By Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice on April 22, 2021
Before he built the little blue house on the hill at the corner of West Kitty Hawk Road and Midgett Road, Steve Lafrance had never built a house.
Now, the Kill Devil Hills resident is well into building his second house, the yellow one across from the blue home — one where his children and grandchildren can stay when they visit.
This new endeavor is all part of his philosophy on life. “I have these harebrained ideas and then I stick to it until I’m successful,” he says. “I always have plans,” he adds. “That’s how I live my life.”
Lafrance’s life has been a winding and shifting journey. He grew up in Hampton Roads, got out of high school and worked as a car mechanic for a couple of years. Tired of scraped knuckles and a sore back, he enlisted in the Air Force. He was given a choice of folding parachutes or working in the new field of telecommunications. He chose telecommunications. After four years in the Air Force, he started working for Sprint, got his degree in business management and became a project manager. After 18 years working for Sprint and then Qwest, he was living in northern Virginia with three children and a divorce.
“I was a corporate guy. I had to go to D.C. all the time, but I had to be around my kids… I thought I needed a business around there,” he said. “So I quit, and I started my body shop.”
After his daughters graduated from college and his son was in the Army, Lafrance sold the business and moved to the Outer Banks in 2013. He bought the Mellow Dog Gallery in Manteo, which has since closed. “I know nothing about art,” he says of his foray into that world. “But I did learn to appreciate it.”
The yellow house that Lafrance is currently building is taking a lot longer than the blue home — largely because he took a very bad tumble in October 2019. He was on the deck at the time, holding a sheet of plywood when a gust of wind pushed him backwards, off the deck to the ground 13 feet below. Knocked him out.
He regained consciousness about an hour later. Wiggled his fingers, wiggled his toes. They were working, so he figured nothing was broken. “Then I tried to stand up and my legs weren’t working,” he said. He dragged himself to his truck using elbows and hands but couldn’t get in without functioning legs. He called Sandy, who lives in the blue house, and they summoned the paramedics.
His fall had broken the two vertebrae in his neck, cracked his sternum, given him a severe concussion, and did some additional damage to his back. Lafrance was out of commission for eight months. But some work did get done at the house.
A friend named Howard Olds, who had helped him frame the blue house, knew what would happen if the inside was left exposed. So on a Saturday, he got some friends together and they roofed the building.
“They took their Saturday morning to do this,” Lafrance said. “Why do you think they did it? It’s just the Outer Banks way.”
The injury has slowed Lafrance down. He still can’t pick his head up all the way, although that seems to be slowly improving. And he can only work for three or four hours at a time. In talking with him, he’s upbeat and remains optimistic about finishing the house even though he has had to adjust his plans.
The blue house that he finished in 2018 was built as a home for a friend in need, Sandy. Lafrance and Sandy met when she worked at his Mellow Dog Gallery. Sandy, who is now in her 80s, was living in a walkout basement apartment that Lafrance describes as “full of mold and mildew.”
He decided he wanted to help her.
“I started looking around and doing my research and there’s nothing out there,” for seniors, he said.
LaFrance, who had once ridden cross country on his bike, recalls that “I was on my bike pedaling down this road. There was a for sale sign right there on the wetlands, and it was leaning over, and it looked like it been there forever,” he recalled.
If not forever, certainly for some time. He made an offer that was well below the original asking price and became the owner of about an acre and a half of mostly wetlands with two small areas where a home could be built.
He made good on his desire to help Sandy, letting her live there rent free. When he finishes the yellow house, that will be for his kids and his grandchildren when they visit.
There is only a hint of the beauty from the road, and he has done a lot to preserve that beauty.
About a week ago, Lafrance was hand digging a trench for the water line. A backhoe would have been much faster and easier on him, but that wasn’t important.
“I saved my trees,” he said. “With a backhoe…they have no choice. They’re on a timeline. I’m not.”
Lafrance stands on the deck of his half-finished home and points to what makes it so wonderful.
“You can look down here and you see where the deer comes through,” he said. “You want to see the dragon flies. Oh man, I am telling you, there are thousands of them, so there are no mosquitoes. You’d think this has got to be full of mosquitoes, but it’s not. There’s an entire world right here.”