Building Character

When Bob and Karen Braun transformed their Bloomfield Township ranch home, the result was a sophisticated and inviting reflection of the highs and lows of their shared life experiences
Building Character - Foyer
Photo by Justin Maconochie

Houses tell stories about their owners.

Bob and Karen Braun are travelers, or so their bookshelves say, with volumes that include Road Food, Leading Hotels of the World, Hip Hotels, and New Guinea Ceremonies.

Their art collection tells the same tale of exotic vacations.

And the 1950s Bloomfield Township ranch drops other personal clues about its occupants. Their selection of walnut flooring — common No. 1 — says they understand the appeal of imperfection.

Even small scraps here and there hint at the interior life. On the butcher-block kitchen island, a Chinese cookie fortune rests in a small dish. It reads: “Good news will be coming to you soon.” The message, saved from a dinner one evening, speaks to the hopes that we invest in our homes, that they’re a big part of our happily ever after.

To paraphrase the title of a popular and poignant movie: Life is a house. When Bob and Karen bought their home three years ago, the tired structure was revived almost as if by transfusion.

Bob poured his strength and self-taught know-how into the walls and floors. He respects good, strong construction. “I tend to overbuild,” he says. “That’s my nature.”

An electrical contractor with a knack for knowing how things work, Bob devoted himself to building their dream.

Shortly after moving in, and following a trip to China, he began helping workers on the garage construction. “I was there with my son and others, and I noticed my left hand, when I got cold, couldn’t hold a nail,” he says. “It was like the wiring didn’t connect with the hand to tell it what to do.”

A long diagnosis of exclusion — testing for multiple sclerosis, viruses, and other possibilities — left them with devastating news: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The progressive neurodegenerative disease affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.

Bob moved forward, welding the structure of the kitchen island, making the base of the dining table, pouring concrete, and excavating the garage with a backhoe.

The ALS symptoms stayed in his left hand and arm. “I worked around it; it took about two years to lose my left hand,” he says. “My right is almost gone now. But I had full use of it until last September. I want to finish it before I’m dead.”

Karen Braun sits with her back to expansive windows that overlook a view that’s about as panoramic as it gets in metro Detroit. Behind her, down a steep ravine populated by deer, herons, red fox, ducks, and coyotes, the Rouge River meanders among trees and undergrowth.

But her frankly adoring attention is focused on her husband of 27 years, who’s busy explaining his single-handed installation of an I-beam. “I’m a lucky woman,” she says.

After two and a half years, only the deck, a little landscaping, and some bedroom furniture remain to be done.

Like everything else, Bob has detailed plans for a two-tier deck plotted out in his mind in preparation for summer construction. It will have a ramp, he says, because “I’ll be in a wheelchair then.”

It’s a sad irony that tragedy brought them to this home in the first place. The Brauns were preparing to build a home in Franklin when Karen’s brother and sister-in-law were killed in a traffic accident. Two of their three nearly grown children came to live with the Brauns and their own three children. Their construction plans took an immediate detour. “We realized life was too short,” Bob says. Instead of building new, real-estate agent Rebecca Meisner helped them find an existing home. They chose the ranch on 1.34 riverfront acres, Karen says, because “you walk in and it’s like being in a treehouse.”

Bob took one look and knew how much work was involved in making it right. A hallway running the length of the house was switched from the front to the back. A ’70s-style kitchen with Formica counters and brick-pattern linoleum was gutted. Walls were removed. Doors were eliminated wherever possible. A new glass, steel, and granite entryway was added. Only the living room remains the same.

“If you know what you want your vision to be, you want to do it yourself,” Karen says. The makeover process involved a simple division of labor for the couple and their design/construction team, who became friends along the way.

“I am indebted to the Brauns,” says Mark Wilson, the designer on the renovation. “They gave me the opportunity to contribute to every aspect of the project, from the design of the staircase, library, TV unit, aquarium, and kitchen, to elements of the master suite such as the glass linen cabinet, dressing table, and bedroom furniture.”

Wilson says the best experiences come when clients are well-informed and sophisticated. “It’s all about working together and helping them to fulfill their vision for design and home life,” he says. “The Brauns were exceptional.”

The team broke down along two lines. Wilson was style, and architect Dave Masko was practicality. The same division of labor applied to the Brauns. “I was structural and she was aesthetic,” Bob says. She got a great shoe closet; he got a dream garage for his power tools.

Bob and Karen exude the kind of warmth that puts visitors at immediate ease. The same goes for their home, which they say was designed not to be “standoffish.”

When they point out their artwork, it’s in an almost offhand manner: “We got that in Malta,” Or, “That’s from New Guinea.” Karen says: “That tall piece of sculpture — we call it ‘Boobs on a Stick’  — we got in San Francisco. Certain things, they make you feel good; they make you remember.”

The two have traveled to Bhutan, India, Bangkok, Bali, Tanzania, Botswana, Italy, France, and The Netherlands. For their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs, they gave trips as gifts.

Conversation flows as easily as the open floor plan. Karen sits on the dining-room table as she tells how they met at the wedding of a mutual friend. “I came home and told my parents I met the man I was going to marry,” she says.

Beside the saltwater aquarium, talk turns to restaurants and strange foods they’ve eaten (and declined to eat) in China. Later, in the living room, Bob is on the couch with his feet up. She sits on the hearth.

“We used to sit around imagining how it would be when it was done,” Bob says. “How we’d read The New York Times on Sunday with bagels and look down the hall.” They’ve realized that dream. “I wake up in the morning and think, ‘I love this house. I love the natural light,’” Karen says.

Conversation continues to skip from politics, to religion, to personal philosophy. “I think we made a conscious decision to live our life,” Karen says. “It seems pointless to let it destroy what you have left.”