I love a house with character,” says Kimberly Szubinski, a lively blonde with a 1,000-watt smile and natural Southern-born hospitality. She is moving about her lovely, sunlit kitchen making coffee as she discusses life in the renovation fast lane. “It doesn’t matter what architectural style – just the more dilapidated, the better,” she pronounces enthusiastically. Her current home, a study in the timeless perfection of cottage white, doesn’t look at all dilapidated. But when she and her husband, Clint, a lawyer-turned-real estate developer, bought it in 2008, a palm tree had fallen on it; the slate roof had caved in; and it was infested with termites, covered with mold and inhabited by a family of raccoons.
While others might have found the project daunting, the Szubinskis recognized the charm and potential of the house’s 1920s Spanish Revival architecture right away. Kimberly recalls spying what she thought was a courtyard beneath layers of overgrown vines and mounds of debris, noticing original gas lanterns and detecting arched openings beneath French doors that had been squared off. The couple wasted no time digging in with the same talent and tenacity that had already seen them through 14 other renovations. With more than 3,600 square feet, including a basement level; a footprint that allows for both open and private areas; and a good-size yard, it provided ample space for their four children and an endless array of possibilities. “It’s hard to find a house with all those angles and roof pitches,” explains Kimberly. “New construction like that would be very expensive to build.”
Friends of the Szubinskis liken them to the fashionable Manhattan husband and wife featured in the Bravo reality television series 9 By Design. Both couples have houses full of children, a love of family life and a nonstop passion for real estate development and design. While Clint works as an executive for Meritage Homes, a national home-building company based in Phoenix, Kimberly’s company, aptly named k.home, renovates residential and commercial properties at the local level. Katrina solidified her commitment to preserving and restoring the architectural beauty of the family’s native New Orleans, a task of which she never tires. “Even with several projects going on at the same time, I’m always ready for the next thing,” says Kimberly, who also gives due credit to her business partner, Donna Wolff, and to Iberia Bank, both of whom share her commitment to rebuilding the city.
Staying true to a house’s individual architectural integrity is key to Kimberly’s knack for renovating, but so is her skill for bringing a fresh, modern sensibility to each of the houses she tackles. The secret to both is in the details. Having developed a trusted stable of tradesmen and a hands-on approach that keeps her involved in everything from the nuts and bolts of the space-planning and framing processes to the finishing touches of the décor, she treats every house as if it were her own. It’s a method that has served her well. Buyers appreciate the quality of her designs, the natural light that fills them and the all-white backdrops that are her trademark. “The white creates a blank canvas, and it makes things pop,” she says. “The majority of people can picture their own style against a blank canvas.”
The look Kimberly herself prefers against the clean backdrop is a perfect amalgamation of white-on-white: whitewashed floors; bleachable slipcovers; and pale, painted surfaces – all mixed with handpicked touches such as antique cypress doors and light-reflecting objects such as crystal doorknobs, chandeliers and mercury glass. Soft accents of color are incorporated with pillows, paintings, stacks of books and vintage china, some of it found serendipitously in houses that she has renovated; vibrant splashes of color are usually reserved for displays of fresh flowers, one of the few household indulgences with a less-than-lengthy life span. Green design, in fact, is an important component in each of the homes that are Home Energy Rating System, or HERS, rated and feature Icynene spray foam insulation; low-flow plumbing fixtures; energy-efficient HVACs, windows and appliances; tankless gas water heaters; and low VOC paint. Kimberly always uses as much of the frame and foundation structure as possible; purchases lighting, trim materials and hardware from local salvage shops; and frequently refurbishes curbside finds. Her attic is filled with mirrors, medicine cabinets and old doors torn out from previous renovations. The rusty demilune cabinet that serves as a sideboard on her patio was once a bathroom vanity, and the mirror in the entryway of her bedroom was found along the road in Palm Beach, Fla.
The heart of the Szubinski home is the roomy, centrally located kitchen, where the family gathers for meals and the kids do their homework, and the adjacent brick courtyard, which has a French country feel that’s very much in sync with Kimberly’s appreciation for the work of architect A. Hays Town. “The whole house kind of revolves around the patio, especially with the kitchen overlooking it,” she says. But no part of the split-level house is off-limits to the couple’s active brood. Kimberly covers the upholstered furnishings with inexpensive, washable slipcovers – Shabby Chic designer Rachel Ashwell is a favorite source of inspiration – and cherishes the memories and stories that daily wear and tear impart to her surroundings. “Scratches, stains and dents add character,” she says, pointing out a cockeyed bit of crystal on a chandelier knocked about earlier in the day by an indoor game of soccer. “They show that a house is well-lived-in. With every gathering, every holiday, every birthday party, a home develops a pretty patina over time. You can update and restore a house, but a quality renovation is always a little eclectic and off.”