Three young children sitting on a radiator.

Building a Family, Building a Home: Renovating with Kids

Hi, we’re the Dohmicile and we’re crazy enough to buy a house that needs a total renovation while are raising children who very recently turned 6, 4, and 2. Yes. Renovating with kids. In the house.

At least, when I tell people what we’re up to, that’s what I think they hear.

It does seem maybe a tad overwhelming.

And there are plenty of people who ask if William and I are any closer to signing divorce papers as the projects roll out.

Actually, no. This has been one of the dustiest, messiest times of our lives…and also one of the most creatively rich.

Katie’s History

When I was 4—wow, I’m just realizing I was about my middle son’s age—we took a road trip five hours north and my parents checked out some properties along the shorelines of a pristine, pine-lined lake. I remember it, blurrily.

Maybe it’s because we grew up this way.

What I remember much more clearly was watching as my parents’ dreams took clearer shape every summer. From a front yard filled with sand and muck to a beautiful swimming beach, sleeping in a tiny trailer called the Cozy Coach to a larger mobile home, to the final product: a beautiful log cabin built with my dad’s own two hands (and those of all his buddies who chipped in to help). Now our family treasure, it was once a bit of swamp, an risk that some people told them they were crazy to take, a list of sacrifices. But the joy it now brings! My kids beg to go every single day of the year. That is no exaggeration.

When I got to be a young adult, footloose and fancy-free—but looking for a date—I remember lamenting to my mom that no one was like my dad. None of the dudes I knew could swing a hammer, fix the electric, put in plumbing. They knew how to play video games. She laughed and laughed. Because, of course, my dad didn’t know how to do those things at first, either.

William’s History

William grew up similarly. His parents both came from huge farming families in South Dakota, where literally everything they did and enjoyed was a product of their hard work. His aunts tell me how they had to pick rocks from fields before they could get ready to go to the dances on the weekends.

His parents had plenty of projects even after they moved to the big city from their farms. They finished the basement in their home, installing a buzzer so they could buzz their two teenage daughters up from their bedroom instead of yelling down the stairs. They redid the kitchen. They allowed William to repaint the apartment on the back of the house to make it his own.

William helped his dad re-roof the house, install a sliding door, build a backyard woodshop. There was never nothing they didn’t just take on as their own responsibility.

Dreams Take Work

We grew up knowing if you wanted something to be different, you were putting in the work. There was never really an expectation of hiring an expert. Unless it was one of your hunting buddies, who then only charged you beer. (Remember when communities had literal barn-raisings? Those networks were, and are, invaluable. They renovated with kids. A lot of kids.) Nope, you got out your Reader’s Digest guide to fixing everything and … read the diagrams and figured it out.

I guess all of this is to say, none of this seems that weird or crazy to either of us. Complicated? Sure. But they say when you raise your children, they will watch what you do, not listen to what you say. Impressionable young things—and apparently, we were too. Because now here we are, undertaking a huge project while we raise our three huge projects.

Teachable Moments with the Littles

There are a few things that I hope my kids learn from living in a renovation.

1. You don’t have to live in a perfectly appointed home (I mean, your walls can even be missing the wall part!) and you can still be happy. 

Honestly, I could live in this mess as it is and still be happy. Not that I want to.

Eero having a blast, even with walls knocked down and bags of insulation everywhere.

2. If you want a job done right, you can learn to do it yourself.

Hard work is just that, but at the end you have the satisfaction of a job done right. And you know your home in a way you wouldn’t otherwise.

The portrait of a kid who’s at home in renovation mess. Remy dreams of being a “momo guy,” his word for construction.

I freely admit that I personally look at diagrams and my eyes just start glazing over. William has the fortitude to watch YouTube demos and read Fine Homebuilder books and consult This Old House episodes. I love that he sets that example for the kids. And I got my guy who knows how to do stuff. And I’m learning about how we started from being able to change a light bulb to William re-wiring our home.

It feels almost incumbent upon us to teach our kids that you can work to make things better in your life. And what it looks like to bring it to life: Just do it.

3. Don’t Set Limits on your Creativity

Having an idea, a dream, and not only having the ability to Pin images, but to truly bring them to life. Seeing a dream through to reality.

We’ve had a little bit of experience and positive feedback here, which helps. In our former house, William built a two-story fort in our backyard out of some reclaimed cedar. At 3, Ruby wielded her first drill that summer, helping William. She told me then that she couldn’t wait to have a drill like Daddy, to be strong like Daddy.

Helping Daddy build the fort.

When we moved into our new house, one of our great sadnesses was leaving the fort behind. We promised another would follow in the new yard. Rem wants to help build the new fort and he’s already elucidated a list of his wants. Top of the list? It must be his favorite color: pink.  

No Beige Boxes

I remember when William and I first moved in together, into a true loft. We painted one wall “Razz Berries,” a magenta that I have come to consider my favorite neutral and my power color all in one. So many visitors oohed and ahhed over the choice, but then immediately said, “I could never do that.” My stock answer was, “Of course you can, buy the paint and put it on the wall.”

Who told us at some point that we have to live in beige boxes? No thank you.

If they want something, they can do it. They can learn the skills. They can ask the experts for help. Hire out if needed (or wanted!) someday. But at least they will know the power and value of a hard day’s work. Of building a dream from beautiful bones and a lot of rubble. Of recognizing a huge opportunity and holding tight with both hands.

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