How to Have a Model Remodel

How to keep a fixer-upper from becoming a downer
| Updated: February 10, 2021
  • Living Room After
  • Living Room Before
  • Kitchen After
  • Kitchen Before
First: Living Room After; Second: Living Room Before, Third: Kitchen After; Fourth: Kitchen Before

This story is featured in the January issue of Seattle magazine. Subscribe here to access the print edition.

In the hands of amateurs, home remodels and home hair perms have much in common: they are often wildly arresting, but rarely wildly successful. Repairs are expensive and the grow-out period is long and painful.

Garry McNeill beat the odds with his sleek reimagining of a severely time-warped 2,400-square-foot Capitol Hill fixer-upper. After much toil and trouble, McNeill is putting the final touches on the single-family home, purchased three years ago for a bargain $600,000.

The split-level structure was conceived in the decade-long Dark Ages of American interior design sometimes referred to as the 1970s, when avocado linoleum, assembly line cabinetry, wall-to-wall carpet and brown-brick fireplaces seemed timeless.

For 40 years, the property was occupied by two generations of hoarders who had no interest in updating the home. McNeill, who owned a duplex next door, met an executor of the estate when he helped dis-able a tripped alarm. A deal to purchase the property was struck, and McNeill’s head has been ringing ever since.

It wasn’t McNeill’s first redo-eo. At the age of 14, motivated primarily by a desire for privacy, he remodeled his bedroom. A native of Scotland, McNeill had the help of his father, a naval architect who bequeathed him a healthy left-brain regard for planning, precision and execution.

The University of Washington helped develop McNeill’s right brain, discharging him with an art degree. He got more remodeling experience when he opened a nightclub, which he had envisioned as a platform for promoting art, but instead turned out to be a hard business grind.

McNeill knew he had a flair for home makeovers when the duplex rental he advertised online drew the attention 

of landlords who wondered if he could remodel their property. He could not. McNeill now owns and operates Freshly Wrapped, a graphics art firm that serves mostly medical and dental clients. Plastic surgeons especially like the Freshly Wrapped concept. Independent graphic arts firms have died off in part because large companies developed in-house departments, McNeill notes. “I’ve been lucky to find my niche.”

McNeill dove headfirst into rewrapping the Capitol Hill project, but immediately invoked the first bylaw of doing it yourself: Don’t Do it All Yourself. The home was infested with rats. McNeill now has a rat guy.

With the exception of exterminators, an electrician, a few specialty contractors and miscellaneous labor, McNeill cut costs by doing most of the work himself, having been left by his wife to his own devices.

McNeill is the rare Scotsman who doesn’t believe in mulligans. He began by developing a detailed plan based on a conservative interpretation of universally accepted design principles. His goal was modern minimalist with Scandinavian and Japanese influences. “Mistakes are very expensive and time-consuming to fix,” McNeill says.

To wit: The home was clad in ’70s-standard orange peel wall texture and popcorn ceilings. He gamely attempted to scrape off the offending surfaces, but ended up installing new Sheetrock throughout most of the house. While he eventually became very skilled at finishing Sheetrock, “in retrospect, it was a project that might best have been subcontracted,” McNeill says.

But opening the walls created opportunities to revive spaces with natural light while increasing privacy. A large, heavily draped bedroom window, for example, was replaced by three small but intensely bright slotted windows near the ceiling.

Multiple motorized blinds maximized the natural lighting and exposed McNeill’s attraction to complexity. “I have three different remote controls to operate them,” he reports in a tone that conveys both wonder and horror.

McNeill found ways to save money without sacrificing luxury by blending expensive and inexpensive materials.

The kitchen was one example of this mix-and-match approach to affordable remodeling. He saved a bundle by building and finishing oak laminate kitchen cabinets, being careful to avoid dovetails and other complex joinery. With this same sober assessment of his limitations, McNeill elected to spend the aforementioned saved bundle topping the cabinets with custom-cut and professionally installed soapstone counters.

Converting the monolithic, wood-burning brick fireplace to gas would have cost a fortune. McNeill instead covered the brick with Sheetrock, which he then textured with a temperature-resistant compound. A flat-screen television mounted without exposed wires provides a clean modernistic flourish to the new fireplace column.

McNeill coveted a fashionable extra-wide pivoting entryway door. He found a Colorado company offering a snappy rendition for $6,000. He instead bought a 39-inch-wide metal door that was filled with foam for insulation and used Liquid Nails to glue on horizontal white oak panels. The handsome knock-off cost just a couple of hundred dollars.  

McNeill, who gets a lot of his ideas from Pinterest and similar sites, is not against hiring professional help. In fact, he recommends it. He had the help of three friends who are interior designers, one of whom specializes in high-end New York installations and another who does the same in Seattle.

Doing it Right

Be realistic and don’t take tips from TV shows. Here are Garry McNeill’S Tips for a successful home remodel. 

Control Color: Start with a small, simple, proven color palate and be very cautious about adding new col-ors. “This is one area where you might want to consider hiring an interior designer. Be conservative. You can always add color later,” he says.

Triple Time: Carefully calculate how long each task will take, then triple that estimate if you want to develop a realistic remodeling timeline. A neighboring couple who work at Amazon and Microsoft crisply announced that their home makeover would be completed within a year. “Three years later, they’re still at it,” says McNeill, who has spent two-and-a-half years on his project.

Sift Suppliers: McNeill attributes much of the success of his project to the fact that he was able to locate top-notch material suppliers, especially wood and stone distributors.

Reject ‘Reality’: Television remodeling shows have their place, but don’t typically present a realistic picture of what is required to pull off a successful remodel. “My main objection is that they don’t emphasize the fact that they have a full remodeling team working behind the scenes to finish the job.”  

Wood Works: Wood flooring is a safe and sane choice for do-it-yourself home remodeling. That colorfully textured cement floor you’ve been fetishizing? No. Seek an immediate intervention with an interior designer if infected by an urge to install wall-to-wall carpet. “No, no, no, no!”

Powder Play: The bathroom provides an architecturally acceptable forum for individual artistic expression. In one of his three bathrooms, McNeill tempered inexpensive off-the-shelf fixtures by installing expensive, whimsical French wallpaper.

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