A Designer Completely Transforms a Little 1950s House With $125K

A Designer Completely Transforms a Little 1950s House With $125K

By Kelly Vencill Sanchez
In her first solo project, a young designer remakes a raw 850-square-foot house in Culver City by herself and on a tight budget.

When architectural designer Samantha Mink fell in love with what she calls "a weirdo house on a unique street" in Culver City, California, she knew its transformation would mean working within especially tight constraints. 

Working as designer, contractor, and builder, Samantha Mink took an unremarkable structure built in the 1950s and transformed it into a home for herself and her dog, Winston. "Because of its location on the street, I kept a kind of stern exterior where you can’t really see into the house," she says. She treated the Douglas fir with a natural mineral wash and an exterior stain to give the wood dimension.

Her $125,000 budget precluded hiring even a contractor, so she resolved to do as much of the renovation as possible herself. "I didn’t have a shop. I didn’t have a table saw," she explains. "The materials were mostly limited to what was cheap and what I could carry."

The kitchen features Douglas fir cabinets that Samantha built on-site, a move that helped her complete the project at a cost of $145 per square foot.

Her kitchen is a case in point. Custom cabinets were out of the question, so Samantha sat with a pile of milled one-by-threes and sketched out ideas for stick-framed cabinets she could build on the spot. 

"The main drivers for materials were budget and ease of acquiring them, because I didn’t have much storage space," says Samantha.

"Every two verticals are separated by a horizontal member so it looks like there’s a one-inch gap between them—a technique I used to compensate for my imprecision," she says. "I’d never done something on this scale before, but an interesting way to trick the eye is to build reveals into things."

Moving the entrance off the street to the rear of the house allowed for the creation of a diminutive side yard.

"The greatest joy of living here is making something special out of the everyday." Samantha Mink, designer and resident

Figuring it out as she goes is familiar territory for the Southern California native. As a literature major at Georgetown University, she visited a friend who was studying at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture in Brooklyn, took one look at the studios, and realized she’d found her passion. "There was stuff all over the tables and students who’d been building models all night sleeping on the floor—it seemed so exciting," she remembers. She left Georgetown and enrolled in architecture at Pratt.

In contrast to the dark, almost monolithic exterior, the interior is full of light, thanks in part to the whitewashed woodwork and floors. "Because the space is so small, I felt I needed to allow the light to travel all over," says Samantha. The undercounter refrigerator and freezer are by Summit Appliance. Much of the furniture, like the dining table, is built-in.

After graduating in 2011, she worked for firms in Manhattan and Portland, Oregon, before returning to Los Angeles, where she began looking for a place to live. Her search took her to a Culver City alley populated with tiny bungalows that had been built for actors filming at the nearby studios. A vine-covered, two-story house from the 1950s caught her eye. It sat on a lot that was just a little more than a thousand square feet, and its front door literally opened onto the street. "The city had paved over the front yard because nobody knew where the property line was," says the designer.

A new bathroom is tucked under the existing stair.

Working within the original footprint, she relocated the entrance through a side garden and turned her attention to establishing a sense of enclosure inside her new home.

The second floor is laid out with almost nautical efficiency. Behind the closet is the bathroom.

In the bathroom behind the closet, Samantha embedded charcoal in the stucco for a velvety texture. Skylights by Velux introduce patterns throughout the day. "I wanted to focus the light in very precise ways," says Samantha.

"The house had three-by-five windows, and the first thing I did was to close them or make them two-by-twos," she says. "People would ask, ‘Don’t you want light?’" But Samantha wanted to focus and control the light—whether it was washing down from a large new skylight or entering through strategically placed windows. "You get these dramatic light swaths on the floors and walls throughout the day," she says.

The bed sits atop a platform; above it is an HVAC vent.

The linens are by Frette.

Downstairs, she removed a partition wall, reoriented the kitchen, and added a bathroom. Upstairs, she opened everything up, using built-in cabinets and closets as dividers. "While it feels really open, I still wanted to keep the spaces somewhat distinct," she says.

"Material restrictions in architecture should be re-understood as opportunities." Samantha Mink

The new roof deck offers outdoor space and views—precious commodities on the 1,100-square-foot lot.

For continuity, all the wood is budget-friendly pine and Douglas fir. Its simplicity suits the home Samantha calls Sparrow, after a Chinese proverb. "Like a sparrow, the house is small, but it has all the essential parts," she explains, paraphrasing the saying.

Galvanized rain chains transport water off the roof. "Depending on how the exterior catches the light, it can appear almost metallic, or you can see the depth of the wood grain," says Samantha.

When the renovation was complete, she threw a block party and opened her house to her neighbors and others who had watched the yearlong project take shape. "It’s always surprising to people that I did this myself," says Samantha, who turned 30 shortly after she moved in. "But I learned so much just seeing what it takes to nail in a piece of plywood. You begin to understand what a material can do and how it wants to behave. It becomes part of your DNA as a designer."

 A ladder drops down from the deck through a hatch by Velux.


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