written by:
photos by:
illustrated by:
January 14, 2009
Originally published in Home Savings

The first year out of college is a wildcard for most people. Whether spent bumming around Europe with a backpack or slogging through a suffocating desk job, it’s often a year with little bearing on life’s next chapter. But Blake Dollahite—and his father—saw an opportunity in this transitional time to build a foundation for his future. With a small bank loan and a lot of helping hands, Dollahite dove into his first year of freedom by shackling himself to a rundown Austin bungalow and preparing to make it home.

From the side door of his restored two-bedroom bungalow, Dollahite watches his 
dog West inspect the newly installed low-maintenance landscaping and brick patio.
From the side door of his restored two-bedroom bungalow, Dollahite watches his dog West inspect the newly installed low-maintenance landscaping and brick patio.
Photo by 
1 / 10
Dollahite perches on the steps to his living room beside his dog, who saw him through the entire renovation.
Dollahite perches on the steps to his living room beside his dog, who saw him through the entire renovation.
Photo by 
2 / 10
Almost every element of the interior—from the kitchen cabinetry to the art on the walls—was created by Dollahite himself.
Almost every element of the interior—from the kitchen cabinetry to the art on the walls—was created by Dollahite himself.
Photo by 
3 / 10
The bedroom takes up the small second floor of the house.
The bedroom takes up the small second floor of the house.
Photo by 
4 / 10
From the stairs West looks across the living room over the salvaged pine floors, which run throughout the house.
From the stairs West looks across the living room over the salvaged pine floors, which run throughout the house.
Photo by 
5 / 10
The media cabinet and lightbox coffee table exemplify Dollahite’s furniture-making talents. After finishing the house he founded a studio, Rural Theory, to apply his talents elsewhere.
The media cabinet and lightbox coffee table exemplify Dollahite’s furniture-making talents. After finishing the house he founded a studio, Rural Theory, to apply his talents elsewhere.
Photo by 
6 / 10
Dollahite’s house sits on a tree-lined block in the north Austin neighborhood of Hyde Park. His remodel retained the old Texas feel of the exterior, with modern touches inside.
Dollahite’s house sits on a tree-lined block in the north Austin neighborhood of Hyde Park. His remodel retained the old Texas feel of the exterior, with modern touches inside.
Photo by 
7 / 10
Dollahite tackled landscaping last, installing climate-sensitive plants in metal planters he designed himself.
Dollahite tackled landscaping last, installing climate-sensitive plants in metal planters he designed himself.
Photo by 
8 / 10
Dollahite kept most rooms spare, allowing each piece of furniture and art to have a presence. In the dining room, the table is its own centerpiece.
Dollahite kept most rooms spare, allowing each piece of furniture and art to have a presence. In the dining room, the table is its own centerpiece.
Photo by 
9 / 10
Patches of sod amid white gravel keep water needs low.
Patches of sod amid white gravel keep water needs low.
Photo by 
10 / 10
From the side door of his restored two-bedroom bungalow, Dollahite watches his 
dog West inspect the newly installed low-maintenance landscaping and brick patio.
From the side door of his restored two-bedroom bungalow, Dollahite watches his dog West inspect the newly installed low-maintenance landscaping and brick patio.
Project 
Dollahite House

When you completely deconstruct a house but continue to live in it and call it “home,” rather than “home-to-be,” you really get to see it for what it is. The roof is a thin sheet of plastic, and you can trace a drop of rain from underneath as it strikes and begins to slide, collecting in the swollen roof valleys until a thin trickle finds its way inside. At that moment, the tenuous relationship between an owner and his house becomes apparent. That illusion of security and immunity to what’s out there all just washes down the plastic, too. On the other hand, when it’s done, nothing feels more secure than walls built with your own hands and insulated with memories. 

This is my first house. When I finished my art degree at the University of Texas at Austin, my dad suggested that I look for a place that needed some work and said he’d lend a hand. He had plenty of experience, having built and rehabbed all three houses welived in growing up in east Texas. He and my mom were married young and didn’t have much money, so when my brother and I came along, he figured he’d better learn to build a house himself. This would be his fourth.

Neither of us anticipated the project being as large as it turned out to be, but you take opportunities where you find them. I jumped on a little loser of a house—basically a teardown—on a small lot with enough challenges to scare everyone else away. But it was in a great location and cost about as much as the bank would give me.

I closed on the house in the late summer of 2003 and spent that fall designing and planning. Around Thanksgiving we began working on the weekends to rehab exterior walls and stabilize the foundation. Just before Christmas, we began the push.

Between family and friends, I had plenty of help, but my pockets were pretty shallow. I had just a small construction loan and two credit cards. Luckily, my design preferences and my budget were mostly compatible. While I hoped the house would be modern and striking, I wanted to rely on recycled materials to help it feel warm and familiar. I didn’t want my grandma to feel like an astronaut when she visited.

I looked for materials that could have been found in an older home. All of the doors were salvaged or bought cheaply at a local Habitat for Humanity ReStore; much of the flooring was made by milling old roof decking; we made our own light fixtures; and during breaks we surfed eBay. In the end, I was able to keep the construction costs to around $45 per square foot.

Things progressed, the grass turned brown, then green, then brown again. I got the heat running, a little later came permanent power and air-conditioning. Cabinets were built, some extension cords were put away, and my family got a much-deserved rest.

Once I could see the end of that phase, I wondered how I was going to fill this empty space. I certainly couldn’t afford any of the pieces I admired, but I also couldn’t imagine furnishing it with objects of little value to me. My hands had touched every inch of the place, seen and unseen, and the interiors needed to reflect that. I decided it only made sense for the furniture that would live there to be born there, too.

I set up a workshop in the last unfinished room and began designing and building. Each piece needed to have proper proportions and respond to its neighbors. I wanted some to speak loudly, like the media cabinet, which I made with some scraps of exotic wood like padauk and cocobolo, while other pieces, like the coffee table, which resembles a lightbox, would play a more reactionary role. With as simple and minimal a selection of materials as possible—and a few unique finds thrown in for texture and detail—the rooms were eventually filled out.

Finally, I turned to the landscape, which is still settling in. I’m sure the tinkering and refining will never truly be done. The house is comfortable and lived-in now, but I can still picture us all in one tiny room trying to stay warm with West, an empty beer bottle or two (or 20), a space heater, a two-by-four keeping the door shut, and beyond it nothing but a barren slab and an explosion of material in the yard.

It echoes so many scenes from childhood when my dad undertook the same task. I was too young to understand his reasons or the magnitude of the job, and, at times, I felt like the kid with a crazy father. In the end, of course, I am nothing but grateful that he was crazy enough to drive five hours each way almost every weekend for the four years it took to complete this project, because without him, my home would not exist.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016
Monochromatic Master Bedroom in Copenhagen Townhouse
Whether it's to maximize limited light or create a soothing interior, these five projects go white in a big way.
February 04, 2016
EQ3 Assembly quilt by Kenneth LaVallee
The new Assembly collection from EQ3 celebrates up-and-coming figures in Canadian design. Discover this newly appointed class, which debuted at Toronto's Interior Design Show, here.
February 03, 2016
The Greenhouses of Half Moon Bay
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 03, 2016
Deck of Australian addition to Edwardian home.
A 1,500-square-foot home in Melbourne welcomes a modern black and white kitchen, dining, and living area.
February 03, 2016
open plan concrete home in japan
Embracing the organic, imperfect material, these raw concrete surfaces are a step up from exposed brick.
February 03, 2016
Renovated DC Row House loft space with Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair.
The classic designer's signature and comfortable forms continue to be popular in homes today.
February 03, 2016
Zinc-roofed cabin France.
An architect builds an energy-efficient home near one of France’s most popular pilgrimage sites.
February 03, 2016
1973 Palm Springs home
Made for casual design enthusiasts and Palm Springs connoisseurs alike, Unseen Midcentury Desert Modern offers a peek into 51 buildings—some not open to the public—in that Southern California mecca of modernism. Begun in 2008 by photographer Dan Chavkin, the book is set for release this February 9th and will be available on Amazon and at multiple venues of Modernism Week in Palm Springs, February 11 - 21. Here we preview some of its images.
February 03, 2016
Millennial concept home with an outdoor living area
A concept home aims to reflect the requests of the Millennial market.
February 03, 2016
The two twelve-by-sixteen-foot bedrooms, directly above a comparable pair on the first floor, feature a glass transom that follows the pitch of the roof. “The stair and railings were very simple,” Depardon observes. “We added a bit of design, with panels
Skylights needn't be simple overhead daylighting; sometimes they can truly define a room.
February 03, 2016
Modern small space Rhode Island cottage with landscaping and cedar cladding
Surrounded by nature, these cottages are tranquil retreats from the city.
February 03, 2016
The couple kept original touches, including the arch.
Historic archways belie these contemporary homes with physical reminders of each structure's storied past.
February 03, 2016
modern guesthouse in norway with angular facade and cutaway patio with spruce cladding and ikea chair
These houses make room for nature, not the other way around.
February 02, 2016
Modern kitchen with yellow sectioned walls and monochrome appliances
Whether it's a splash of color or bold strokes, this collection of interiors brightens up these homes.
February 02, 2016
Rust-washed concrete wall in Moscow apartment renovation.
This 590-square-foot apartment was stripped down to admit sunlight and dramatically reveal forgotten surfaces.
February 02, 2016
Nendo's collection of objects inspired by Star Wars
In a galaxy not so far away, Japanese studio Nendo has released a versatile collection of objects inspired by classic Star Wars characters.
February 02, 2016
Monti catered to his mother’s love of cooking by giving her ample storage areas along the 70-foot long walnut wall-slash-cabinet. The refrigerator, kitchen items and other goods easily disappear into the wall when not in use. The nonporous, stain-, scratc
Sometimes the earthy colors and vivid grain of a wood like walnut is all you need to make a space.
February 02, 2016
renovated modern home in Austin interior kitchen
From California to Connecticut, these midcentury interiors still shine through thanks to the careful attention of architects and residents alike.
February 02, 2016
Outdoor dining area at a Saigon home.
A city home honors the local culture with communal outdoor space and reclaimed materials.
February 02, 2016