, but certainly matured.

IC: What would you say was the biggest challenge with your loft?

BD: The challenge with a large, open space, which I've got in spades, is obviously to encourage/create comfort while preserving the unique energies of vacancy, i.e. flow. There were areas already designed for specific use (kitchen, bathroom, foyer), but others that weren't so obvious (master vs. guest bedrooms, office space, living area). I spent the first month thinking the office would be the master bedroom and vice versa, only to change my mind in amazement I had thought any differently. This is certainly unique to homes not originally designed as such, and is really a heck of a lot of fun to figure out.

Once I got a firmer opinion on what would go where, I started looking to fill with existing and new furniture and décor. I made a few missteps of course, which I think is an important point: be ready to return, be ready to change direction. What you're sure is exactly right in concept might just be exactly the opposite once in situ.

Also, what I thought was my own overall design trend toward exclusively Mid Century and Danish Modern instead morphed into a rather eclectic combination of several eras. What I'm most pleased with, however, and what I would encourage all self-renovators and designers to consider, is the representation of my own personality and no one else's, and one that is decidedly current. We are in some ways what we choose to surround ourselves with, but the process of fine-tuning and updating in time with personal growth can often be a low priority. It shouldn't be if we can help it.

“A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability. We are constantly re-imagining its reality…”Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space