Welcome to Space Shifter, writer and A Tiny Apt. creator Christene Barberich’s monthly diary documenting the gradual (i.e., slow, thrifty, and experimental) transformation and reimagining of her family’s newly acquired mid-century building in upstate New York. We are so happy you’re here.

Chapter 2: The In-Between Makeover

Abstract Quilt, Seek Collective; Vintage Rug and Coffee Table.

I am not a crafty person. I have a great eye and can miraculously root out any gem hiding away in a flea market or tag sale, but when it comes to DIY projects, I can barely wield a glue gun (i.e., I’m useless).

And the truth is, being “crafty,” creative, and resourceful is a huge advantage when you decide to buy a mid-century doctor’s office—as we did—and wholeheartedly know that it may take years before you can actually commence a full-scale renovation, not only to make it livable but to make it what we knew it could be. Such was the stark realization my husband and I had after we’d drafted our dream design for converting this peculiar little building into a family compound of the future.

As mentioned in the first chapter of this series (take a look back if you need a recap), my husband is an architect. Stroke of luck! you might think, especially when it comes to transforming an old building into a new one. Yet he views projects in a unique (occasionally frustrating) way. He sees them over years and decades, an endless stretch of wear and tear, whereas I see them in a steady and immediate series of unbelievably cool improvements. His head is in the future, and mine is in the moment, where I’m endlessly surveying a wall to be painted or an old, smelly carpet to be pulled up.

Our living room, before.

Instead of the overnight weekend home I couldn’t wait to start living in—immediately!—my husband saw this milestone as a lifetime project, one specifically designed to implement the best, most sustainable materials and design practices so this diminutive 1,500-square-foot structure would endure for what we know is an unpredictable future. In particular, the mounting threats of extreme weather, soaring energy and material costs, and innumerable other challenges posed by the escalation of climate change and global conflict.

But even if we couldn’t align on a pace to approach the transformation, we could agree on two things: First, this project would be a living love letter to our young daughter, whom we envisioned being a part of building whatever this whole thing would become and associating this process with family, growing up, and her own version of home. Second, the cost and what we could afford right now as opposed to what we would need to cover it in the long term. The truth is this: We bought a building upstate from the 1960s for under $200,000. We designed a renovation scheme that would cost roughly the same. But we wanted to start living there and using it ASAP, even though we wouldn’t be able to truly start this remodel for at least a few years.

Vintage Milo Baughman Armchairs; Ultrasuede Upholstery Fabric, Knoll.

Thoreau wrote, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” And anyone who has acquired a weird, unconventional, or historic building that poses substantial restoration costs up front knows this all too well. Our forever dream of reimagining a modern mid-century home had come true, even if the ultimate vision we had for it wouldn’t be realized until, well…someday? The good news was that this building had a lot of great raw materials to work with—a blank slate of open land (transforming the 12-spot parking lot will come later!); a simple boxlike structure with a clean, dry poured-concrete basement; a 15-foot peaked roof we immediately envisioned opening up to expose original wood beams and enhancing with skylights; and a series of tiny rooms used as both doctor’s offices and exam rooms—camplike and perfect for bedrooms and easy living spaces.

Years ago, my husband and I toured Finland, specifically Helsinki, and we made it a point to see as many Alvar Aalto buildings as we could, which included taking a train to Muuratsalo to view the iconic lakeside summer house he had built for his wife in the ’50s. The property, while majestic and remarkably elegant, was also quite small, rustic, and utilitarian and had become not just a gathering spot for Aalto’s family over generations but a place for the architect to experiment with materials and construction practices. The memory of this home stayed with both of us—a cozy but soaring structure that offered comfort and classic modernist lines in equal measure. Aalto died in 1976, but I could imagine what he might do if faced with the prospect of instantly transforming a doctor’s office into a vibrant place to live.

Once the papers were signed and the building was officially ours, we relocated the contents of our tiny storage unit in Brooklyn to a container in our parking lot. We had the building thoroughly cleaned and inspected, and while I was incredibly tempted to paint all of the wood paneling—especially in the reception area—white, we decided to wait and allow that part of the building’s history to be a part of this one. We pulled up all the gross industrial carpeting and simply painted the plywood floors white (Benjamin Moore’s low-sheen enamel), which cost roughly $200, including supplies—an unbelievable and transformative trick if you ever happen to be in a situation where you need to brighten a dull space without much effort.

Vintage Striped Chair and Yellow Parsons Table.

While the dropped ceiling depresses me to no end (something we can’t deal with until an actual renovation), the huge original windows looking over the meadow in the main room more than make up for it. We made an agreement not to be precious about any of it, deciding this stage would be about getting to know the building, paying attention to the light changing, and having fun with moving things around…constantly, like our ever-changing rotation of artwork, mostly from friends and thrift shops.

So far, the secondhand “carnival” rug in what is now the living room was one of the best purchases we’ve made (at $200); it’s from the Velvet Shoe String consignment store in Philadelphia. It’s loud, for sure, but it’s also the spot where my daughter always wants to play and feels so good on bare feet. The contrast of this wild, colorful foundation in this former commercial building is exactly the anti-rules formula to follow in this in-between stage—throwing out all the expectations and just having fun with what we have and what we can do…for now. The next step: figuring out how to turn four occasionally eerie exam rooms and two miniature doctor’s offices into sweet sleeping quarters. Because along with great light and excellent vibes, good sleep is what makes any home a place you want to come back to…again and again.

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