Jacob Brillhart, '99 featured in the New York Times for his D.I.Y. home design

Dec 5, 2014


D.I.Y. Is in Their DNA

Some people build their own doghouses or tree houses. Jacob and Melissa Brillhart’s D.I.Y. project was a little more elaborate: They hand-built a 1,500-square-foot house.

Never again, they insist. Still, one wonders, why do it in the first place?

Sure, they are both trained as architects, and he has his license, but most architects are content to leave the heavy lifting to the contractors.

Mr. Brillhart, 40, thinks it may have had something to do with the way they were raised.

He grew up in Canterbury, N.H., home of the Canterbury Shaker Village, which “had some kind of influence on me,” he said. “A very spare, clean design.”

But more important, perhaps, was what happened when he was five: His parents gut-renovated a 1780 house. With the help of family and friends, they tore down the walls and built new ones, sanded and refinished the floors, and redid the bathrooms and kitchen. What’s impressive about this is that they weren’t in the building trades: His father was an engineer and his mother, an illustrator.

“I don’t think my family is quite as extreme,” said Ms. Brillhart, 38. But her father, a business executive, had a hobby: renovating and flipping houses. By the time she was 16, she had helped him demolish a kitchen, tearing down cabinets and ripping up countertops.

So in 2011, while they were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Miami Beach, Fla., they decided they should build their own house. Recalling their parents’ fearlessness about doing it themselves, Mr. Brillhart said, “If they can do it, why can’t we?”

What they discovered is that when you set about doing something yourself, help often presents itself at every turn.

After they bought a half-acre lot in downtown Miami for $165,000, for instance, they settled on Florida modern, a style of open-plan architecture popular here in the mid-20th century, as their inspiration. And they were able to find local architects who had designed some of the original homes to advise them.

“They taught us to go back to the basics, to time-tested strategies,” Mr. Brillhart said. “Cross-ventilation and orienting the building so the front porch blocks the direct sunlight on the glass, so you don’t heat up the interior.”

They also advised the couple on how to assemble the steel frame and the wood substructure.

And when the couple bought some ipe wood for the exterior of the house at Flatriver Woodworking & Construction in Fort Lauderdale, the owner, Matthew Cumings, offered to let them have free run of his shop and the use of his planer and jointer, to finish the wood. When they were done with that, he lent them his truck to transport it to the building site.

As Mr. Cumings said, “I started out on my own, without any backing, and they were doing the same thing, and I was just trying to help.”

Mr. Brillhart’s father and uncle also donated their labor, and his family gave the couple the cherry wood they used for the bathroom and kitchen cabinets, the door frames and the interior louvered doors. (Mr. Brillhart’s father had been buying it at farm auctions over the years.)

And, of course, they had the (paid) help of several plumbers, electricians, welders and roofers.

Still, it wasn’t always easy going. “There was no division of labor,” Ms. Brillhart said. “If there was something I could do, I would physically do it.” Including laying the joists and building the subfloor.

The house was completed this fall, at a cost of about $375,000, but they moved in a year and a half before, while they were halfway through the construction, and lived there with only a few amenities: a minimal shower, toilet, bathroom and kitchen sinks, a secondhand stove and a mattress. With no dishwasher, they sometimes washed the dishes outside, using a garden hose.

Building your own house is possible, it seems, but not always that much fun.

“It’s physically exhausting,” Mr. Brillhart said. “We don’t need to do this again.”

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