Dan Roush and Laura Scholl, with Gabriel, 3, and Greta, 9 months, in front of their worker's cottage, a foreclosed home that they restored with a more open design on South Wesley Avenue. David Pierini/staff photographer

Last year, as Daniel Roush and Laura Scholl of Chicago began looking for a new home in which to raise their young family, Oak Park made the short list for all the usual reasons — location, transportation, schools and quality of life.

So in May 2012, in the first suburb west of Chicago, Roush, a Chicago-based architect, found a priced-right, distressed property he could redo on a budget and comfortably live in for years to come,

Located in south Oak Park, the 1913 wood-frame cottage was a dilapidated, foreclosed property. When it hit the market, Roush’s Oak Park Realtor understood that this house would be a good fit for his forward-thinking client.

Upfront, Roush says he recognized the challenges: The tight entryway led into small, dark spaces, originally designed for first-floor living only. The bedrooms were located behind a load-bearing wall adjacent to the living room and dining room. Up a very narrow staircase was the partially-finished attic. Down below was an unfinished basement. The interior design was stuck in the 1970s.

Outside, early-’80s aluminum siding covered asbestos shingles that had been glued to the original clapboard underneath. In addition, the gabled roof needed replacing, there was no garage, and the mechanicals needed updating.

Roush’s vision was to go with a gut job to reconfigure it into a modern-looking home with a “loft-like” first floor, and a traditional second floor, plus a finished basement.

On a recent walking tour, he speculated that the house had undergone a renovation in the 1950s, which is probably “when they added a staircase to go upstairs. It was very narrow, and steep and precipitous. I was not interested in it at all. The fact was that the systems of the house and the finish of the house were all in disrepair,” he recalled. “So it wasn’t like we bought a house in the Oak Park fashion where the systems might be old, but the windows are beautiful or the woodwork is beautiful. All that was shot when we got it.”

Cinderella makeover

Completely redoing a distressed property is never smooth sailing. For starters, one of the backyard trees in need of pruning unexpectedly fell against a neighbor’s house, pulling down the electric lines.

Once construction started, the process went smoothly, without many unpleasant surprises. While extreme makeovers usually involve unanticipated challenges that bust budgets, Roush’s strategy all along was to purchase a home at a low price, then put the money he saved into renovating it in order to lift it back to market value.

“Some structural changes allowed us to open up the first floor,” he noted. “We have a wide living room. Previously you would walk into this very small vestibule [then] into a small living room. We opened this all up so we could have more space. Then we removed all the walls down the length of the house. Now, standing on the porch, you can see all the way through the house and vice versa. Basically, you can almost call this a loft-like interior within a turn-of-the-century home.”

To bring in more light, they opened up their front porch, removed a few house-darkening trees, added large windows on both floors and skylights upstairs.

“One of our goals was to have a light and white interior, so [during the day] we don’t have lights on very often.”

Making their home energy-efficient was a priority. “It is difficult to know how to insulate an old home without ripping up your interior,” he pointed out. “We had the luxury here of having the house gutted, so we used closed-cell, spray-foam insulation that filled all the cavities behind the drywall. That was probably one of the bigger splurges of the job.”

The windows and the furnace are efficient, but not top of the line. “We did not go as energy-efficient as I would have liked, from a professional standpoint. But from a homeowner-on-a-budget standpoint, we did well for the price.”

Roush said they spent a lot of time coming to the conclusion that they chose the right area — the south-central portion of Oak Park.

“We asked, ‘What is the right house?’ and when we found it, ‘What is the right way to do this project?'” Roush recalled.

“We are hoping that we are living in this house until our kids are done with high school and all that. So we thought, let’s do it, and we tried to aim high on the renovation because we were taking a longer view.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....