Gretchen Zee bought her 1960s tract house for its lush ocean-view lot overlooking an oak-covered hillside, but she had to go outside to get any sense of the vista.
The house, in Goleta, backed up to the views and offered visions of the driveway out front from the family room's picture window.
The kitchen, at the back of the house, was situated--at least in theory--to offer canyon views. Despite a small window over the sink, however, major appliances on that wall stood between the people and the panorama.
"They just plunked these houses down without any sensitivity to where anything was," said Zee, who bought the house in 1988 with her husband, Tony, a physics researcher and professor at nearby UC Santa Barbara, and their two young sons, Peter and Andrew.
From the driveway, a narrow cement walk led past a scruffy lawn to the home's unremarkable front door and entry hall, the latter darkened by a bank of closets.
For Zee, an architect, the claustrophobic entryway was as depressing as the home's brown carpeting, brown cabinets and brown appliances.
In the original design, the family room was to the left of the entryway, with the dining room beyond a narrow door. Next to the dining room was the kitchen.
Zee wanted to remodel the house right away and told herself: "I'll just do this, this and this." All she lacked was the money.
But the house itself helped bring about a remodel when it started falling apart in the early 1990s. In a short period of time, the roof wore out, the kitchen sink cracked, the stove broke and the dishwasher died.
The logical response would have been to simply remodel the kitchen. But Zee, with her fertile architect's mind, couldn't imagine doing only that; yet with a budget of $20,000, her options were limited.
Finally, it occurred to Zee that the kitchen had to be moved to the other side of the house, where the family room was. Plus, she wanted to eliminate a wall and create a combination family room/dining room where the kitchen used to be, with large banks of windows from which to enjoy the views.
On the up side, the pipes hooking the house to the city sewer lines ran past the proposed area for the new kitchen. On the down side, the space for the new kitchen, the former family room, allowed a smaller kitchen than Zee would have liked. But without money to move exterior walls, she accepted the compromise.
At first, Zee had no idea how she would transform the space. Husband Tony offered neither help nor hindrance, saying: "Do whatever you want." Zee's own goal was to "make it fun, make it zippy."
Night after night, as Zee pondered the "new" house, her eyes settled on a large, modern painting hanging in her bedroom that was created by Tony's sister, Chicago artist Stella Zee.
As Gretchen Zee took in the painting's large, sensuous forms swirling with blues, yellows, browns and grays, she decided to use it as a starting point for the new color scheme.
In terms of architectural design, the home's original boxy rooms with their flat ceilings offered no inspiration. But Zee saw that as a bonus.
"That's the good thing about these tract homes--you can do anything with them," she said.
For instance, neighbors successfully added Santa Fe-style details to their plain tract home. By contrast, a California cottage or Craftsman-style home doesn't easily lend itself to different styles.
In the end, the new space Zee designed conforms with no textbook architectural style but feels at once contemporary (unique ceiling angles, unusual colors), Asian (clean lines, use of red) and a bit traditional (thick baseboard moldings and wood floors).
The remodel, which was done in 1994 by Santa Barbara contractor Leo Blickley, ended up costing $40,000. The increase resulted when hardwood maple floors were installed throughout the house. "It's everywhere," Zee said. "Where do you stop?"
Today, the front of the house, although landscaped with drought-tolerant shrubs and ground cover, remains architecturally plain but is brightened by a front door painted a deep red. Inside, the entryway is illuminated from above by a large skylight.
The oppressive closets are gone, and in their place is a built-in maple buffet with a granite top and a curved, cantilevered Formica shelf that provides a place to put down keys and bags.
Beyond the buffet is the new dining room, and to the left is the new family room, both with windows and sliding doors overlooking wooden decks and a giant eucalyptus tree that casts its swaying shadows into the house.
The removal of the wall between the kitchen and family room required, for structural stability, a supporting post just to the left of the entryway. Zee turned this into a design opportunity by installing a large red post, which, in husband Tony's native China, is said to bring fortune to a family. Plus, the post has a history: It was once part of a winery in Northern California.
The dining room and family room barely resemble their former selves, thanks to high, slanted ceilings that were pushed up into the home's ample attic space.
Dotted with recessed lights, the ceilings are painted a pale gray, with the slightest touch of lavender, while two walls are a buttery yellow and two are a dusty green. Stella Zee's painting is the visual center point.
The subtle colors end at the kitchen, however, which is to the left of the entryway. While the kitchen's base cabinets are maple, like the floors and entryway buffet, the ceilings and counters are bright white and the glass-fronted wall cabinets are bright red, with the whole illuminated by a large, glass skylight.
Adding excitement to the back splash is a row of multicolored tiles that were inspired by a design from younger son Peter, now 15. His original design weaves rows of wavy lines, dots, an off-kilter star and other forms.
His mother, who painted the back-splash tiles, thought it would take "five zillion hours" to re-create Peter's design on a number of tiles.
"With his permission, I simplified it," she said.
In retrospect, Zee wishes she had not used so much white in the kitchen. But again she compromised, because the refrigerator is white and would stick out glaringly in a room of only soft, subtle colors, and the budget didn't allow for a new refrigerator.
She has no regrets, however, about the red cabinets, which she said would be considered "too risky" by most of her friends. But Zee has the easy-going attitude that comes from her work and her exposure to constant architectural change. "What's the big deal?" she said. "If I don't like it, I can just paint it."
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Project: Move kitchen to family room, open family room and dining room up to views.
Architect: Gretchen Zee, Santa Barbara, (805) 967-0803.
Contractor: Leo Blickley, Blickley Builders, Santa Barbara, (805) 964-0069.
Pardon Our Dust is published every third Thursday in Southern California Living. Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has reported about remodeling for nine years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.