Special/Signature Issues » Home Style

The Artful House

Handcrafted homes are capturing Richmond's imagination. The inside story on how one of them was born.



Colonial houses will always be popular in Richmond, but a trend toward smaller, handcrafted homes is capturing the imagination of buyers looking for something more personal and connected to the landscape.

Nancy Saylor is one of those buyers, and she's become something of a dream client for her architect and builder. She's open to ideas but knows what she wants. She's willing to do research and make decisions, but she trusts professionals to guide her. And with a writing and research background in environmental policy, she's a systematic process person unafraid of all the deadlines and details involved in building a house.

So when Saylor inherited a collection of furniture and large canvases painted by her late mother and brother a few years ago, she seized the opportunity to plan a house with the right wall space and craftsmanship to surround her family treasures. She wanted a serene haven that would nestle into a wooded lot with views from every window.

The client created her dream project, an Arts and Crafts-style cottage near the James River, with architect Steve Harvey and builder Tom Mahoney. Finished last fall, it was "one of the most creative processes I'll ever have," Saylor says. "I think verbalizing what you want and putting it into shape, there is a good bit of back and forth involved, and it is most enjoyable."

She found the long, narrow lot in an established neighborhood with a mix of rustic cabins, renovated Victorians and a few '60s moderns. She scouted out styles and details in a nearby subdivision, Oak Park on Huguenot Road, and hired Mahoney as her builder because of his work on houses there.

First, though, Saylor interviewed three architects to evaluate their work and habits. "I met them and talked to them about the process that they used, looked at their examples on paper and got addresses of houses they built. I talked to them about how they problem-solve, got client references, and determined what architectural style they were most comfortable with," she says.

Saylor chose Harvey, who works with Balzer and Associates Inc., because his portfolio showed a range of creative and practical capabilities, and his manner was direct and responsive. She hired him at an hourly rate. "People think architects are expensive, but they're a good value for what you get," Saylor says, noting that she called in Harvey to help with certain questions during construction, but not to supervise the entire project.

Their first step in the architectural process was to examine the lot. "We spent a lot of time on-site, marking off where certain rooms would be and where the best views of things would be," Harvey recalls.

He drew three schemes of possible room arrangements, and Saylor measured all of her paintings and furniture to be sure the rooms would be large enough to accommodate them. A final plan and budget began to emerge over several months; the distinctive exterior design enclosed a stepped-back series of rooms that would draw light from a porch, courtyard and carefully sited windows.

Saylor interviewed three builders, chose Mahoney of Thomas Eland Homes Inc. and worked with him to fine-tune the budget, dropping plans for a roughed-in bathroom in the attic, but keeping details that were more important to her.

Then she went to three different banks to select her construction loan and mortgage. "I've gotten a lot of advice from people who've built homes," Saylor says, "and they say not to stint on windows, that sometimes people build very high-end houses with very poor windows."

She selected high-quality aluminum-clad windows that would be efficient, attractive and low-maintenance. That choice meant that she might have to forgo her desired prefinished red-oak flooring; instead, builder Mahoney found light Brazilian cherry floors at a liquidator that fit her aesthetic requirements and saved her money.

Other decisions were time-consuming but satisfying, Saylor says: "Lighting, plumbing fixtures, cabinets and counters, lock sets, tiles, bath accessories, shower-door enclosures, fireplace units, appliances — all had to be picked out during the building process. If you walk into this with no preferences, you'll be pushed and pulled. You need to do the research, to read about all the options, the pros and cons."

She credits Mahoney with guiding her through the budget allowance for fixtures and connecting her with reliable vendors, and she committed a substantial number of hours to research before making selections.

She's equally adamant about hiring a certified kitchen designer. "A kitchen is so highly detailed that you really need to make sure that the size of the kitchen and the layout will work for you," she says. "You need to do that while the plans are still in motion, not after the fact."

She interviewed three designers before construction began, and selected Mint Schlief of Custom Kitchens, who arranged the space plan, helped Saylor choose alderwood cabinets, cork tile flooring, quartz countertops in a coloration called cambria, and sleek Miele appliances. She also helped refine the storage, lighting and usage details that would make the space efficient and attractive.

Builder Mahoney used the architectural plans as a jumping-off point during construction and crafted details such as wood brackets, mixed shingles and custom millwork to enhance the house's character.

Both architect and builder convinced their client to add a carriage house instead of the planned carport. Now, with its stylish coach lights, epoxy floor and practicality, it's one of Saylor's favorite features, giving a courtyard effect to the entry and providing a buffer from the road.

Landscaping began before construction; it took 14 truckloads of fill dirt to contour the site and 50 tons of gravel to reinforce the aggregate driveway. Then, using a plan drawn by Chuck Bateman, Jack Russell of J.R. Landscaping gradually introduced sod and plants into the setting.

"Nancy had a 'must-have' list that included old Richmond favorites, like azaleas, rhododendron, dogwood and spirea, that I thought would work well with an old-new Arts and Crafts cottage," Bateman says. "I wanted to loosen things up by adding ferns and grassy plants like mondo grass and Carex, and paid special attention to the palette of foliage colors: the creams and chartreuse and pink and bronzy tones that I thought would look nice against the mossy gray-green of the siding of the house."

Shade-tolerant plants are settling into broad sweeps that curve alongside the driveway, complementing the woodland lot and allowing the homeowner just enough gardening projects to suit her interests and schedule.

Saylor's wish list came to reality during a year of construction, which she monitored almost daily. Now, the 2,700-square-foot house is one of the most admired in the neighborhood, as Saylor has discovered when passersby stop to praise its charm and curb appeal and ask about its design.

An enclosed stone-veneer-walled courtyard with a cascading fountain is her favorite spot for morning coffee and is a safe place for her cats to lounge outdoors; a cantilevered gas-log fireplace and abundant windows warm the family room. The dining room opens on all sides to light and views, giving an airy, informal feel that echoes the large-scale floral paintings that decorate the room's walls.

Just beyond the custom wainscoting and arched openings in the foyer is a view of Saylor's grand piano beneath a favorite painting in the living room, emblematic of the project's inspiration and a source of joy for the owner.

"It was a fun process to go through," Saylor says, "and Steve and Tom were phenomenal. It's a collaboration between you and the architect, the kitchen designer, the builder, all of the subcontractors, the suppliers — and everyone is important to the process. It's a creative investment and quite a wonderful thing to build a house specifically to your ideas and the setting. I wanted something that fit into the neighborhood, that looked like it lived in the land." HS

Working with an architect and builder.

1. Consider hiring an architect at an hourly rate, rather than at a percentage of the building cost. "I normally do the preliminary stuff on a hourly basis," Steve Harvey says. "There are good reasons to keep the relationship with a design professional informal in the starting stages, working as a consultant first, then for sketches and schemes."

2. Spend time on the site to develop the plan. To make a house fit naturally into the setting, the design should relate to the contours of the land and take advantage of the best views and exposures. Steve Harvey met with his client for several detailed site visits to develop a layout that would meet her space requirements and suit the lot's characteristics.

3. Consider making a model. Sometimes an architect will create a three-dimensional model of the house so that the client can better visualize the project and see how the spaces connect, how light will enter the rooms, and how furnishings will fit inside. "As you look at the plans, you don't always know how that will translate from two to three dimensions," Saylor says. "A model can help."

4. Expand the architect's role. Sometimes an architect is used as a liaison between client and contractor, which adds expense to the project but provides another level of professional oversight for the homeowner. Or consider using an architect during construction on an as-needed basis to resolve specific questions with the builder.

5. "Do a lot of research up front," advises custom-home builder Tom Mahoney. "It does help to have a good architect to start with a good plan so the process will go a lot more smoothly." The number of decisions required at each step can be overwhelming and frustrating, Mahoney adds, so clients need to prepare for that ahead of time by reading magazines and looking at local and online resources.

6. Expect some trade-offs. Because most budgets have limits, some items might be too costly to make the final cut. Saylor kept the design details that mattered most, such as a central vacuum system and gas fireplaces, and dropped others, like a roughed-in attic bathroom. Most important, she worked with her architect and builder to find cost-effective solutions before construction began, as changes during construction are costly and time-consuming.

7. Communication skills are imperative. Saylor hired her architect, builder, kitchen designer, landscaper and others after a careful interview process involving three recommended professionals in each area. She considered their ability to answer her questions fully, establish a pleasant working rapport and provide superior references from previous clients. — D.T.


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