Kathleen Vohs, a professor and department chair at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, is a respected academic who has spent decades studying various aspects of consumer psychology such as decision fatigue, the difference between a happy and meaningful life and the psychology of money.
Before the pandemic, she spent a lot of time on the road, conducting research and talking about her work. When she was in town, Vohs lived contentedly in a loft near downtown Minneapolis.
That changed in 2020.
"My life came to a screeching halt — no travel, no in-person classes or meetings. I was spending every minute in my condo," Vohs said.
Suddenly she had time to think and reflect. And it wasn't just the limitations of her physical space that Vohs thought about. "Staying put gave me a new level of self-awareness and a lot to sit with. I started asking myself if this living situation was serving me."
The short answer was no, and the solution was bigger than just a change of address. Vohs was ready for a new phase of life that would include a more profound attachment, belonging and connection to her home and community — what scientists call a sense of place and grandma calls putting down roots.
Vohs decided to trade in condo life for a single-family home. For help, she turned to someone with whom she already had a deep attachment, her younger sister Betsy Vohs, a designer and the owner of Studio BV, who had retooled her own home in 2019.
Kathleen's criteria included a not-too-big house with room to entertain, outdoor space and a reasonable commute to the university. The last item was non-negotiable.
"I've seen too much research about the inverse link between commute time and happiness," she said.
Betsy found the online listing for the 1905 two-story in East Isles and scheduled and attended the showing. She also brought along her contractor.
"Betsy said if I didn't buy it, she would," said Kathleen.
Modest for the neighborhood at a little over 2,300 square feet, it needed updates but was the right price and size with good bones and a private backyard. Plus, it was only a 10-minute drive to the university and close to Lake of the Isles, Kathleen's favorite walking loop.
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Right off the bat, the sisters were in sync that this renovation would focus squarely on Kathleen's needs and not resale. The idea of buying a place and staying put had taken hold during the pandemic and she was committed to it.
"I often talk to my grad students about the fact that a growing segment of households in America is single people living alone and that business needs to start crafting things for their lives," said Kathleen. "So many houses I looked at were huge and designed for families. You could say I put my money where my mouth was."
Betsy took the lead in designing and carrying out the house's transformation, enlisting a team that included architectural designer Max Windmiller to draw up the plans. Their approach led to a somewhat radical decision to overhaul the second floor and eliminate all but one of the bedrooms, creating what is essentially a giant, multi-room owner's suite.
The extra bedrooms were converted into a walk-in closet and en suite bathroom, a tailored office with treetop views and a hand-painted mural (which also makes a stylish Zoom background) and a bright workout space with mirrors and a coffee bar so Kathleen can grab an espresso or water during work or after exercising.
"The gym's location is one way we integrated wellness into this project," Kathleen said. "I use it more in a way I wouldn't if it was in the basement because it's convenient, bright and beautiful."
They didn't overlook the lower level, though — it was also renovated and now features a bright guest bedroom, bathroom and secondary lounge area.
The main floor was updated to create a more open area and improve flow for entertaining. They removed walls and splurged on moving the living room fireplace, replacing it with a new gas-burning version with glossy teal tiles and a white wood surround.
"It was originally on the long side of the living room, which made it difficult to have a good seating area," Betsy said. "So we moved it to the far end to give the room more depth and now have a variety of seating options."
Black and white and just right
The sisters chose a classic black-and-white color scheme throughout the house to give it a sophisticated, somewhat modern feel.
The kitchen has slim, Shaker-style black cabinets, white, elongated subway tile backsplash and quartz countertops in a bold, abstract design. A built-in nook on one sunny end provides a comfy space for Kathleen to eat or work. When company is over, it becomes the regular perch for guests while she's cooking.
Importantly, the kitchen now has sightlines to the dining room and a peninsula with a wine fridge that can act as a buffet, both of which make entertaining more manageable and fun.
For finishing touches, the sisters chose pieces from local artists. The office mural is by Emily Quandahl, and Lisa Nankivil painted the oil over the couch. The fireplace tiles are from Mercury Mosaic, and the pendants in the eating nook are by Minneapolis-based Hennepin Made.
Classic elegance, contemporary living
Betsy also overhauled the home's mechanical systems, added insulation, replaced all the windows and put on a new roof to maximize performance and minimize maintenance. "Old houses need new systems at some point. Now it has the efficiency of a new house with all the gorgeous details of a 100-year-old home," she said.
The project became more meaningful when the sisters' mother, Jane Vohs, died during the pandemic. "One of the last things my mom was able to do was come see my house, and she was so deeply happy because she knew what a big deal this was for me. I feel grateful for that," Kathleen said.
She's also grateful to have had her sister at her side throughout the experience.
"Betsy is such a wellspring of ideas, creativity and possibility," Kathleen said. "She picked up things about me that I wouldn't have known how to translate into my house."
With the home makeover now complete, Kathleen is hosting Christmas this year for her close-knit family, which includes her dad, two sisters, brother and sister-in-law, a niece and two nephews.
"These are the most important people in my life, and I'm so happy to be able to offer them this level of comfort," she said.
Laurie Junker is a Twin Cities-based writer specializing in home design and architecture.