Close to Home: Good Design Changes Everything

My five siblings and I grew up in a development, which my Mom viewed as a handsome, well-situated, functional house for raising such a brood, but her heart was always looking toward a dream home. As we all grew up and moved out, the house that was once buzzing with activity and noise…and let’s be honest, lots of fighting (after all, we are all black belts) lost its energy and that empty-nest feeling began to sink in. My Mom and Dad faced a new chapter in life, just as I was starting out as an architect. They could finally afford that “dream home” and for my Mom, it couldn’t come fast enough. The house that once functioned so well started to feel stifling and the area around the development, which she used to love for the walkable proximity to school and the YMCA, now felt bland. So it seemed right that I should help build a new home for my parents. However, I was putting in crazy hours working full time in Washington D.C. and trying to design a house for them in my “free time”. I simply didn’t have the time to do fancy renderings or 3-D presentations, but my Mom couldn’t read plans. I said, “Mom, you have to trust me. I really hear everything you’re saying.” I knew what she wanted, but she couldn’t see it on paper in two dimensions and she was full of doubts. What I also knew, but was about to become very apparent is that good design changes everything.

The reason for her doubts was obvious: The point of departure for the design was conceptually based on Coal Breaker Houses—large industrial structures with cascading shed volumes supported by exposed heavy timber structure and clad in vertical wood siding. During the heyday of the coal industry in our area just after the turn of the 19th century, this is where the large chunks of mined coal were broken into smaller pieces and separated from the shale by Breaker Boys under terrible working conditions. My Mom could not understand why I would base the design of her dream home on something so sad. My Dad, on the other hand, was ecstatic. His father left school in the fifth grade to work as a Breaker Boy and he loved the idea of drawing from historical and regional allusion while paying homage to his Dad, my Papa, who helped him start the business that was making this dream home possible. I also shared a birthday with my Papa and when he was alive, we were very close.

As construction began, I knew I would have to be local to see it through so I moved home. Our lake-front Summer house had to be taken down to make way for the new one. My Dad seemed lost without a place to go on the weekends to maintain the house and landscape so I needed to give him something to do. A main feature of the design was the fireplace and I wanted to use indigenous rocks from on and around the site. We also needed the rocks for site walls. We would need a lot of them—you need almost three times as many as you will actually use to be able to find enough good rocks in the mix. For over a year, he searched the woods for just the right rocks. One night, I stopped by the site to see how construction was going. It got dark fast and I knew my father was up there because I could see his car, but he was nowhere in sight. I got worried and scared and started running up and down the road looking for him. Then I ran into the thick woods yelling for him to no avail. Finally, I heard a soft rumble deep in the woods. All of a sudden in the distance, I saw the two headlights of his mini tracker coming towards me. As he got closer, I could see the entire front shovel filled with rocks. Like everything in his life, my Dad never did anything halfway. If he set his mind to doing it, it would be done right and beyond expectation. The rocks ended up being an important and meaningful contribution to the project.

Meanwhile, my Mom came along for the ride. She took a leap of faith in me, and the house she would live in no matter what would be the ultimate test of that faith.

I’ll never forget the day she walked in while the house was still under construction, but she could finally see and feel the unfinished space. She gazed at the windows and the natural lighting and the heavy timber catwalk … and I saw something lift in her whole being. It was an “Aha Moment” and suddenly she got it. I could almost see inspiration as it lit her up inside. Her excitement became palpable. She became part of the design team, collaborating on all the interiors. I realized where I got my design talent from because her taste was impeccable. She worked with me closely following the design concept now that she understood that it was a reinterpretation of the Breaker, not a literal Breaker.

That house changed how she experiences her life. Living there is a constant discovery for her. To this day, she’ll call me and praise something beautiful that she didn’t notice before, such as how the natural light shines in through the windows creating beautiful shadows and framing the seasons at the lake like artwork. She loves not having to turn on the lights because the natural light is enough to warm her heart. It was the jumpstart to a new chapter in her life and the perfect backdrop for what was to come.

Just as the house was completed, weddings and grand kids began to happen in rapid succession. Now, every Sunday and holiday, our family gathers there for dinner. We set up two tables for the adults and my parents’ 14 grandchildren. The house has set the scene for the changes in our family, and in this way, has become a multi-generational space. It’s even designed for aging in place. At the time it was built, my Gram suffered from bad knees and couldn’t get up the steps. Seeing that, we decided to install an elevator. It seemed strange when the main occupants would be my very healthy, able parents. But they understood; they saw Gram. Good thing we did, because a year and a half in, my mom got a knee replacement and was very grateful to have that elevator. Plus, the grand kids love to ride in it!

This story shows in the rawest form the ways architecture impacts peoples’ lives. The process, the people, and the end result are all dependent on trust and good judgment, knowledge of design and the ability to bring it to life. We reinterpreted the Breaker House, which once represented industry and despair and transformed it into a vessel of warmth and family spirit.

Great projects, like this one, are the result of great collaborations. Well-communicated design matters. I feel joy and fulfillment tailoring spaces to fit each client’s needs. My parents’ project is a dream home, but I use the same design principals to collaborate with clients to create dream offices. People tend to give tremendous amounts of thought and energy to designing dream homes, but it’s not unusual to spend more than 60% of our day at work, therefore, we specialize in dream offices. The dream office inspires; it encourages collaboration; it brings people together at certain times and provides needed privacy at others. The dream office is conducive to happiness and well-being. It breaks down silos and enables impromptu conversations, assists with synergy and promotes communication.

The dream home is about our personal brand as a family, who we are. The concept translates to a dream office that speaks to a company’s brand and unique DNA. The questions we ask are: Does it reflect your company’s beliefs and tell your story? If a visitor walked through your space and never spoke to a sole, would they know who you are and what you stand for?
The way my Mom is inspired by her home is just as possible in a commercial space, and can open a new dimension in creativity and purpose. Our sense of community at family dinners can translate to company meetings. Whether it’s a dream home or dream office, good design changes everything.


Mom enjoying her birthday with several of her grand children at her dream home on a typical Sunday.

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