A Chance to Dream

By Megan Willome

An unexpected disaster prompts home renovation

Pictured: Photos by Rachel Whyte, rachel-white.com

In many ways Kevin and Michelle Steele have a typical love story. The couple met, fell in love, got married, started a family, bought a house with potential. They were weekend warriors, taking on one project at a time. They painted, replaced a kitchen appliance or two. They had a bathroom remodeled and then another and then another. They had more children and made plans for how to further turn this 1949 house into a home.

And then, they had a fire.

No one was hurt, and at first, not too much of the house appeared to be damaged — only the upstairs bathroom that was under construction. But after all the assessments, it became apparent the Steeles were going to get a home renovation like they never dreamed.

So they dreamed.

The Steeles bought the 3,750-square-foot house almost 10 years ago. It has four bedrooms and three and a half baths on a spacious half-acre, deep in the heart of Waco. It’s a full house, with two parents and six kids: Lincoln, 9; Owen, 7; Ryan and Hudson, 6; Coleman, 3; and Avery, the only girl, who turns 1 this month.

Michelle said shortly after they adopted Owen through Generations Adoptions, “we found out we were expecting twins. So those boys are nine months apart. That was a wonderful, shocking blessing,” she said.

When the Steeles moved into the house, they only had one child, but Kevin’s mother was also living with them. They liked the neighborhood and its central location.

“Friends lived in this area when I was in college. I liked the older homes,” Michelle said.

For Kevin, who is a physician with the Family Health Center’s Bellmead Community Clinic, it’s only 6.2 miles from work.

Previous owners added onto the house more than once, so until the natural disaster, the Steeles were doing, in Kevin’s words, “a project here and a project there over the last 10 years, to get it how we like it,” he said. “And then we had our major fire March 1.”

The Steeles were having the upstairs bathroom gutted, when it caught fire.

“My babysitter was home with our baby, who was asleep, and I was coming home from the library with the rest of our kids, and Kevin was at work. [The babysitter] was the one who called the fire department. They just ran out the door. And I’m so thankful no one was there because the boys play up there all the time,” Michelle said. “The only part that burned completely was the bathroom. The door was closed to the bedroom, so smoke and heat melted everything in the room and turned it black.”

Kevin added, “The windows were all dark, no light was coming in. And it was painted white before.”

Because the entire house filled with smoke, nearly everything was damaged. While Belfor Property Restoration handled the renovation, the Steeles had to find an alternate place for their large family to live.

“The day after the fire we were looking for hotels, and there were all these events in town, and there wasn’t a single hotel room in all of Waco, much less two, which is what we would need,” Michelle said. “We had some sweet friends let us stay with them until we found an apartment. We ended up staying at a four-bedroom [near] Baylor, so we led the campus life for a little while. The kids thought it was wonderful.”

On the day of the fire the boys were less interested in the fire than in the firetrucks.

“The boys thought it was a great adventure. They came home to firetrucks, and they thought, ‘This is great!’” Kevin said. “The principal of their school [Valor Preparatory Academy] came over and played with them in the backyard while Michelle and I were talking to the emergency people. Someone brought pizza.”

The day after the fire, the boys went to school like it was any school day. They cruised through the whole six weeks of displacement and the following 10 weeks of life in a home undergoing extensive repair. It was a little tougher on baby Avery, whose playpen could only fit in her parents’ closet.

“We were so cozy!” Michelle said. “It got really snug when we moved back in the house.”

For several weeks, life in the home was chaotic, with certain areas cordoned off. The Steeles were living in a construction site with six kids under the age of 10, but no one got hurt.

“The kids would try to play, and there were nails everywhere, just because it was construction. So we started paying them, I think, a penny a nail to pick them up. They’d bring in handfuls,” Michelle said. “I think we’re pretty nail-free now.”

The reconstruction ended July 1, four months after the fire.

“We can see God’s hand in it, providing for our needs every day,” Michelle said. “Now we have a beautiful space we never would have pursued otherwise.”

Kevin says Michelle has always liked to make things beautiful. An example of that is a framed Bible verse in the family room. The phrase is from 1 Peter 4:8, “Love one another deeply,” and it’s written with chalk paint on a small chalkboard. Michelle found an old frame and painted it white. It’s the kind of creative touch visible throughout the home.

“I love doing artsy things. It doesn’t happen very often now, with the children, but I’ve enjoyed redecorating lately,” Michelle said. “Home should not be so much something to display, for other people to like, but just a place for you to be comfortable, a peaceful place of order and rest where kids can be safe and love learning and learn to love each other.”

The upstairs loft, which the four oldest boys share, is exactly that kind of space. It was added in the ’60s or ’70s and was where Kevin’s mother lived until she developed Alzheimer’s and moved into a full-time care facility. Before the fire, the boys’ room held a foosball table, two sets of bunk beds and a couch. There was a lot of fighting about who got to sleep on top and who got to jump off the couch.

“The boys were getting to the age where I was thinking about doing something different but hadn’t done anything,” Michelle said. “So it was fun to dream, once we realized we’d lost everything.”

The dream yielded four loft beds, each with a desk and chair underneath. All the furniture is metal and sturdy, and the four oldest boys have loved having a space of their own. Instead of a death-defying couch, there is a colorful braided rug surrounded by four chairs that sit on the floor and recline. Two green pod chairs swing from the ceiling to provide a calming, peaceful hideaway.

“I came up here today, and everybody was up here, being quiet. They’d all found a chair or a swing, or they were on their bed and just reading or playing,” Michelle said.

She’d like to add shelves and drawers, but for now, the boys make do with a closet. Their colorful school artwork hangs on the walls, and Michelle says it inspired her to make the color scheme of this room mostly black and white, with accents of “super bright color.”

“It’s a happy, fun place,” she said.

It’s also been a cooler place this summer and will be a warmer one, come winter. The renovation meant the room got central air conditioning and heat for the first time. The wood floors were also refinished.

“It’s never felt this good in August,” Kevin said.

The bathroom is 100 percent boy. There are double showers, side by side, like in a dorm or at a camp, so the wait time to get clean has been cut in half. White subway tile replaced the square tub with a soffit.

“It looked like a cave. None of the boys wanted to take a bath or a shower in there,” Kevin said.

Instead of one tiny sink with a faucet that only stuck out about 1 inch, there are now two sinks.

Before the renovations, “getting all five boys to brush their teeth was a circus,” Michelle said.

But although they made many allowances in this boy-centered space, they did draw a line.

“We decided against putting a urinal in,” Kevin said.

The boys’ loft is above the garage and the only upstairs room. Down the stairs is the family room.

“This is where we live,” Michelle said.

The Steeles had already painted the room, foregoing the original Army green, which even graced the ceiling. The play area, which was an addition before they bought the home, can’t be seen from the front door, meaning it can contain a little more mess.

Michelle worked with her mother, who she describes as “super adventurous,” to refinish the fireplace, resetting the bricks and patching the holes and covering the stains where boards had anchored tile over the original brick.

“It looked pretty bad, actually, just stained, and they had holes in it where they’d screwed boards in to hold up the tile,” Michelle said. “That’s why we made it look messy with the mortar to hide the holes and the stains.”

Dayspring Wood Products, in Bruceville, made the mantle and cabinet that hold the TV above the fireplace. The Steeles had previously worked with the company to make all the cabinets in the bathrooms.

Before the fire, friends had given the family a lawyer’s cherry bookcase the size of four regular bookcases. While the family room was walled off with plastic during reconstruction, Michelle painted the bookcase white and filled it with children’s books.

“She used 20,000 coats of white paint,” Kevin joked.

Behind the dark leather couches are built-in shelves that hold tubs, where toys are kept, along with a play rug. Once the kids become teenagers, the Steeles expect the room to become a separate living room for kids and their friends.

In the corner beside the garage, Kevin put together four Ikea closets to hold backpacks, shoes and coats. The family had tried having hooks in the entryway, but it got real cluttered real quick.

“Mounds of coats and shoes everywhere, so it was just this disaster when you walked in the door,” Michelle said.

The white closets keep the mess contained. And there are only four of them — not six.

“As with everything in our family, we share,” Kevin said.

The playroom backs up to the garage. Outside and to the left is a large, square driveway.

“This is part of what made us fall in love with the house, imagining having kids with plenty of space to ride their bikes and play basketball,” Michelle said.

Now they don’t have to imagine. The kids learned to ride bikes in the enclosed space. Now, on summer evenings, Mom and Dad can sit outside and watch the kids play, ride and eat Popsicles.

On the other side of the house is a grassy area with a large playscape. Kevin installed a zip line because the kids enjoyed one at a house where they stayed after the fire. Neighbors told them there used to be a playhouse in the giant pecan tree that shades the backyard.

“We had a neighborhood get-together. People were reminiscing about the house, and one of the things was the big, huge treehouse that was 30 feet up in the air,” Kevin said. “Didn’t sound very safe.”

The Steeles also have chickens. During the fire, the roof of the coop kept the debris from falling into the birds’ area. The chickens were temporarily relocated during the renovation process, but Michelle says they weren’t hurt.

“Who knows how traumatized they were,” Kevin said. “They seemed OK.”

From the backyard, a door leads back into the house and a breakfast nook. Since the space is long and narrow, there’s no room for a small table. Instead, Kevin built a long, narrow table against the back window, so the kids can look out at the backyard. On the other side of the nook is a computer desk with cabinets above. It’s a space to snack or study or work on typing.

A previous owner opened up the kitchen, which originally held the washer and dryer. The square space has an island in the center and views of the backyard, dining room and living room. The Steeles haven’t done much beyond painting the black cabinets white, replacing some of the appliances and adding light fixtures. After the fire, the pine floors were also refinished.

The dining room features a long table with bench seats, but it’s not long enough when the Steeles have company, something they do often.

“Someday we’ll have to get a bigger table,” Michelle said.

Next to the dining room is an area for school. The boys go to Valor, so they are there three days a week and home for two. A short school table with six chairs and a blackboard sets the space aside for learning. A white cabinet stores puzzles, games and school materials. The cabinet has one other feature — a lock.

“For our toddler,” Michelle said.

Often the boys do their work at the dining table or in the breakfast nook.

“We have to spread out, to nip the fussing in the bud,” she said.

The living room’s color scheme — which is true of the entire house — is meant to draw in light, with white trim and cabinets surrounding wood floors. The dark couches are paired with a bright turquoise rug. The wall colors throughout the Steele home are Stonington Gray by Benjamin Moore, except for a few that are white. The living room is dominated by a large picture window, overlooking the front yard.

“It feels like you’re outside,” Kevin said.

The rest of the bedrooms and bathrooms are on the other side of the house.

Ten years ago the Steeles had the half-bath, just off the front entryway, redone, “before we had so many kids and couldn’t do so many projects,” Kevin said. Previous owners converted a shower into a closet, so it was mainly a task of painting and updating fixtures.

The next bedroom is where Coleman, the toddler sleeps, although the twins joined him there during the renovation. Friends donated bunk beds after the fire. When Coleman is ready, he’ll sleep there, but for now, he’s still in a toddler bed.

“There’s too much freedom upstairs, a whole bathroom,” Michelle said, “You can get in a lot of trouble really quick, and he’s still into things.”

After the renovation Avery got to move back into her room, the only one with pink. It has baby space on one side and room for a guest on the other.

“It’s really nice to have a room for her again,” Michelle said, adding that the day the boys moved back upstairs, Avery slept much better.

Three years ago the Steeles redid the guest bathroom that at one point served all the kids. Originally, it had lime green tile with black accents and a tiny sink. They had it opened up, replaced the tile with white subway tile (which has been used in all three full bathrooms), added a second sink, and moved the toilet from beside the tub to facing it. They also replaced the cast-iron bathtub.

“The water wouldn’t stay warm very long,” Kevin said. The new tub has a door that opens outward, and even though it only covers half the tub space, all the water stays inside.

The Steeles’ master bedroom is large, especially for a home built almost 70 years ago. They make the most of the space with a queen-sized bed.

“We’re not king bed people,” Michelle said.

The furniture came from Kevin’s grandparents, and there is a space with two chairs beside a small fireplace where the couple can have a quiet time in the mornings. The master suite has seven closets in all, and the Steeles use every one.

Between the master bedroom and bathroom is a narrow room that was once a sitting area, overlooking the front yard. Before the Steeles bought the house, it had been converted into a laundry room.

“I’m not sure what they did in it. Sit?” Kevin said.

Michelle loves having the laundry room right next to the bedroom.

“We’re running laundry 24/7. I wake up at 5 [a.m.], throw in a load, and it just runs all day,” she said. A pocket door to the bedroom reduces noise, and Kevin turned the old ironing cabinet into a soap cabinet.

The master bathroom was redone seven years ago. It also had lime green tile along with ’70s paneling with texture over some the paneling but not all of it. Michelle called the previous shower “a large green cave.”

“We couldn’t move it. You had to do a backbend to get clean, so we redid it, opened it up,” Kevin said.

For now, the Steeles don’t have big plans for the house. There are small projects on the horizon, mostly outside, but they’re focused on it being a place they can adapt as their children grow. Sometimes the house is a little drafty, and sometimes those beautiful wood floors make lots of noise.

“When all five boys are running through the house, the whole thing kind of shakes a little, thundering from them,” Michelle said. She says she enjoys a house full of little ones, even when there are small disasters, like the epic chocolate milk spill that occurred shortly before the interview.

But for now, they feel like they’re over their quota on bigger disasters. Because the fire wasn’t their first.

The Steeles wed during a tornado, May 2006. The couple met in 2005, when they were both in their late 20s, and married six months later.

“Actually, the night before our wedding, there was a tornado here. Our rehearsal dinner, chaos broke out. No power in half the city,” Kevin said. “We got married at First Baptist [Church]. They had power and a generator. We were covered well there.”

Michelle says the ceremony went on as planned even though no one in the wedding party got to shower.

“Sweet memory!” said Michelle, as she laughed. “We don’t do anything halfway.”

Kevin chimed in, “So tornado, fire, what else?”

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