The life of two scientists, creating a small home, in big mountains

Category: Past Rentals Page 1 of 2

Places we’ve lived and enjoyed.

DIY Kitchen Island Top

before and after

I am lucky to live with a handy man. Slav and I like to make our living space nice and clean. Even though we are renters, we have never hesitated to make improvements on our rentals. Over the years, we upgraded window treatments, painted walls, refreshed bathroom fixtures, and planted gardens. We cannot wait to have a place to call our own and work on it!

From day one, we knew the Evergreen rental was just a temporary stay. We did not even unpack our books, pictures, and decorations, anticipating another move in a few months. By no means we are living in a rabbit hole – we HAVE to make any place pleasant to live, even just for a week! Since moved in, we finished the brick porch, set up an outdoor water station for our pooches, and planted a sunroom garden. We try to keep the cost down, of course, but these small improvements brought so much joy that they are well worth it, including the DIY kitchen island top we finished a couple weeks ago.

01 before

If you have watched our video tour, you might recall how small the living room is. With a full mattress as sofa, Slav’s standing desk, and a coffee table, even the smallest dining set could not fit in the living room anymore. The first a couple weeks after we moved in, we ate our meals standing around the kitchen island. We immediately started hunting for a small dining set, but a dining set-for-two was really hard to come by.

Then I had an idea – why don’t we make the island top larger? Paired with a couple bar stools, we do not need a real dining set. We did some research and set on just plain plywood to save the cost, then I got to work.

1. Basic shape of the island


The existing size of the island is 49.5″ x 24″. As you can see from the pictures above, the chimney is a foot wider. Extend the island top to span the whole width of the chimney will create sitting space for at least two people on the left side of the island, and extended it by a foot lengthwise or so will provide another sitting at the end of the island.

2. Using cardboard boxes to map out the shape


I prefer a curved island to one with corners. To make the design process easier, I used cardboard boxes and simply cut the shape I wanted. At the right side of the island sits the stove. I extended the island a bit more to make a round corner, which not only allows another sitting spot, but also make the end of the island a bit wider for computer use.


We got a pair of red stools off Craigslist while planning for the new island top.


Using cardboard helps me to get a good sense of the space. I originally wanted to make the island top a foot longer – the current island is 49.5″ and the new one will be 62″ long – but it made the path between living room and kitchen too narrow. So the final length of the new island was 59.5″ instead of 62″. We also refined the shape of the future island on the right side, to provide more space for cooking.

3. Cutting and sealing the new top


With the template in hand, Slav bought a piece of plywood (cheap!) and start cutting.


Freshly cut plywood has really rough edges, which needs to be sanded later.


After a couple round of sanding:


In the picture, we already applied the first coat of wood stain. We want to keep it simple and Slav likes the look of wood grains, so we decided to stain instead of paint it. We did three coats of stain, then sealed the top with three coats of polyurethane sealant. You can see that the top got significantly darker.


4. The result!


We love it! It is spacious, easy to clean, and fits the space perfectly. We only have two stools but this island can seat four comfortably. With more space to spread out, we have eaten hotpot almost every night. It feels so good to finally sit down for dinner.

After a week of use, the new island top now hosts a record player, our microwave,  and during the day, serves as my work station. The height of the island is perfect for me to work on my laptop standing up, and of course I can seat on the stool if I want to. This is how it looks now:


This island top is our simplest DIY yet, but it changed our living space so much for better. Want join us for a hotpot dinner? Come over (and bring your own stool)!

Evergreen Sunroom Garden


The growing season in west Colorado is pretty short. Evergreen, where we currently live, is in zone 4b. The last frost is in late May, and the first snow fall is usually in September. Compared to central North Carolina, which is zone 7b, the growing season is cut down to half. And the plants and vegetables we can grow in the mountains are very limited.

To extend the growing season and get more fresh vegetables, many people here have green houses. As you might remember from this video tour, we have a pretty large sunroom included in our rental. The tenant who lived here for 14 years built a big rock flower bed in the sunroom and maintained a very successful garden.


The sunroom can accumulate a lot of heat. It only takes a couple hours of sunshine for the inside of the sunroom to reach 70 degrees. Therefore, I have never seen the water in the dog water station freeze. I have never had a green house before, so I am pretty shocked by the magic a simple structure can do to change the course of nature. Or look at it in another way, how amazing is the sun, that we just need to steal a little bit of its wonder to sustain our living.

As soon as I returned from my oversea trip, we brought back a bag of soil, gathered the egg shells we had been saving since moving in, and grabbed some herbs from a local nursery.


This rental is a temporary stay for us (we have found another place in Evergreen – cannot wait to show you the pictures!), so we decided to plant herbs instead of vegetables. We picked out lavender, basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, chives, stevia, and a couple annuals to mix in some color.

Almost all of these plants require full sun. But I do not want to under-estimate the power of a few pieces of glass windows. Without proper ventilation, the sunroom can get to 90 degrees in a couple hours. To make sure that these tender plants are ready for hot and dry afternoons, I left them at their designated spots, and watched them for a few days.


The new soil was worked in, and the eggshells are grounded and added into the soil as well. The herbs got a good nice drink every morning. After a few days, almost all of them showed new growth, as if they were saying,”we like it here!”

Planting a garden is always a precious moment. Holding young, tender plants in my hands, just like holding a new baby, brings gratitude, a sense of new hope, and excitement. Regardless how well they may grow in the future, at this moment, it is good. After planting, the scent of lavender and mint lingered on my figures for hours. Mixed with the smell of fresh, wet soil, it is really the happiest perfume in the world.

The first I planted is the mint. We had such a wonderful mint garden back in North Carolina and it reminds me the happy days there.



I never had stevia before and am excited to try it out.


Lavender, basil and chives








A couple weeks have passed after planting. We since had a couple snow storms, but the herbs are doing very well. Here are them today:




They have shown quite some new growth and the flower seeds I planted right after moving-in sprouted as well. We might not be here long enough to enjoy all the fresh herbs and flowers, but I am glad that we made this place a bit sweeter than that we came to.

Video tour – Evergreen sunroom

We spent quite a few weeks looking for rental in Colorado. Our demands are high. The landlord has to be OK with us bringing in two dogs, there needs to be a large yard, the rent needs to be reasonable, and the place needs to be kind of cool. We are always attracted to places that are not ordinary. And renting an “regular” 2b/1b apartment is never an option to us. As you could imagine, there were only handful of places we contacted. And what sold our current rental to Slav, who visited the prospective rentals in person, is this sunroom.


This sunroom was built as a greenhouse, attached to the southern exterior of the house. It spins more than half of the length of the house and meets the garage on its side. When our landlord bought the house 15 years ago, it was only one story in height. He was impressed how warm this greenhouse got in Winter, and therefore decided to extend it all the way to the roof of the house for heating purposes. Even in a snowy winter night, it is above freezing. When it is sunny outside, which are most of the days here, the sunroom warms up quickly and can get to 80 degrees in Winter and over 100 degrees in Summer. It helps to reduce the heating cost in winter.


A fan is installed between the sunroom and the garage to distribute the heat accumulated in the sunroom. When it is above 75 degrees in the sunroom, the fan turns on automatically and pumps hot air into the garage. We leave the sliding door open on the other end of the sunroom so cool breeze comes in. A set of stairs leads to the patio above the garage, which also helps the hot air to escape.

Because the sunroom stays warm at night, it is possible to grow flowers and vegetables year-around. We are told that one of the previous tenants, a lady who lived here for 14 years, grew her own vegetables and herbs in these rock beds. In March it still snows in Evergreen. But the days are getting warmer, and we already saw seedlings peeking out of these beds. The first a couple days we got here, I have planted Morning Glories and Moonflowers, and hope to see them sprouting soon.



At the end of this sunroom, it is the front door to our ground floor apartment. We created a small mudroon under the stairs to keep our shoes and coats out of the main living space. We are also able to fit Slav’s tools under the stairs.



We have already enjoyed a few evenings here star gazing in our camping chairs. The sliding door lets in cool breeze and the flowers and herbs we are planting in these rock beds should provide additional fragrance in summer nights. North Carolina gets was very humid in summer and has lots of mosquitoes. We expect the summer nights here to be cool, dry and bug-free, which are ideal for dining out in this cute sunroom of ours.

As you can tell, I love this sunroom very much. I love it so much that I shot a separate video for this little space and the attached patio. Do you have a favorite patio set for two that you can recommend?

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