Heights couple adds apartment on top of garage in home renovation

Shannon and Mitch Ackal had been to some friends’ houses and were impressed by how polished, finished and livable they looked.

Their friends used an interior designer, but the Ackals had picked out their own furniture — a lot of tan and brown — after moving into a spec home. They purchased the house early enough that they got to choose paint colors but could only choose lighting from a specific package. After they saw their friends’ places, they were ready for some new things.

They learned that the designer who’d helped two different friends was Emily C. Butler, a Houston native who worked for Hines for four years before moving to New York and establishing her own firm there. At first they thought working with a designer long-distance might be difficult, but if their friends did it, they could, too. 

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Since their Heights house was fairly new, built in 2015, they didn’t need significant remodeling, just a refresh, starting with the living room in 2018, then, over the course of a couple of years, shifting to the dining room, powder bathroom and kitchen, then tackling a front bedroom they wanted to use as an office and library.

With each successful room completion, the couple gained confidence in their choices.

In the living room, a fireplace was flanked by a pair of built-in cabinets, some of which had glass-front doors. Shannon never felt like they needed all of those cabinets, let alone the glass-front doors, so they changed the doors on one side, then removed the cabinets on the other. In their place, Butler recommended a banquette and table, where the Ackals could play games with their three children — a 15-year-old son, and daughters who are 13 and 11 — or just use as extra seating when friends or family visit.

They brought color in with decorative pillows, in muted shades of red and green.

“Mitch has always been a color person, and Emily likes color, too. I have been converted, I have to say,” said Shannon, 45, who was a neuropsychologist, diagnosing children for cognitive impairment, learning disabilities and psychological issues before shifting to being a stay-home mom in 2016. Mitch, 46, grew up in Houston and New Orleans and is a lawyer at Gray Reed.

While they kept the sisal rug they already had, they bought a new sofa and chaise, plus an acrylic coffee table and a pair of stools topped with tufted cushions. Their son likes to use the table at the banquette for homework, and it came in handy at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when children and adults suddenly found themselves doing schoolwork and jobs from home.

The kitchen’s fixes were simple: new lighting, window treatments and a little wallpaper. The bathroom on the main floor only needed wallpaper, new paint and hardware for the cabinet, a mirror and lighting, but the changes were transformational.

The dining room walls had been gray, with detailed white trim and crown molding, and Butler felt the white millwork was too distracting. So they brought in lots of deep, saturated color with Benjamin Moore’s “Pine Grove” on both the walls and millwork. Vintage chairs were reupholstered; new draperies and a contemporary chandelier added.

The front bedroom that was turned into a home office now makes an impression to anyone who visits, since it’s the first thing they see. Swing doors were replaced with pocket doors and the closet was dismantled, replaced with a built-in desk and shelves.

Butler dressed up the room with dark blue, easy-to-clean vinyl grasscloth wallpaper, painting the trim and shelving a matching deep blue-green (Benjamin Moore’s “Newburg”) and adding wallpaper with a wood grain on the ceiling. 

“This is Emily’s masterpiece,” Mitch raved. “It has been fun to do this in phases, because it gave us something to look forward to. There’s this huge excitement factor about it.”

The challenge was a grand piano, which Shannon played growing up. It had been in storage but was refinished before bringing it into the house and placing it in the library. It takes up a lot of room, but they still had space for a comfortable chair and a bar cart.

When the room was done, the Ackals considered their house finished, but they still had one more need: extra room for parents who visited often.

Up until then, one of the kids would be displaced for a while, even if the visit was for a week or more. They decided to add a second-story apartment to their detached, two-car garage.

Butler helped with choosing finishes and furnishing the apartment, but they called in Sarah Hannah, an architect and the owner of Four Square Design Studio, to design the structure, and Eddie Romeo of Bayou City Builders for construction.

In addition to adding 10 feet to the width of the structure to have a three-car garage, they added more support for the new second story.

“Accessory dwelling units” that a homeowner can rent are becoming increasingly popular throughout Houston, and garage apartments are common in the Heights, where lot sizes tend to be small and additions come with a variety of limitations.

The Ackals wanted theirs to reflect the style of the house and not be just another box on top of the garage.

Because it would be frequently used by Mitch’s parents or by Shannon’s mother or her dad and his wife, they also wanted it to be just as nice as their main house.

When grandparents visit their children and grandchildren, they enjoy the time together, but there’s always a point when they’d like to get away to a place that’s quiet and has more privacy. That’s what the Ackals had in mind when they created their “Ack Shack,” so named by their youngest daughter.

It’s a generous 757 square feet and has a living room, kitchen with a banquette seating area, bedroom and full bath. Tucked into the bedroom suite are a stacked washer and dryer.

They used Sandberg wallpaper (“Raphael” in green) and Venato marble tile in the bathroom, a king-size bed and pretty bedding from Biscuit in the bedroom and Italian Bertazzoni appliances in the kitchen.

Both the living room and kitchen walls are covered in shiplap that’s been painted white and have transoms and door casings that mimic those in the main house. The living room can do double duty if there are extra guests, since its sofa has a foldout bed.

They bought one natural stone slab and used some on the bathroom counter and shower and used the rest for a floating shelf that runs around two walls of the kitchen over the walnut counters. Because the Ackals enjoy their living room banquette so much, they didn’t hesitate to use an even bigger one in this apartment.

After power losses during hurricanes and winter storms, Mitch wanted a whole-home generator for the garage apartment. If another storm every knocks out power to the main house, the family of five could live in this apartment if they needed to.

In the process, the couple came to appreciate the aesthetic value of nice lighting, and even Mitch embraced picking out décor. When Shannon asked him to go on antiquing trips to Round Top, he was happy to do so.

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