Ten days before Christmas in 2008, Stephen Blaylock lost his life in a car wreck on U.S. 380 between Decatur and Denton.
The 33-year-old respiratory therapist left behind a wife and five children, living in a Decatur mobile home park.Last week, they moved into a spacious two-story house at the corner of State and Mulberry streets. The house was built virtually “at cost” by a group of men who put their experience in real estate, construction and project management – and their faith – to work for a worthy cause.
This labor of love was in the works for a long time.
“Stephen and I were dreaming and shopping, but we decided money would be too tight,” Laura Blaylock said. “So we got a double-wide instead of a single-wide – but it was our dream to one day get a house.”
With Stephen working at hospitals in Decatur and Denton and Laura working even harder at home, they were almost out of debt and ready to take the first steps toward home ownership. The accident, which happened on their oldest son’s 15th birthday, changed everything.
“We were looking at existing houses, building, in town, in the country – we were getting magazines, looking at floor plans,” she said. “Then when the accident occurred, I just put everything on hold and thought, ‘I’m going to be in here forever.’
“My biggest worry became, ‘How am I going to do this with them?'”
The driver who fell asleep, ran off the road, over-corrected, crossed the median and hit Stephen head-on faced criminal charges. But eventually the Blaylocks’ attorneys filed suit against a contractor who was working on the highway at the time, and the Texas Department of Transportation. That suit would finally be settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, but those wheels turned agonizingly slowly.
In the meantime, Laura had five kids to raise.
The following February, she got a long-term substitute teaching job that lasted through the end of the school year. She started taking online classes and for the next couple of years she substitute taught “a week here and a day or two there” while studying full-time toward a teaching degree.
A group of men from her church took up the cause of getting a house built.
Joey Harrison, bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Decatur, said they were just doing what came naturally, for a member in need. He knew Laura had gotten some life insurance proceeds, but he also knew her lawyers had strongly advised her against using that money to buy or build a house.
She did, however, purchase a lot on Mulberry Street.LED TO THE LOT
“One rainy day, I had picked the kids up from school and I was driving up State Street,” she said. “We went past the square and one of the kids said, ‘Mom, where are you going?’ It was not an area I ever drove through, but for some reason I wanted to drive up that way.
“I just said, ‘I guess I’m taking the scenic route today!'” Despite comments about how much homework they had, she drove on.
A lot at the corner of State and Mulberry caught her eye and she thought, “I wonder who owns that?”
On the way home, she stopped at her mailbox and her copy of the Wise County Messenger was there – with an ad for a lot for sale at State and Mulberry.
“I always read the ads, but that one just jumped out at me,” she said. “I thought, ‘That’s strange! That’s the lot I just looked at.'”
A couple of days later she was digging through her bag and the paper was still there. She called the owner, and he told her he only ran the ad because he’d gotten it free, for buying a subscription. She was the only one who had called, he added.
“I went to talk to him and I had a price in mind that I could afford,” she said. “When he told me his price, it was out of my range. Then he said, ‘Okay, I’ll sell it to you for this…’ and it was exactly my price.”
She bought the lot in late 2010, but with the lawsuit still in negotiation, it would be awhile before any dirt was turned. Meanwhile, the kids were growing and the house was getting smaller.
“We were strapped,” she said. “We were living on top of each other, and as kids get older they need more privacy.”
BRAIN TRUST TAKES OVER
When the lawsuit finally settled, Harrison, along with Realtor Jack Cannon and his son and partner Eric, enlisted the help of another church member. Ken Blankenfeld, whose Dallas-based consulting firm works on projects all over the country, asked Laura if he could serve as her liaison to help her get the house built.
“He knew the langauge, and he didn’t want me to be taken advantage of,” she said. “I know nothing about building.”
Blankenfeld contacted a couple of the “makeover” TV shows, but got no response. The project was not a fit for Habitat for Humanity, either, so after looking at floor plans with Laura, he decided to find a builder who would understand the situation.
He suggested they talk with Jeff Wawro, owner of Design Classics in Denton. Wawro, a former police officer and investigator who had also been a builder all along, took on the house as a personal project.
“He sat down with me, asked me what I thought about different floor plans, and came up with something that included things I liked out of several different ones,” Laura said.
Blankenfeld said Wawro “basically covered his costs” while donating his time and, most importantly, running the project with a completely open book.
“A lot of subcontractors reduced their costs, and we’ve been able to build her a very nice house for what I consider a very reasonable price,” he said. “He (Wawro) has done multimillion dollar houses. I felt I could trust him. The quality was excellent because he understood the situation.”
After Laura took another long-term substitute job, Wawro went to work to design and build her more house, at a lower cost, than she could have possibly gotten on her own.
“She has a lot of kids, so she needed a lot of bedrooms with very limited funds,” Wawro said. “Our goal was to design a home that fit those needs without making it unusable for anybody else down the road. We worked on how to keep her out-of-pocket costs down the road as low as possible – utilities, things like that.”
HIGH-TECH, LOW UPKEEP
Wawro was able to take the technology and innovation he puts into his big projects and apply them to the Blaylock house. One of those was to set it on a full-pier foundation.
“The soil here is so elastic, as the ground contracts and expands with dry and wet cycles that can range from six to 11 inches,” he said. “That’s what creates havoc in North Texas foundations. This slab sits on piers that are 18 inches around, 20 feet deep. There’s 68 of them. It’s a standard for us.”
Other innovations include a whole-house water shutoff inside the garage, and solid foam insulation in the attic and walls. With all the air conditioning, heating and duct work “within the envelope” it doesn’t have to work nearly as hard. Even though the space isn’t vented, the temperature in the attic never varies more than six degrees from the temperature inside the house.
“She won’t have those massive spikes in heating and cooling costs in the summer and winter,” Wawro said. “We did a home in Denton that was 9,300 square feet, and it went through that cold, cold winter and then that summer when it was over 100 for 60 straight days. Their highest utility bill has been $267.”
The home also has vinyl windows, with a heat coeffiency that is more than twice the industry standard, and the exterior is composite fiberglass and cement board.
“It won’t rot, bugs won’t eat it, squirrels won’t damage it. We use it on all our houses,” Wawro said. “Mix all that together and the home becomes extremely solid and well-built.”
Wawro said many of the subcontractors offered to work at cost, and the engineer and others worked on “well-reduced” pricing once they learned the story behind the house, even though times are still tough in the construction business.
The builder faced some challenges meeting all the requirements the City of Decatur threw at them. They had to put up the money for sidewalks even though there are none in the neighborhood, and the driveway elevation was changed late in the project. They also had to dismantle and remove a barn on the property because it sat partially over onto a neighbor’s lot and was in the city’s right-of-way.
But Wawro is inclined to dwell on the positives, all the folks who pitched in and made the project possible.
“Many people don’t realize it, but there are good-hearted people in the world, especially in our community,” Wawro said. “It’s a common denominator – kind-hearted people. We’ve been here 31 years, and it’s what keeps us here.
“We’ve been blessed,” he added. “Many of these individuals have been working with me for the majority of that time.”
Volunteers from the church got together on a recent Saturday and put the yard in so Laura could get an occupancy permit and finally move into the new home with Brevon, 18 – a student at UNT who “still comes home every night” according to his mom – Christian, 17, Lane, 15, Miranda, 13 and Cason, 8.
They won’t have to move far. Since last spring, when a water heater went out and flooded their mobile home, they’ve been staying with her sister who now lives right across the street from the new house.
“I’ve been blessed,” Laura said. “I’ve never needed anything – any needs have always been met by the people in this town. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”