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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Home Destroyed by Storm

IN October 2005, when Hurricane Wilma ripped through the Florida Keys, Kathy Houtz’s 1,000-square-foot house on Key Haven, a community just east of Key West, was practically destroyed. “It was the biggest trauma I had ever been through,” she said.

But she decided to stay put. Even when your house is wrecked, “you still have to pay the mortgage,” said Ms. Houtz, 52, who works for a credit union in Key West. Besides, “I had nowhere else to live.”

So she piled the soggy contents of the house on the front lawn and ripped out the water-logged wallboard, leaving pipes and electrical wires hanging from exposed studs. For six months, she said, “I lived in a wall-less house with no appliances.” She weighed her options, one of which was to rebuild to current flood-protection standards, which would have meant putting the house on stilts.

Debra Yates, a designer who had moved to Key West from Miami in 1997, advised her to rebuild on the existing slab. That’s because Ms. Yates wanted the reconfigured house to merge into the garden, and vice versa. On stilts, the house would have seemed small and isolated.

But what Ms. Houtz could build depended on what she got from her two insurance companies, one covering wind impact, the other flood damage. “The wind people blamed the flood, the flood people blamed the wind,” she said. And the process of getting a fair settlement involved “years of pain.”

Eventually she received enough money not only to rebuild, but also to upgrade the house substantially. A “cinderblock bunker from the 1960s,” she said, it “had small jalousie windows bringing almost no light to the tiny, tiny rooms.”

Ms. Yates changed nearly everything. She tore down walls to transform what she called “three little chopped-up bedrooms” into a gracious master suite and an office used as a guest room. To add “virtual” space, some walls were covered in mirrors; others painted Benjamin Moore’s River Rock, a dark gray, to make surfaces recede. “It’s her magic disappearing color,” Ms. Houtz said.

The renovation took place slowly, over about four years, as the insurance proceeds came in, and as Ms. Houtz gained confidence in her designer. “Debra would say, ‘We need to open this up and put a mirror here.’ And I was adamantly opposed. Well, she turned out to be absolutely right.”

Most surfaces are white, including white cotton duck canvas curtains and white-tiled walls. Ms. Yates tends to use simple, uniform materials (the kitchen, bathroom and office countertops are all concrete) and rarely specs anything that can’t be ordered through the Home Depot. Ms. Houtz, who paid $240,000 for the house in 1997, said she spent a bit more than that on the renovation.

Outside the house, a new pool and hot tub beckon. One of the goals was to make the property, which is on a narrow canal with boats passing by, feel private. Ms. Yates deployed walls of stucco and corrugated metal, along with carefully placed plantings, to achieve that.

With its sliding glass doors opening onto the enclosed garden, the house seems to flow into the outdoors. Ms. Houtz said that she can now stay home all weekend, “and never get cabin fever.”

“And when you’re facing mortgage payments, staying home makes it pay off.”

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1 comment:

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