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6 Lessons We Learned From Renovating the A-Frame

March 11, 2019  —  Written by Julia Marcum 

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Today marks one month since our beloved A-frame caught fire and burned down. I’ll never forget that morning, Chris just got a new truck and was driving Greta to school (as usual) before heading to the gym. It wasn’t five minutes after he left that he called, with a shake in his voice and told me that everything was going to be okay, but (and I thought for sure he was going to say he got in a car accident and the new truck was damaged) but, no the cabin was on fire. How I wished it was the truck!  A mechanic working in the area tried to call Chris (but he ignored it since he was dropping our daughter off) and when he looked down at his phone afterward, he saw he received 2 texts–videos of the cabin on fire with a note “Call me!”

Strangely, it was in a way harder to look at those videos than to actually see the cabin in ashes when we arrived. I think I just couldn’t process it through pixels on a screen. Or maybe it was because the fire was mostly extinguished. Or because disbelief played a large part in the hysterics, or there were so many brave people working to put the fire out–that I wanted to be brave, too. Fortunately, time heals. Over the last month we have, of course, taken time to grieve but we’ve also reflected on everything we learned from renovating our A-frame over a relatively short time period–the take-aways! And these we’re applying to all future renovations and sharing so you can, too:

1. Once you know your style–it can translate into any type of home. Over the decade since we’ve been doing this, we’ve honed our decor style. We love cozy, casual, modern spaces that lean traditional. We love neutrals with lots of dark bold moments peppered in. So when we bought the A-frame cabin in the mountains, surrounded by woods, across from the lake…what would that look like!? Turns out, it looks just like you except if you were going to the mountains in the woods with a lake nearby. Plaids, antlers, leathers, warm woods, fire, stone, lots of layers and pendleton blankets! If you think about it–your personality doesn’t change when you go to the beach, but your outfit does! This was our first foray into something outside of suburbia, to be honest, and I was pleasantly surprised (and relieved!) to find decor-style me can make it in the mountains, too. (Already dreaming of what beach decor-style me would look like). My advice: hone in on what your style is–pin 1000 pictures and see what they have in common. It might not be as cut and dry as “Modern” or “Mid-century”…because we’re human and we have layers and our homes should, too.

2. Big things make a big difference, but little things can also make a big difference. The thing we spent the most money on was adding an HVAC system to the cabin. When we bought the cabin, it was heated by a pellet stove upstairs and the downstairs wood-burning stove never really worked. It had no other heating and cooling so needless to say, that made a big difference in the experience of being there. Our first winter there, we wore coats for hours inside waiting for it to get warm. Our second winter, we could have it heating up with a touch of a button on our phones on our drive up there! It was a big upgrade that was worth it. Like, so worth it! Adding an additional bedroom and bathroom downstairs–huge and worth it! However, I also remember when we painted the deck doors black, how it almost blew our minds how much better it looked. Or swapped out the ceiling fans for new chandeliers. We put a new shower head in the downstairs shower that made it practically feel like a spa even though we touched nothing else. When I styled a bunch of oranges on a footed tray at Christmas even though there were patchy walls throughout the entire cabin that needed painting. Buying a boot tray so all of our snowy boots had a home that wasn’t our new hardwood floors–there’s so many little, little things that were game changers. I think when we’re in the midst of a huge renovation, it’s hard to think about “What can I do, to improve this situation?” but sometimes it’s those little things that carry you through the next big thing. Look for the little things.

3. You should never live with something you don’t fully love because you are afraid of doing something “permanent.” Both scenarios are “permanent”…and yet neither are. This was the lesson we took away from painting the interior of our cabin white. We hesitated and stewed for so long…for what?! Out of fear, really. Living with something you don’t love, whether it’s a piece of furniture or wood walls or pillows on your sofa because that’s just what you have, and not because you love it, is not worth it. Change it! I’m giving you permission to change it! Or give it to someone who will fully love it, if it’s an object that you don’t want to alter. Allow yourself the freedom and gift to make your home a place filled with love in every way.

4. Renovation schedules always go over--plan around your seasons. Have you ever heard of someone saying their renovation got done early?? Hahahahhahahahahahaha. hahahaha. Even Chris Loves-a-schedule Marcum gets behind on renovation calendars. Things come up! Things always come up. So when we started in August and were planning on being done by Thanksgiving, we didn’t really account for delays too much. Or the crazy early snow. Renovating on a mountainside in 5 feet of snow is something I wouldn’t recommend. I would have sacrificed more of our summer, started earlier and relaxed harder over the holidays.

5. Don’t wait to make time for fun–Even though we were renovating for most of it, as soon as the floors were in, we started having family and friends over for dinners, sledding, games or just escaping for family overnights amidst semi-patched walls, a lack of appliances and not Instagram-worthy spaces. After all, it’s those memories we made in all the in between moments we get to keep forever

6. It’s your house–so ultimately, you’re the boss! There were two instances I can think of, both with the interior and exterior painting we hired out where the crew tried to sway me to do something I didn’t want to do–either for convenience (this color is close enough, right?) or preference (I wouldn’t do that)–ultimately,unless it’s  going to put the structure of the house or your safety at risk–YOU GET TO SAY WHAT HAPPENS. I have worked with mostly wonderful contractors over the years, so it always surprises me when I get talked down to or dismissed in my own house by someone I am paying. I’m someone that generally runs from confrontation, so I get it, it’s uncomfortable to say, “That’s not the color I decided on” or “Was that approved before you started?” or “This part doesn’t look right.” But in the end, you’re the boss. It’s your vision that you’re paying this person to help bring to life. So if they aren’t actually helping you do that—take back control of your home (don’t pass it to your partner to talk to them–you got this!) and make sure you’re getting exactly what you had in mind.

Any renovation lessons learned you’d add?

What do you think?

  1. April Curtsinger says:

    Do you have a floor plan/layout? We bought some wooded land and want to build a cabin. I’d love an A frame but worried we can’t get what we need to fit practically? Do the windows make it hard to heat/cool? Are the stairs tough as you get older? It would be our permanent home after the kids move out.

    • Ellen Thomas says:

      I second this request! My bf and I have started to design our own A frame house and are currently looking for land. Been looking for inspiration all over the internet, so would love to see the full layout of your place. From the pics you have posted, it does look like a lot of same features I’d like to have. :)

  2. Olga says:

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Cynthia says:

    I am so sad to learn about your A-frame. It has been an inspiration to me as we are renovating the modified A-frame (gambrel roof) that my dad built 50 years ago.

    I agree with all of your points, especially with respect to the “permanent” stuff. We have a very similar living room with water damage and were thinking it might need to be painted, but worried because that would be permanent. Perspective…

    I hope you find another inspiring project to share with the world.

    All the best,

  4. Haley says:

    Yes to “the little things can make a big difference” We have been slooowly chipping away at our home doing little things as the budget and time allows. Recently I looked around and realized our upstairs is almost finished thanks to all the little things we’ve done over the last 2 years.

  5. Katie MacKenzie says:

    I would LOVE to see how your style translates into a beach-y home! I love your style but am more of a beach girl myself. Maybe a mood board in another post?? :)

      • Katherine says:

        I second this idea! I would love to see you style translated to a beach scene! I’d also love a mood for any other style spaces you’ve never decorated do yourself— especially a boys’ room as I’m in need of inspiration there soon. I haven’t followed your blog long but have already gained so much inspiration. Thank you!

      • Julia says:

        So glad! Would love to do more! A while back I put together a post on how I would decorate a bunch of different styles here.

  6. angela s sewell says:

    Lesson #6 hits home for me. When we did a large scale reno, the painter made an assumption and painted the false treads on our stairs, even though the contractor explained the plan to him and gave him a photo to go by. The painter came by one day to talk to me about fixing the problem and told me how he was going to faux finish the treads and it would look perfect. It was a bit uncomfortable but I put my foot down. The epoxy paint would not come off with sanding or stripping, so the treads had to be replaced (at his expense).

  7. Linda says:

    I learned to scour every detail if the invoice. I was once charged double for labor costs of installing a multi head shower and was told because it’s complicated therefore took extra time. I said “nope. Not paying for your learning curve” and got that labor cost reduced. Also had a contractor accidentally flood my basement when he turned on outside water valve for the in ground lawn sprinkler that had been disconnected for the winter (in PGH) and was charged for his clean up fee. Again I said “nope. Not paying for you to clean up your own mistakes and got that charge removed.

  8. Sarah says:

    “Once you know your style, it can translate to any home“ is mine. They are all great advice though. We are selling a modern farmhouse and buying a 1963 mid century house and I’m not buying new furniture….why??? Because I don’t have to. Everything I own works perfectly. I had mid century and industrial pieces in my farm house (leaning casual and even a bit classic/traditional) and they will be perfect in a true mid century and lean classic/traditional). I think most people think you have to be mid century on everything to love in one and I say “only if you want to be theme-y”. It’ll be a huge Donsize for us but I’m taking my most favorite pieces and cutting out the extra. See, just my style;)

  9. Bailey says:

    Thank you for this. Especially #6. I’m in the middle of a kitchen reno and just had to write a pointed email to our electrician about how they only did part of what I was expecting. I HATE being confrontational and almost tried to pass it to my husband, but you’re so right. I can deal with it, and I will, and it’ll all turn out fine in the end. Great advice from someone with a lot of experience!

  10. Sarah C says:

    I stilll get teary about your loss. We have a second home (I don’t like that term but don’t know what to call it) we’re renovating on a pond about 3 hours from our Mon-Fri home. We love it and I can only imagine what it’s loas would feel like. On another note, I love what you said about little things making a big difference. This is ridiculous but I bought a really nice metal boot tray to house our dogs’ food and water bowls and I literally can’t tell you how much nicer it looks than the plastic thing I had before. It’s actually easier to clean and it helps contain the slurpy slobber better too. I’d spend that $25 all over again…and I did…for our second home. ????

  11. Sherri Barron says:

    Mine would be, don’t wait. We lived in our home for 20 years! 20! We thought we would be here for 3-5 so I never invested more than some paint and fabrics. We were always looking, always going to move. Almost did once, even had everything boxed. Since the perfect home hasn’t come along yet, we decided to stay “for now,” remodel and add an addition. I’m loving what we have done and glad I stopped waiting. I only wish we had done it sooner.

  12. Naomi says:

    Lesson nr. 6 is the one that resonates with me most. It’s the one I still need to hammer home. I need to print this poster size and hang it on every wall in my home because it’s a truly powerful but simple statement. Thank you!

  13. Jenny M says:

    “Once you know your style, it can translate to any home.” I love that! I’m still trying to hone in on “my” style. I want to find the patterns you talked about by pinning 1000 pictures and discover what I love. I love my home and there’s a long list of home projects I’m dreaming of, but loving “it” in the process has its rewards too! Love your blog ????

  14. katie says:

    I would say don’t choose something because its on sale. While it may save you major money in the long run it may just be the thing you regret the most when it was finished! Save more and get what you really want!

  15. Erika says:

    I love all the permissions you’re giving lately — mistakes, do-overs and moving past change.

  16. Julie S says:

    I am in love with that vertical photo of your family in the upper and lower parts of the cabin, being there, living in it joyfully. It captures the whole reason for making a home a home.

  17. Amanda Peters says:

    We are about to side our house and I’m terrified of such a big job and all the ways I might get talked out of something I want! I’m going to cut out #6 and put it on my fridge!

    • April says:

      I’m with you. #6 really struck a chord with me. It’s tough to walk the line between deferring to someone more knowledgeable (you would hope…), sticking to your guns, and fear of being a PITA.

      I’m also intrigued by your siding project. You wouldn’t happen to have a blog/IG that you’re using to document it?

  18. Cassandra says:

    Thank you for this post. It couldn’t have been easy to write. I’m still heartbroken for your loss. In answer to your question, I’ve learned that a contractor doesn’t necessarily share your vision. Specify everything that will be going into your house if you aren’t supplying it! I mean everything from electrical outlets and garbage disposals to plumbing connections. There’s a wide range of quality available, and even if you try to establish a general level, your contractor may still assume a lower quality on these items if you aren’t specific. And trust me, your attention will fixate on these “throwaways” later!

    • Cheryl says:

      Agreed! The devil is truly in the details when it comes to items that escape your radar and are thoughtlessly supplied by a contractor.

  19. Something that occurred to me as I saw this all unfold online was how temporal all of this is. A ton of your audience, myself included, have a bit of sympathy grieving with you…. all of the memories and future memories… and it was so gosh darn beautiful!…. But the fire is a reminder that everything goes. And, a reminder that since it will you might as well swing for the fences in terms of what you like when you’re renovating. No building is precious. People, memories, and how the people feel in a space are.

  20. Sarah says:

    I love this post. I love that what I got most out of it is to just LOVE your space because it’s YOURS, and don’t wait for the renovation to be done to enjoy it – you can and should enjoy it in all the middle stages. That’s something I need to do better at. No need to wait for every single thing to be done before hosting – inviting people into your space is enough. Memories made in the space are more important than any piece of furniture or design choice. Thank you for this ❤️

  21. Maya says:

    Great post!! I’m curious what you would do differently in hindsight– say, if there is anything you would do differently knowing that something like this can happen. I don’t mean fire safety, specifically, but rather… I guess I’m wondering if going through this trauma will make you approach future renovations differently, if realizing the IMPERMANENCE of things would make you change your approach to renovating in any way. I’m also extremely curious what you will change about the design if / when you rebuild. I’m sure all those posts are coming, though. :)

    I’m seriously loving your posts lately. In a strange way the fact that you AREN’T sharing huge renovations and befores / afters right now is making your posts more practical and relateable (though I loved your befores/afters too!).

    • Lynnette says:

      Yes, I was going to say the same thing! I’m sure these weren’t the posts you’d planned originally but I am loving all the “general advice” posts lately because as a renter they have tips I can actually use. I especially love the advice about not waiting because it can be hard to make decisions when we don’t know how long we will live here.

    • Julia says:

      The main difference we are making/have made is giving ourselves lots of grace. Spending more time with our family. Giving ourselves a clock out time to just be. Enjoying moments rather than scrambling for a deadline. One of our biggest regrets is spending our last weekend there cramming in a whole bathroom renovation. Of course we didn’t know it was our last weekend and we did spend a little time during short breaks eating and dancing and playing with the girls–but SO little time really! Regrets are hard to talk about because you can’t rewind time. All you can do is apply it to the future and that’s what we’re doing. Renovation-wise, we still believe every home deserves to be loved and every person deserves to love where they live. We’re never going to stop improving our spaces or making them the best they can be. But we are definitely more conscious of how much time we are spending on that vs. spending enjoying the space and the people in it. It’s pretty eye-opening.

  22. Karen says:

    My biggest lesson learned: If there’s a mistake, fix it during the reno process.

    We had quartz countertops installed all along our wall cabinets – it was prefab “white”. Well, sitting on top of our cool-white shaker cabinets, it just looked dingy. The marble fabrication (island and backsplash) was taking a few weeks, so I had many a morning/afternoon/evening to walk through the kitchen (it was still a construction zone), glance at the counters and worry. I went on a mad goose hunt for white-white quartz (it turned out to be from a slab) on Friday night, held up the sample by the current quartz/cabinets/marble sample/white walls, and by Saturday made the decision to rip out the prefab quartz. Best. Decision. Ever.

    My take-aways: not all whites are the same; bring your material samples physically together; if it doesn’t feel right, make it right as soon as you can; when considering the cost of the mistake, keep in mind the total cost of the project (may not be that much in the scheme of things, and for how unhappy I would have been…..I shudder to think!)

  23. These are fantastic take aways and I love seeing a bunch of cabin pictures in one post! I’m also loving these more casual posts. I love your big renovations and sponsored content but these feel helpful and light in the best way. Also I admire your positivity just one short month after such a loss. We’re cheering you on!

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