Lauri Sowa grew up in a Chicago flat, in a building that also housed her grandmother, aunts and uncles. Even as children grew and members began to go their separate ways, the family remained close — the kind of family that “has a way of getting through just about anything,” she said.
When Sowa purchased a 1,200-square-foot condo in San Luis Obispo last year, it reminded her of that modest Chicago flat. Also familiar was the way she chose to make it her own: with the help of family.
Immediately after moving in, she asked her cousin, Kevin Kestler, to help her renovate the “tired and old” master bath and create a home office, she said. “One day I came home and all the downstairs walls were primed,” Sowa reminisced. “That was my first clue that we were going to be doing the downstairs too.”
Kestler, who lives in Las Vegas, is an architect and finish carpenter who had helped Sowa and her late husband with a variety of remodeling projects. This one snowballed into a six-month endeavor where Kestler lived onsite, and Sowa worked in her spare time as “chief go-fer and apprentice,” she said. The process tested both their ingenuity and their patience.
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The move was a significant downsize for Sowa, so one aim was to maximize space. They did this in part with visual tricks, liberating the space from its dark, cramped feel. For instance, they installed an office door with a glass insert to flood the upstairs with natural light. They replaced other interior doors with pocket doors that take up less space. White paired with muted earth tones give the master bath an airier look.
Downstairs, “everything was dark, making the condo look small,” said Sowa, noting the kitchen was painted a dark blue. When looking for color inspiration, she turned to an unusual source: the Victoria’s Secret spring catalog. The year’s fashionable swimsuit hues translated to a “sunny” palette of yellows and greens on walls and cabinets. “It was quite fun carrying around the swimsuit edition when shopping for paint and accessories,” she said. “It would throw people off balance but always made them smile.”
Sowa parted with many of her belongings, retaining the most meaningful items. Still, she wanted as much storage space as possible to maintain a clutterfree look. Kestler replaced a tiny upstairs hall cabinet with an inexpensive floorto-ceiling model that he cut to fit the space. He built a wall bed so that the office can double as a guest room. He also built custom office cabinetry, including specialized pull-outs that hold bankers boxes containing Sowa’s workshop materials.
Sowa’s other desire was to use as many recycled materials as possible to “minimize our carbon footprint,” she said. The strategy was also budget-friendly, allowing her to complete the remodel without acquiring any debt. “Instant gratification comes from buying new, but when going for the ‘big bang for the bucks,’ go used,” Sowa advised.
She and Kestler were regulars at Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, a resale shop that offers new and used décor and building materials. They spent weekends scouring yard sales, thrift shops and distress sales. “Kevin is just like the guy on TV’s ‘American Picker,’” she said. “He’s just got a natural knack to sniff out a good deal.”
One prime find was picking up tile for the front and back patios at a yard sale for less than $100. Every plant came from yard sales as well. They picked up shelving material “here and there for pennies on the dollar,” she said. Decorative columns from ReStore, split in half, now frame the fireplace and add architectural interest to the passageway between the dining area and living room. “Small quantities and small sizes are easy to find — a huge advantage when remodeling small spaces,” she said.
Not everything went so smoothly. As with most DIY projects, there were unexpected snags. The seemingly simple L-shaped tile pattern she chose for the bathroom tile turned out to be a long, painstaking project. Pocket doors were tough to install in a 30-plus-yearold structure where surfaces are not quite level. Also, working in a small space made it difficult to store work materials — especially with the complete redo of both patios, which Sowa undertook herself. “We were constantly repositioning supplies,” she said. “Kevin had the thrill of sleeping next to the toilet while the bathroom was gutted.”
Worst of all were the health setbacks. Kestler suffered a bad cut on a finger from a piece of tile, which required stitches and downtime. Sowa suffered two episodes of pneumonia as a result of Valley Fever, which required “nursing duties added to Kevin’s list,” she said.
But the two pulled off the project with good humor and a stoic mindset. Sowa believes that positivity and support from her family has been the key to turning her generic condo into a place that feels like home. “My roots make it possible to create a homey atmosphere,” she said.
JUST ADD GLASS Brighten up a dark hallway by installing glass panel doors to bring in light from bedroom windows. If privacy is an issue, go with frosted glass, or install a translucent shade.
REUSE AND SAVE Repurposing salvaged items is good for the pocketbook and the planet. However, it usually requires some creativity. Don’t be afraid to ask employees at a thrift store or salvage yard for ideas. Search sites like Houzz and Pinterest for inspiration. And remember to keep an open mind, rather than insisting on a specific type of item.
FIND COLOR INSPIRATION Color ideas don’t always come from a paint store. Start by saving clippings from magazines and catalogs of hues that appeal to you. Lauri Sowa used a Victoria’s Secret swimsuit catalog to choose a palette for her condo.