Farmhouse Renovation on a Budget in Columbia County, Upstate, NY

Au courant cottage: With help from family and friends, a pair of young architects beat the recession and pull off a stylish renovation

“In 2006, everything was wonderful,” recalls Matthew Dockery. That fall, he and his wife, Esther, who live in Brooklyn, had bought a weekend cottage in Columbia County and were excited about fixing it up. The couple, both architects, had spent summers at time-share houses in Montauk, but they wanted a house of their own. “We couldn’t even afford a trailer in Montauk — we actually looked at one,” says Matt Dockery. “And driving to Montauk was a nightmare. We’d heard that Columbia County had a certain cachet, so we went to check it out… I grew up in Westchester, and we used to go to the Adirondacks and drive through this gorgeous part of the state, but I’d never explored it. We fell in love. In two hours and 40 minutes, we could be in paradise.”

living room before renovationOpen house: The owners removed the interior walls and low ceilings to reveal the bones of the house. Now the open, multipurpose space is anchored by a new staircase, installed in the center

new dining space

Paradise in this case was three bucolic acres in Stuyvesant with lovely views of the Catskills and a grand Dutch barn. (“It’s dangerous to be an architect and see a building like that,” Dockery says.) Less heavenly was the circa 1815 farmhouse that sat on the property. It was small — barely 1,100 square feet — with two boxy rooms, a kitchen, and a tiny bathroom downstairs; and two little bedrooms under the gabled roof. But its modest, Shaker-style exterior pleased them.

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At the time, the Dockerys, both of whom had worked for well-known architect Michael Graves, were on the brink of launching NBO4, their own firm in Williamsburg. They knew renovating the farmhouse would be a long-term project, and intended to do much of the work themselves. “We were in no hurry to get it done,” says Matt. “As funds came in, we’d do what we could. Part of the plan included getting a home equity line that we could slowly draw upon. In 2006, this didn’t seem like an outrageous idea.”

Leaving the trusses exposed helped drive the design, and Esther was adamant that the house should have an open floor plan. “I wanted a place where I could be in the kitchen but spend time with family and friends”
new kitchen

old kitchenFarm fresh: IKEA cabinetry and white subway tiles (installed vertically) help create a clean, streamlined look in the kitchen (left). The original windows became double doors leading to a terrace

The couple spent weekends over the next two years gradually stripping out the dropped, acoustic-tile ceilings and removing interior walls. Esther’s brother and a friend of Matt’s helped with the work. “We took it all the way down,” Matt recalls. “We found several generations of wallpaper and plaster, and newspapers from the 1940s. The story of the house was revealed layer by layer. The original builders were so thrifty. We found framing posts that had been used for fences before they came into the house — all hand-hewn, with mortise-and-tenon joints.

hearthContractor Ben Ingram poured the satiny concrete counters of the kitchen, and also created the clever hearth-cum-bench seen here

“The biggest discovery was the barn trusses,” he continues. “We were thrilled to find them. We didn’t anticipate the size, and such amazing craftsmanship.” The demolition continued — and then the economy crashed. “By the time Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, the kitchen and bathroom were out, and the house was uninhabitable,” Matt says. That was the end of what he calls the “optimistic, phase-one period.”

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A month later, the Dockery’s son, Noah, was born. Now the couple had a new baby, a fledgling business, and a gutted house as well as the usual bills at their home in Brooklyn. “At that point, we went to the banks and said we wanted to expedite the process, to renovate to either sell or get a tenant,” Matt recalls. “We’d ripped all the insulation out, but still had water in the pipes, so we left the heat at 50 degrees. The heating bills are coming in — you can imagine,” he continues, laughing weakly at the memory. “The banks wouldn’t give us a dime. The local market had collapsed, and we’d stripped out any value that may have been left in the house. It was a disaster.”

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new bedroomMix and match: Beadboard wainscot and exposed beams add charm in the cozy master bedroom, which is tucked into the eaves

The Dockerys were forced to drain the pipes and turn off the heat. The house remained shut up for nearly 18 months, unsellable and unusable. “It was very hard to see the place empty and gutted,” Esther says. “It was basically a ruin for over a year.”

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“We entertained the idea of a fire sale, but couldn’t bring ourselves to do it,” says Matt. Instead, they spent the time saving as much money as they could, and drawing up plans for the renovation they hoped to do. Leaving the trusses exposed helped drive the design, and Esther was adamant that the house should have an open floor plan. “I wanted a place where I could be in the kitchen but spend time with family and friends, not have rooms that have only one purpose,” she says. “Matt took a stab at the plan, and then I took a stab at it. We went back and forth.”

By the time the economy crashed in September 2008, “the kitchen and bathroom were out and the house was uninhabitable,” says Matt. “The banks wouldn’t give us a dime”

Once the plans were complete, the Dockerys submitted them to contractors for bids. “Pricing was coming in way beyond what we could afford,” Matt recalls. But — with work drying up for builders — the “one silver lining of the recession” was that Ben Ingram, a friend and general contractor who lives in Pennsylvania, was available. “We were super lucky,” Matt says. “Without him, we’d probably still be spinning our wheels.”

new bathroom

old bathroomIn the bathroom (left), an IKEA vanity, classic subway tiles, and modern Kohler fixtures contrast nicely with old planks from the attic, which were used to line the walls and tub

Ingram agreed to move to nearby Hudson for a couple of months to tackle the job. “That was the turning point,” says Esther. “It was a tremendous relief. We all became very energized.” Family members helped out with loans that the banks still refused to make.

Ingram arrived in January of 2011, set up a propane heater, and worked 12-hour days, “loving every minute,” so Matt says. “I can’t say enough about how good Ben was,” he adds. Ingram did the carpentry and millwork, added insulation and Sheetrock, laid the sub-floor and new pine planking, and put in double-glazed windows. He supervised the plumber and electrician, and installed the new oak staircase, fabricated off-site, in the middle of the open space. He also poured and polished the concrete countertops in the kitchen. Perhaps most importantly, he charged only for his labor, letting the Dockerys purchase materials directly. With no contractor’s markup, the cost came in at about $100 a square foot rather than the $180 or more that other contractors had bid.

exterior of houseThe Shaker-like simplicity of the modest farmhouse appealed to the Dockerys. The couple enclosed the portico to create a small vestibule, and painted the front door a traditional, welcoming red. Below, Esther Dockery helps out during the demolition

esther during renovation

Esther sought out the best deals on appliances, cabinets, fixtures, and finishing materials. “We wanted something nice, with a somewhat modern aesthetic,” she explains. “The idea was to juxtapose an old farmhouse with contemporary living, basically using the farmhouse as a stage.” She chose mid-priced IKEA cabinetry for its clean lines. (“Ben can put that stuff together in his sleep,” Matt observes.) KitchenAid and Bosch appliances were selected for good looks as well as affordability. Eve Quellman, Esther’s friend from college (and Ingram’s wife), helped design the lighting.

Ingram completed the work in three months — “a small miracle,” Esther remarks. In April, the building earned its Certificate of Occupancy. The Dockerys enjoyed their stylish cottage during the summer, but finances demanded that they rent it for a year or so. (They found suitably thrilled tenants last fall.) They’re also expecting another baby in February, and juggling two homes, a new infant and a toddler would probably be complicated, says Esther. “But we’re dying to get in there,” she says. “It was the first project for ourselves, so it has a lot of soul. We love it. I can’t think of anything I would have done differently, if we’d had a larger budget.”

“The house is small but sweet,” adds Matt. “It represents the zeitgeist — a chic second home created on a small budget.”

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