For this two-part article, we are turning the spotlight on a collaborative homebuilding project that shows what can happen when homeowners possess both the vision and the patience (waiting for the right place and the right time) to design the entire homesite inclusive of landscaping from the ground up. The collaboration of the landscape architect and residential architect at the outset made for a nearly seamless transition into the construction phase many months later.
In part one, we track the progress of the project from the initial idea and discovery of the perfect site through the pre-design research and goal-setting phase.
Beginning with a grassy parcel of land occupied by a tiny old cottage, homeowners Tom and Nancy Stout envisioned their ideal home in which the dwelling would exist in harmony with the surrounding landscape. Altogether, it took a couple of years (patience) once they’d found the right place, but the results of their collaborative design and construction process are remarkable.
From Idea to Action: Making a Better Home
Nancy and Tom Stout had a vision and were able to accomplish something all too rare in the world of home building and landscaping: They followed through on it. They had the ambition and patience to do their homework and assemble the right team of professionals to carry out those dreams.
The story of the ideal home, the one they dreamed of, began decades earlier when Tom worked as a comptroller for a homebuilder and became intrigued with the business.
At that same time, the couple lived in a house that was about twenty years old. Over time they became aware of its many shortcomings. Tom recalls saying to Nancy, “Wouldn’t it be great to someday build our own house?” The two felt they could do better if they had the opportunity to build exactly the house they wanted.
Obviously, when you buy a house that’s been previously owned, you live with what’s there. And we had a long list of things that we would have done differently in design, also in mechanical systems and insulation.
Lot for Sale
One afternoon Nancy was driving and saw a small handmade sign that said “Lot for Sale.” It pointed to a side road that she’d passed thousands of times but never had a reason to turn down it. Now she did: “I drove up that road and saw this beautiful green rolling lot with a little white cottage on it. It was so pretty. I sat there in the car and took pictures.” She phoned Tom and told him she’d found a property, barely a mile from their own, that looked like the perfect place to build their house the way they’d always wanted.
I thought it would be a great opportunity to build exactly what we wanted, how we wanted it, and be involved in that process.
They called the phone number on the sign and arranged a meeting with the owners. As it turned out, there were two side by side lots for sale. One was vacant, and one had the house. The Stouts negotiated a two-part deal to purchase the vacant property and wait for the second one to become available when the owners were ready to move. About a year later they closed on the second lot, and the homesite was theirs.
Style, Size, Scale: Where to Begin?
The Stouts took their time to think about the style of home they wanted to build. They spent time looking at houses around Vienna and taking pictures. They foraged for design ideas on the internet and paged through stacks of shelter magazines. They agreed on an architectural direction that Tom described as “kind of a Martha’s Vineyard/New England/Shaker/Craftsman combination thing.” Tom knew he wanted the exterior to fit with the country road feel of the setting. Nancy was determined that the interior of the house not feel cavernous and cold: No McMansions. They knew they wanted a house that, although it might be large, would feel comfortable and inviting to inhabit.
We’d been through a lot of large model homes where the master bedroom is 30 by 30 with a 15-foot ceiling, and there’s a king-sized bed in there that looks like a child’s bed because the rest of the room is so oversized. Being in a room like that felt cold.
An important influence on the process for Tom was a book he discovered called Designing a Perfect House by William Hirsch. Tom says, that unlike many books that lean toward a checklist of do’s and don’ts, Hirsch’s book taught him about scale and symmetry, and about how a house should “reveal” itself to you as you move through it. Using the book as a resource, he developed a detailed room-by-room guide that specified the function of each space and the particular feeling he hoped to achieve in each.
Part two of this story, Building the Dream, reveals how the homeowners assembled their architectural team to begin the site planning process and create integrated designs for the landscape and the home.