Couples working together to influence the style of Abilene homes
By Wendy Kilmer
With the popularity and, ultimately, household-name status of Fixer Upper stars Chip and Joanna Gaines, the image of working with a spouse to build, renovate and decorate homes in a small(ish) Texas town has taken on a new level of glamour.
A joke here, a kiss there, some collaboration, some demolition, a healthy dash of shiplap, a sprinkling of cute kids – and television magic is born.
A few of the couples who work together to add style and substance in Abilene’s homes tend to agree that the integration of marriage and career does have its challenges, television cameras or not. But overall, they say combining two people’s strengths and talents with the familiarity and convenience of a spouse has significant benefit.
Of course, these aren’t just any couples; among these six Abilenians, they boast backgrounds and expertise in construction, remodeling, interior design, real estate law, architecture, project management, and more – certainly the ingredients necessary for cooking up stylish homes around Abilene.
Home builder Lucas Gibbs grew up in Abilene, a graduate of Abilene High, and later Abilene Christian University, where he earned an interdisciplinary degree combining business management and pre-architecture. In his first week at ACU, he met interior design major Rebecca Steffins, and they began dating during their junior year and married in 2008. After graduation, Lucas spent four years working in various home-building trades around Abilene, including carpentry, electrical, plumbing and framing, before heading to Lipscomb University in Nashville to pursue a master’s degree in sustainable practices.
Rebecca, meanwhile, worked for Lynda Gilreath at Abilene Interior Design for four years, then for Beth Haley Design in Nashville. In 2013, the couple returned to Abilene.
“We knew we wanted to start a family, and his family lived here, and we wanted a smaller home town,” Rebecca said.
Familiarity with the people and places played a role in their careers as well.
“I wanted to be a builder, and I knew it would be easier where people already know you,” Lucas said. “The guys I had worked with in plumbing, sheetrock, framing, carpentry are now who I use for subcontractors.”
Their return to Abilene spurred new business ventures for each, as Lucas Gibbs Homes and Rebecca Gibbs Interior Design took shape.
“Our companies are separate, but probably 70-90 percent of out clients overlap,” Lucas said. “Some of my customers don’t need a designer, and some of hers don’t need a contractor, but the majority of them use both.”
Rebecca typically draws floor plans for the houses that Lucas builds. She consults with the homeowners on style choices and design in both his new construction projects and remodels. Although their work is related, both agree that they have no problem staying their own lanes.
“To be honest, I don’t give much input,” Lucas said, about the design aspect of homes. “It’s very straightforward: she’s the design professional.”
The feasibility of a particular design or style element is where Lucas comes in, Rebecca said. But when it comes to design, he’s almost always on board with her plans.
“I’ve been on enough projects that turn out great to know not to question it,” he says.
What can be a challenge, however, is the balance between work and home life.
“We work really well together, so arguments aren’t the problem, but one of the detriments of working together is that we never turn it off,” Rebecca said. “We’ll be up until 10 at night still working, since we’re there, and it’s easy to talk about jobs after the kids are in bed. But we enjoy working together, so in some ways that’s a good thing.”
The Gibbs have two boys, ages 3 years and 18 months, with a third child on the way. Rebecca usually works two to three days a week but is often on call for Lucas’ projects throughout the week. She has a part-time assistant in her business, and Lucas has three employees.
Both businesses have enough customers to keep the two as busy as they want to be, and perhaps a bit more. Lucas has taken on 15 projects in the last year, and the waiting list for his services is about 10 months to a year, in part because he wants to prioritize quality and customization over quantity.
“I’d rather take my time and be proud of what I do,” he said. “I don’t want to be a production builder. I like more unique, challenging projects instead of doing the same house every time.“
In addition to contracting the project, Lucas does all the cabinetry and trim work for his homes, and sometimes the sheetrock, framing and tiling as well.
Rebecca’s focus is on finding and implementing a fresh, modern style that fits each family.
“I do tend to gear toward modern – a clean, fresh feel,” she said “I have lots of clients who like traditional, but we do an updated traditional, always clean and fresh, not busy. I really like to get into the client’s head and see what they love, not just impose what I like. For awhile, I thought I had to have a specific style that I do, but I love many different styles, and I want it to be personal.”
Melissa and Bill Noonan found themselves renovating the home next door for short-term rental as a side, although somewhat related, project to their already full lives. But the project took off quickly, and less than a year later, they now have a high-demand Abilene property booking (and receiving rave reviews) through airbnb.com and vrbo.com.
The Noonans moved to Abilene in March 2013. Bill, an architect with Parkhill, Smith & Cooper, volunteered to lead the Abilene branch when PSC merged with The Tittle Luther Partnership.
“I’ve always wanted to do a vacation rental,” Melissa said. “We’ve traveled in Europe, and we always stayed in apartments. It gives you the kitchen and a lot more value for your money. So I’ve always had my eyes set on that.”
Although they considered the possibility while living in Lubbock, the right scenario never presented itself. Last year, however, when their next-door neighbor’s house came on the market, the time seemed just right.
. “It was in good shape; we didn’t have to do much to the infrastructure,” Melissa said. “We were very fortunate that she had done additions and kitchen renovation. Originally we thought this was for my parents, but they’re not retired yet, so we needed to do something with it before then. Now, they have to book it if they want to stay here!”
The couple’s design plan for the new look of the house is what they describe as a “mish mash of old and new, bringing modernity to an older house.”
The property, dubbed Eleven09 (its street address on Highland), includes a three-bedroom main house with a garage apartment as well. After opening for rental in December, the first booking happened within hours, and it is now booked almost every weekend. Abilene visitors, and sometimes even Abilene residents, use the property for family gatherings, out-of-town relatives, holiday get-togethers, Dyess events, weddings, college visits and of course, events like the Children’s Art and Literacy Festival.
Although she is a licensed real estate broker and an attorney with a background in real estate law, Melissa considers herself first and foremost a mom to Lincoln, 8, and 15-year-old twins Bennett and Theo. The flexibility of their homeschooling schedule helps them manage the day-to-day work of the property and its guests – an all-hands-on-deck type of family participation.
“That’s why we have children who know how to iron,” Melissa said. “They are all involved in running the business. Ironing linens, doing yard work, making beds, pulling weeds, cleaning porches, cleaning tables.”
When it comes to the style of the home, Bill and Melissa shared general style preferences but would often bounce ideas off each other and discuss opinions as they traveled, shopped and found pieces to fit the home.
“We’ve tried to keep the home with some of the 40s features, rather than gut and re-do it, “ Bill said. “It’s in a very eclectic neighborhood, a unique, cottage style that has an appeal. We are paying homage to the old while bringing modern touches.”
The aesthetic of the neighborhood and community has always been a priority for both Bill and Melissa. Bill serves on the Chamber of Commerce board, the downtown design task force, the planning and zoning board, and the building code review committee. Melissa is on the boards of the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau, National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, Children’s Performing Arts Series and the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council.
“We have loved every second of living here,” Melissa said. “Abilene is a city that wants people to participate, so we jumped right in.”
Home building has long been a family affair for Kristie McBrayer whose parents, Gene and Cindy Lantrip, own Lantrip Homes. Kristie has worked with them in the business for the last 10 years. After graduating with history and political science degrees from Hardin-Simmons University in 2006, she worked at the state capital in Austin and planned to go to law school. But when her parents needed help with their home building business, Kristie returned to Abilene and found a new direction.
“I discovered I really enjoyed the construction aspect, working with homeowners on their selections and bringing new design ideas to the table,” Kristie said. “At that time, Gene was just doing the same thing with every home, and I was able to say ‘we need to add color here, get more tile selections,’ and business really picked up.”
Eight years ago she married Jeremy, who worked in information technology, and the two moved to Midland, where she commuted back to Abilene several days each week to continue working for Lantrip Homes. After awhile, however, Jeremy also found himself ready for a career change.
“I was good at it, and I could make money at it, but I didn’t enjoy it,” he says of his IT work. “Gene said ‘we are blowing up and need to hire someone,’ so we came back to Abilene, and I joined the business as well.”
Jeremy says he never looked back after the location and career change.
“Even a bad day of home building is better than a great day of IT,” he said. “And Midland is a very different breed, not like here at all. This is a lot slower paced and definitely a better place to live.”
Within the company, both Kristie and Jeremy have the title of vice president. Kristie works with homeowners, helping them with their design selections and finishing details. Jeremy manages the job sites, lines up the subcontractors, and meets with homeowners. Like the Gibbs, the McBrayers find that lines often blur between business and home life.
“It’s actually nice that we got to see each other every day at work, since when we lived in Midland I was traveling so much,” Kristi said. “We really don’t ever leave the work. Every day we’re talking about the current jobs. There are so many going on, you have to stay on top of it. Work is our hobby. Because clients often have 8-5 jobs, we meet a lot on weekends and after hours and have a lot of late nights. But on the other hand, I can bring our little girl to the office with us, so that’s nice too.”
Lantrip Homes tends toward a traditional, classic style, Jeremy said, and Kristie helps guide clients in finding the right details and design options.
“I love art, and my mom’s side of the family has a lot of artists,” Kristie said. “Growing up, we were always talking about things like warm tones and cool tones. If I could go back and do it again, I’d major in art and business. I tell people I don’t have a background in design, but I really enjoy it, and I always try to help the homeowners’ vision come through.”