Rising from the Ashes

By Susan Bean Aycock

The Smith family rebuilds less than one year after a devastating fire

Pictured: photos by Breanne Johnson, breannejohnsonphotography.com

Just over a year ago the Smith family was happily settled into their traditional home on a beautiful, wooded lot sloping down to Lake Waco. The house caught fire on August 7, 2022, and the structure was unsalvageable. The Smiths lived in temporary housing for the entire school year. Ten months to the day following the fire, they moved back into a brand-new modern home on the same lot.

Jeremiah and Sonja met in college in Toronto, Canada. He’s a United States citizen who grew up in Canada; she’s a Canadian who is a permanent resident of the U.S. By 2019, after a few years of marriage, the Smiths were planning to make a big change in their lives — to move their family and small homebuilding business permanently to the United States.

“God was leading us to make a big change for our family,” Sonja said. “We wanted a smaller town, a slower pace of life and to raise the kids in the States. We also prefer warm weather. God put it on our hearts to come to Waco and, long story short, one of the three houses we looked at is the house we bought, the one that burned down. The house itself wasn’t special, but the yard, with its lake access for the kids, was what drew us to this property.”

Sonja and Jeremiah are the owners of Modern Haven Design, which uses organic finishes. Jeremiah says the couple had dreamed of renovating the old house, but they put it off.

“Costs kept going up after the pandemic,” he said.

And then the fire happened.

That Sunday started out as an ordinary day for the Smiths and their three kids — sons Denver and Troy and daughter Mckinlee, who were then 10, 8 and 6-and-a-half. The family ate breakfast and went to church, as they did most Sundays. Afterward Sonja and the kids spent a few hours setting up their homeschool room: organizing books; hanging the chalkboard and other decorations; and setting up the table, chairs and rug. They snapped some photos to send to the kids’ grandparents. The next morning, they planned to start school. Jeremiah smoked some jalapeño poppers to take to a friend’s 40th birthday party later that afternoon.

“I remember pulling up to our friend’s house and specifically deciding to leave my purse and phone in the car so I could be out-of-pocket and intentional,” Sonja said.

But then their neighbors saw smoke and called Jeremiah.

“We’d only been at the party about 30 minutes when our neighbors called and asked if we were running our smoker because they saw smoke. And we thought it was just residual from earlier,” Jeremiah said. “But our neighbor went over and saw a lot of smoke at the peak of the house because it turned out that our electrical panel had caught fire. By the time I got to the house, I think we had the entire public safety staff of Woodway here. They had to cut a hole in the roof to put the fire hoses in.”

Sonja stayed behind at the birthday party, unconcerned.

“I thought it was just some smoke at the house from using the smoker earlier. When Jeremiah didn’t come back after almost three hours, I knew something more serious had happened. I was thinking, ‘If something has gone really wrong, we need to be calm and positive when we tell the kids,’” Sonja said. “Jeremiah called our friend’s phone to tell me about the fire. I told all of our friends and waited at the party for Jeremiah to come back to their house. They loaded up our SUV with air mattresses and blankets. Mckinlee had just broken her arm, and we were going to get her hard cast on the next morning. The x-rays were in the house, and the reality of the fire really hit me when I realized that.”

Sonja discussed the fire with the kids on the way to the house to salvage what they could.

“I tried to focus on the fact that we were all safe and OK,” she said. “It was dark by then, so Jeremiah had to shine a flashlight for us to see that everything was smoky and dripping water. I mindlessly threw clothing into a suitcase that we had to wash immediately before wearing because everything smelled so bad.”
The family’s insurance company covered interim housing, and a house became available immediately.

“My sister and brother-in-law had just moved out of their house in Speegleville, and their house was available for us to rent,” Jeremiah said. “We moved in that first night.”

The couple tried to make things as normal as possible for the kids.

“We tucked the kids in bed at Jeremiah’s sister’s home, started laundry and then we just sat together on their couch and talked and prayed for a while before trying to sleep,” she said.

The majority of the damage to the house came from smoke — not fire.

“We didn’t have a ton of actual fire damage. It was smoke damage, with that awful electrical smell, and water damage from them putting out the fire. Still, because of that, the house was a total gut. So, we started thinking we might as well look at that ‘future renovation plan’ that we’d been thinking about,” Jeremiah said. “I had worked for a restoration company for a year-and-a-half, so thankfully I was able to have clarity on the steps we needed to do. We got a contract drawn up and were able to move into our family member’s house the first night. Thankfully, that house had dishes and a table and chairs, and we just had to have our clothes.”

The clothes they brought didn’t take up much room.

“We just grabbed some clothes. We found we only needed a couple of suitcases to live life — we learned a lot in that way,” Sonja said. “Because of the smoke damage we had to gut the old house to the studs. It was down to just a rectangular frame of brick, a shell. The restoration company packed everything else up.”

The Smiths had already planned to have their company, Modern Haven Design, do a partial renovation on their home — now it was a total rebuild.

“We knew that one day we wanted to renovate our old house, and we’d already had plans ready for six months before the house burned. What we ended up with wasn’t exactly those plans, but it’s very similar,” Jeremiah said.

The family’s temporary residence was only 18 minutes from their lot, which was a good thing because the renovation took longer than expected.

“In our company we’re proud of our ability to be efficient and get things done quickly. But with this build it just wasn’t going to happen that way,” Jeremiah said. “Code dictated redoing the electrical, and in Woodway, if we renovated 50% or more of the home, it had to be replatted. We didn’t realize that the lot had never been platted, back in the 1960s. It’s usually a six-month process, and they won’t give a building permit until it’s done. We were able to speed up the process somewhat, but it was still a four-and-a-half-month wait.”

A platting company was already working on a build down the street.

“There are only a handful [of platting companies] in Waco, and Bowman was one of only two that do work for Woodway. We got the permit and started building in mid-January of this year. We had already demo’d, and the lumber package had been sitting out front for two months, but that wait gave us more time to lay out the new house the way we wanted it,” Jeremiah said. “The old house had 8-foot ceilings. We’d replaced the windows and doors and were slowly upgrading. There was different flooring in every room, different textures on every ceiling and wall. The living room had engineered hardwood, but the rest of the floors were cheap linoleum and broken tile.”

The variety of styles reflected the variety of homeowners through the years. But by Christmas, the family was eager to return to their house.

“That Christmas was really hard, but it made us consider what was important to us,” Sonja said. “We had lost our Christmas tree and all of our ornaments, so the kids and I made ornaments, and one of our friends gifted us a star for the top of the tree.”

The Smiths had always been minimalists, but this experience stretched them.

“When we moved from Canada, if it didn’t fit into a 6-by-12-foot trailer, it didn’t come,” Jeremiah said. “Living 10 months with even less, we realized how much more you can live without. It was a good refresher course in thinking minimally. Losing nearly everything in the fire was definitely an eye-opener as to how much we didn’t need.”

Sonja says the fire helped them focus on what is most important — faith and family.

“It made us realize that you can find joy wherever you are, and that if your family is healthy and happy, that’s really the only thing that matters,” she said. “You can make plans for the future, but they can change in an instant. You need to be able to find joy in each day. You need to be thankful for what you have and be open to how God might completely change your life.”

The hardest part was allowing others to help them.

“We always wanted to help the community with our building company, but now we had to learn to be humble and let others help us. And we had so much help!” Sonja said. “We had several weeks of meals from our church, Highland Baptist, because everything in our pantry was lost in the fire. Our neighbors Chris and Salley Schmid called and checked in on us, even offered us a place to stay. Another neighbor, Dr. Randy Smith, was hosing down the house when Jeremiah first got the call and came home to find the house on fire. People bringing us meals was so helpful because we had lost all our food — we didn’t have spices or anything. People loaned us things so that we had a cushion of time to replace essential items, like bedding.”

People were so generous that the Smiths eventually had to tell them, “‘We’ve got things covered — we’re good for now,’” Jeremiah said. “We were definitely blessed by community and friends, church and neighbors. We had to allow ourselves the humility to accept help. In our Western civilization, people don’t want to be too vulnerable. You have to let people be the blessing they want to be and not take away their opportunity to help you.”

Sonja is grateful they were able to save what was sentimental and irreplaceable — their photos.

“From an experience like this, you get perspective on what’s important: It’s people, not material items. Hard times draw you closer together as a family,” she said. “We were very open with the kids on what we were walking through, and we prayed together often. Our hope was that walking through our trials together would teach the kids that they could handle difficult times with joy in the future. Going through something like that also helps you realize how you can bless and help someone else going through a similar trial.”

Jeremiah learned a little bit more about the building process and how delays can impact families.

“It was difficult, but now I’ve been contacted by members of the Woodway City Council, asking me how they could be more efficient in the permit process,” he said.

One thing is certain — it’s a year the Smiths will never forget.

“It was already momentous because we had just decided that week to start homeschooling, and that’s when the fire happened. But we were all able to be part of the decision-making and rebuilding process,” Sonja said. “We tried to give the kids age-appropriate tasks because we wanted them to feel pride that they had contributed. The boys built one of the bathroom vanities completely on their own. The kids each got to pick a Bible verse to write on the studs of each of their rooms. They were amazing throughout the whole process.”

Both Sonja and Jeremiah tried to stay positive through the long months of renovation.

“All the time we were living in Speegleville, we had to drive back and forth to Waco for fall sports and the job site, and the kids never complained, even though it was about 20 minutes each way,” Sonja said. “Kids feed off your emotions and attitudes, and we tried to be open and honest with them, but also point out God’s faithfulness. Jeremiah and I often talked about having to be patient with the process, but we really had to keep that in mind and practice it — especially with the permit delays.”

The Smiths decided to design and build the new house to be not only sleek and modern, but also as energy efficient as possible to offset the new two-story windows and open downstairs living space.

“There were changes we wanted to make from the old house,” Jeremiah said. “We love natural light, but people shy away from big windows in Texas because of the heat. But with building science — insulation, quality of window seals, reflective films and actual mechanical equipment — you can create a much more efficient home. The new house has ceilings two-and-a-half times higher, with an extra 800-square-feet, but our utility bills are the same. The second floor took some tweaking. We couldn’t expand out without an escarpment plan on this high-slope lot, so going up avoided us having to waste more time. We got solid ash wood from Mesquite Valley Woodcrafts and built our dream mono-stringer open staircase.”

The entryway and main living space with open-concept kitchen are expansive, rising to a maximum height of 30 feet and showcasing two-story windows that bring in loads of natural light. The staircase, with open bare-wood treads and cable bannisters, leads to the second story. That level features an open balcony to the downstairs, two bedrooms and a shared bathroom for the kids. Downstairs are the main bedroom, a guest room and another bedroom appropriated as a homeschooling classroom, plus three bathrooms. The schoolroom chalkboard once belonged to General Douglas McArthur, though the family can’t quite remember how it came to them.

“There are three HVAC mechanical zones to help with keeping the open concept plan energy efficient. The ceilings in our main living area are 19 to 30 feet high, and the space is completely open. There was no place for ductwork, so we had to come up with a plan for that. The windows are upgraded quality with better seals and reflective film. Everything is spray-foam insulation, and the 2-by-6-foot walls allow for deeper insulation. Everything is LED electrical lighting, which uses one-tenth the energy of standard incandescent bulbs. Those LED bulbs last 50,000 hours. We also have a tankless hot water system. The old hallway was a big zigzag and only 30 inches wide because there used to be a master bedroom addition with a separate entrance and exit. So, we changed the layout to create an open hallway,” Jeremiah said. “All that’s left to do now is paint the exterior and cover the back deck.”

The Smith family is, essentially, the same as it was when the fire occurred, just a little older. Sonja and Jeremiah have now been married 14 years. The kids are now 11, 9 and 7-and-a-half and are dual citizens of the U.S. and Canada. They live on the same lot, have the same neighbors and go to the same church. But in other ways they are not the same family at all. They’ve lived through a literal fire and come out the other side. Their viewpoints on life and what matters have been changed forever, though within an eternal context that is forever the same.

“We have a family Bible verse that we wrote on the studs of the new house,” Jeremiah said. “Psalm 48:14 says, ‘For this God is our God for ever and ever; He will be our guide even to the end.’”