Emotional Investment

A couple acts as general contractor for their own home and finds that the rewards aren’t just financial.

By Dina Mishev | Photography by David Agnello

Evan Simms Berning and Jason Berning enjoy the upstairs kitchen/dining/living area in their new home in Mountainside Village. The couple worked with Victor-based woodworker David Trapp on the ash breakfast counter, which moves into different positions and is kept in place by hidden magnets. The patterned cement wall tiles are from Walker Zanger. Evan says, “I love the matte finish of concrete tiles as opposed to a baked-on glossy finish.” The tiles were a splurge, but Jason says the tongue-and-groove ceiling here was an area where they saved money. “The wood we used is the exact same as the exterior siding. It is not a perfect wood, it’s rough. But you’re not in this room and touching the ceiling.”

The open staircase in the new home of Evan Simms Berning and Jason Berning is gorgeous. The treads are stained a color that is a mix of brown and grey and cut from a three-inch-thick timber that had been sitting in a friend’s basement for years. The stringers are charred; they’re charcoal black and the grain of the wood is visible. 

Evan Simms Berning herself did the Japanese technique of shou sugi ban on the stair stringers. After finishing the labor-intensive process, which requires burning the wood’s exterior with a blowtorch, she sealed them. The treads are made from Douglas fir that Evan stained using a hybrid of two colors from Livos, a company that makes ecological wood stains and finishes. The Douglas fir “had been sitting in a friend’s wood shop for years,” Jason says. Butte West made the steel railing. 

When Evan walks up and down these stairs—which she does often because the home’s kitchen, living, and dining area, and master suite are on the second floor—she feels proud, she says: She was the one who stained the treads and did the labor- and fire-intensive Japanese technique of shou sugi ban on the stringers.

Evan, who is trained as an industrial designer, and Jason, a civil engineer who has worked in construction management for 18 years, did as much of the work as they could on their home, which is in Mountainside Village near the bottom of the western side of Teton Pass. They were not so DIY that they didn’t work with an architect, though. Evan says they did “low-level” sketches of the design they envisioned, “and then we quickly went to Meghan [Hanson of Teton Valley’s Natural Dwellings Architecture].” 

In addition to Evan staining and shou sugi ban-ing the stairs, she was the on-site forewoman and did odd jobs from hauling sheetrock to sweeping, painting, and damp proofing the foundation. (Jason says, “The excavators said they had never seen a foundation damp proofed as well as Evan had done it before.”) Jason was the off-site foreman and responsible for preconstruction planning, estimating, and hiring subcontractors, among other things. 

“I always carry a certain amount of emotion for the success of work projects, but doing it for ourselves brought a new level of emotion.”
[ Jason Berning ]

 The couple’s original concept for the house included multiple buildings, but, working with architect Meghan Hanson and thinking about their budget, they realized a single building made more sense for them. It was Jason’s idea to clad the bottom three feet of the home’s exterior in metal. “We wanted to make everything as low-maintenance as possible,” he says. “The bottom weathers the fastest, being exposed to snow and sprinklers.” Above the metal, the siding is spruce. “We also wrapped the eaves in metal to minimize maintenance,” Jason says.

“Our reasons for being so involved were three-fold,” Jason says. “It saved us money, we wanted to have the added pride of doing things ourselves, and I knew it would be really difficult for me to hire someone and not micromanage them. Managing construction projects has been my job my entire adult life.” 

Even with Jason’s experience and Evan being on site every day, “we still ran into challenges,” Jason says. “I always carry a certain amount of emotion for the success of work projects, but doing it for ourselves brought a new level of emotion. The decisions we made during the design and construction process are ones we’ll live with for years to come.” 

The living area’s big move is a patinated stainless steel fireplace. It was concept designed by TruexCullins, the Bernings designed and built the balance using Douglas fir from a friend’s wood shop (from the same batch as the stair treads) and stainless steel. Evan patinated the latter herself to provide a smoky finish with depth. The Danish mid-century chairs came from Evan’s family. “We’re so happy these were passed forward to our new home,” Jason says. The single-cushion sofa is from Younger Furniture, a North Carolina manufacturer that specializes in custom, sustainable furniture at a reasonable price.      

A decision the couple made early in the design phase did help make the decisions that followed during the 12-month construction period slightly easier: “We decided we were building a house for us,” Jason says. “We checked in with a Realtor to make sure we weren’t doing anything totally foolish, but early on we decided not to build what a Realtor told us to build. We used professionals as sounding boards, but weren’t scared to go with what we wanted. We went with our guts.” And then they invested their time and energy in making their decisions reality. “The accomplishment of GC-ing and building our own home is still settling in,” Jason says. Evan adds, “We feel so fortunate to be able to touch many of the surfaces and know we contributed in an intrinsic and intimate way.”  

“We wanted to introduce a natural material behind our bed and found bringing the outside in by using the siding fit perfect,” says Jason. “It also kept a minimalist approach by not introducing another material.” The bedroom, which is on the second floor with the other main living areas, purposefully faces east to the morning sun. The pendant above the nightstand is the “pulley” pendant from Pottery Barn.

The water closet of the master suite doubles as a powder room when the couple is entertaining. It has two doors—one that connects to the master bedroom and a second that connects to the combined kitchen/dining/living area. Using a wood beam and Moroccan-style pendants in this room was a design vision that Evan had from the start. “We swapped time one weekend packing straw walls for a neighbor friend building his house for the rough timber counter he had laying in his yard,” Jason says. When the time came, the same friend, Adam Riley, who owns Teton Timberframe, installed the timber as a counter. Evan made the mirror above the sink.

“We wanted the walls of the shower to have a nice feel,” Evan says. The couple found a deal on an “ice skating” textured tile from a quarry in Italy. “It has small gold bands in it that glitter in the natural light,” Jason says. The sample they got was ¼-inch thick, but when they got the actual tile it was ¾-inch thick. “We wouldn’t have picked something so thick on purpose, but it does have a massing and elegance that a thinner tile doesn’t,” Jason says. 

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