By Gabrielle.

Buying land and building a home takes so much more than a clear vision. There’s always a headache-inducing budget involved, isn’t there? Made all the more agonizing when that budget keeps increasing throughout the process! Because you want that gorgeous wood floor, that dazzling light fixture and all the others that coordinate, and spectacular kitchen drawer pulls and – darn it! – they’re custom. It must be hard to reconcile dreams and dollars. Carey and her husband’s plan almost didn’t make it to the kitchen cabinet hardware, but luckily they were rescued by a contractor with a heart (and vision) of gold. This is a good story with a beautiful ending, and one to which I probably mega relate because of our French cottage! For those of you also in the midst of building fever, read on (and good luck!). Friends, meet Carey Denman!

Q: Tell us all about the lucky family who calls this place home!

A: My husband Jory and I live here with our four children: Ella, Samuel, William, and Amelia. Ella is eight and has a penchant for horses and anything that sparkles. Our second born child, Samuel, is seven and loves Legos, balloons, and pancakes. William, five, has a mischievous streak a mile wide; he has been known to paint his whole body with black paint and has a fondness for anything on wheels. And Amelia, our fun-loving three-year-old, usually has a doll tucked under her arm and a bag stuffed full of miscellany draped over her shoulder.

I homeschool this raucous bunch and write a column about the adventures of parenting for my local newspaper. I also tend to a large garden that makes my heart happy, and dabble in making herbal concoctions. My husband is a nurse at a nearby hospital, an avid outdoorsman, and a man dedicated to loving our children in real and tangible ways.

Q: How did this home become yours?

A: We bought a piece of land thinking that we’d eventually like to build a home in the country. I called a couple of contractors just to get a feel for what the process would entail, and one of those contractors actually called me back! I was honest and said that we weren’t entirely sure that we had the financial resources to build, and he graciously agreed to meet with us to take a look at our land and to discuss how the building process works.

We wanted a smallish home with quality details in the spirit of the popular “Not So Big House” books. So we took these ideas to a draftsman to get a blueprint drawn. A few weeks later, we met with the contractor over dinner. He rolled out the blueprint over the tabletop and handed us a written bid. I’ll never forget how I broke out in a cold sweat in the blue vinyl booth where we were sitting! I stared down at the number, hoping that my husband had more courage than I did to say something. He didn’t. After a few moments, I finally said, “I’m so sorry to have wasted your time, but we couldn’t possibly afford to build this home.”

Amazingly, the contractor didn’t get upset, but instead explained how the choices we’d made contributed to an unexpectedly high price tag: things like a long roof line, lots of windows, and premium doors.

After ten o’clock that night, the phone rang. When I answered, I heard the contractor’s excited voice: “Do you like dormers?” he asked. Somewhat incredulously, I replied, “Yes. I like dormers. Why do you ask?” He explained that he understood what kind of home we wanted to build and that he wanted to work with us. He agreed to draw us a new house plan (a two-story) that would let us create a home with character, while still keeping our budget intact.

In retrospect, we understand that having a contractor like this was nothing short of miraculous. He never balked at my long list of questions, and he even called me when the painter registered surprise with the paint I’d chosen for the exterior doors. “It’s really green,” he cautioned. “Are you sure you want to go ahead?”

In the end, we spent a little more than we anticipated, but we were able to build a truly custom house that fits our budget and our lifestyle. What’s more, I learned a lot during the building process. Like, don’t fear the unknown. Ask lots of questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for exactly what you want. And don’t fear dark colors on a home’s exterior; yes even really green doors!

Q: What makes you love the place you live?

A: We live in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Mt. Rushmore is just a few minutes away from our house, along with thousands of miles of forested trails and a dozen or more small lakes. This area has a rich history (Hello, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock!) and a depth of unsurpassed beauty.

In the winter, we go sledding and play broom-ball on a nearby pond. In the spring, we watch for the first blue bird to return and keep an eye out for the first blooming crocus. (My father offers a small reward to the child who first spots these harbingers of the season.) The summer is overflowing with goodness: trips to the lake, picking wild raspberries and juneberries, camping and hiking in the many wilderness areas. In the fall, we enjoy a profusion of colors in the hills, while temperatures remain warm enough to take picnics and hit a few more trails.

What’s more, we have the privilege of enjoying a variety of wildlife from out our front door. We regularly have deer and turkeys passing through here, but we’ve also seen bobcats, mountain lions, and elk. Of all these creatures, elk are the most majestic; their size and presence almost seem surreal.

As for our home itself, we love it because it is truly reflects who we are as a family. We’ve spent a lot of time putting our personal stamp on the outdoor spaces; my husband and my father-in-law cut each one of the fence pickets by hand, while our kids rambled around them. We’ve planted a tree to commemorate the birth of each of our children. The peonies are transplants from my husband’s grandmother, and the irises by the back door came from my great grandmother. Everywhere we look, we find meaning and connection in our home’s landscape.

Q: Describe your style. Did it evolve with the appearance of your kids?

A: I would describe my style as comfortably elegant. I love beautiful, time-worn finishes and objects that have a story to tell, but I don’t hold out anything as too precious. I believe the things in our home are meant to be used and enjoyed. Accordingly, we eat from mismatched china that we put in the dishwasher. We display our children’s art as part of a larger gallery. We make room to showcase the rocks, feathers, and antler sheds they’ve found. I even have a piece of bleached-out deer jawbone on display because my daughter was so excited by her find.

If anything, I would say that my children have helped to refine my style. My children are inherently curious and endlessly creative; they are born naturalists and have an uncanny ability to celebrate the simple things in life. They’ve given me a new perspective on what it means to make a home personal, beautiful, and comfortable.

Q: How do your kids make a design impact on the home? Do their personalities come into play in color or clutter?

A: My children are all magpies. They pick up all kinds of little things that they want to bring home. When you have four children, and ones who share bedrooms at that, it doesn’t take long before you feel as though you’re awash in flotsam and jetsam. We’ve made peace with this stuff by giving each child a basket where they can store their treasures. And as long as it isn’t alive and it fits in the basket, it can be in their rooms.

Beyond this, my children haven’t registered strong preferences for their spaces. I’m certain that the time will come when they ask for more freedom in their design choices, but for now, they get excited when I rearrange the furniture or hang a new painting in their rooms.

Q: Do you consciously decorate a room to dictate how you spend time in it?

A: When we built this house eight years ago, we only had one child who was just six months old. We had no idea that we would end up having four children in five years, nor could we have anticipated how much stuff comes along with a family of six. Accordingly, we decided to convert our two-car garage into a dedicated play space and extra bedrooms for our growing family. We didn’t even miss the garage space knowing that we now had a place where the kids could spread out with their playthings.

To keep this play space in order, and to corral all the materials we need for homeschooling our kids, we’ve invested in several freestanding vintage cabinets. These cabinets keep the visual clutter to a minimum, and allow us to have a place for everything. What’s more, cabinets make most everything accessible for our kids. The family mantra is “If it requires climbing, it requires permission.” Glitter is solidly in the needs permission category.

All my kids still have an hour of quiet time every day. They all choose their own space – the screen porch, the window seat, the guestroom, or even their own bedroom – and bring along books and art supplies to keep them occupied. It’s been part of our daily routine for so long that even the older kids generally don’t balk at the idea of having some time to themselves. I have a personal rule that I don’t do any housework during this hour, but use the time to rest or read a book.

Q: When does your home work best for you and yours?

A: For years, it was so difficult to leave the house for even the simplest of errands, so I just didn’t do it. Instead, I instituted regular at-home rhythms that let us all feel comfortable knowing what came next. We’re finally to a point where everyone can get themselves dressed and brush their own teeth! I joke that it feels like I’ve emerged from a long, dark tunnel.

Though we now can leave the house with less drama, we’re still a family who relishes being at home together. I love that homeschooling means we have the leisure of slow mornings, where the kids wander down for breakfast and paint a picture or read a book while they’re waiting for the rest of their siblings. In general, I’d describe us as a free-range family. We consider childhood sacred, and we’re glad that we can give the kids lots of freedom to enjoy unstructured play.

In the colder months, our fireplace is the hub of our house. We play games of Scrabble and Memory together, read books, and put puzzles together.   We create artwork, or even just snuggle on the couch.

Q: If you could make sure your kids remembered one thing from this home, what would it be?

A: I hope my kids will remember and treasure our family rituals and traditions that are tied to this house. Every Saturday morning, I make homemade cinnamon rolls with drippy powdered sugar frosting. On Sundays, we observe Popcorn Sunday; I pop a big bowl of popcorn, and cut up cheese and fruit, and we spread out on the floor in front of the fireplace, reading out loud to the kids while they stuff their faces with popcorn. At Christmas, we go out into the forest to cut down our own tree. At Easter, we host an egg hunt and a potluck brunch with family and friends. On their birthdays, we decorate their bedroom door so they wake to a streamers and balloons. I hope that these memories become like a tapestry of richly woven thread in their lives.

I also hope that when the day comes for them to leave our home that they will miss Saturday mornings gathered around the table.

Q: What has been your favorite part about living with your own kids? What is the best lesson they’ve taught you? What do you already miss about this time?

A: My kids have challenged me to consider what I believe about the essence of childhood and mothering. They have pressed me and befuddled me, while shaping me into a more patient and compassionate person. Even now, my heart skips a beat when I think about them leaving this home to make lives of their own, but I want nothing more for them than to be strong, independent individuals who look for beauty and possibility in every aspect of their lives.

Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…

A: I wish someone had told me how much I would love motherhood. I would have started having children much sooner, and perhaps had a larger family.

I wish I’d known, too, that it’s more than a cliché that the time with children moves fast. Not that long ago, I had three children in diapers. Now the youngest of my four is pedaling a bike without training wheels. My heart swells until it feels like it might burst when I think about these kids and their joy, enthusiasm, and zest for life. I wish, too, that I’d written down more of the details of their lives, because despite what I might have believed, I cannot remember so much that I want to revisit.

I have been immeasurably blessed to have this family and this home to enjoy so many of life’s pleasures. I couldn’t ask for anything more.


Thank you so much, Carey! I loved looking at your life today while listening to your thoughts. And really, one of my favorite thoughts of all time is this: I couldn’t ask for anything more. How lovely that you recognize the beauty that is your everyday.

For those of you building your dream home, has your budget gotten in your way? What’s the most frivolous item on your wish list was able to push through all those serious numbers? In retrospect, are you  glad you held your ground?

P.S. — Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here. And if you’d like to share your own home with us, just send me a note! It’s a lot of fun…I promise!