Grand getaways: two larger-than-life custom vacation homes

These vacation homes are anything but the stereotypical beach shack or cabin in the woods.

March 23, 2012

What’s a custom builder to do when a client has larger-than-life dreams for a second home? Everything possible, especially when the clients are truly engaged in the design and construction process. The two homes featured here exemplify the extra mile builders and design professionals are willing to go for such customers.

Take, for example, builder Grady Burnette and architect Gary Cunningham, who had to figure out how to get heavy machinery up a steep hill with minimal site disturbance to build the Wimberley residence (next page). Burnette also rented a warehouse where 600 fiber-cement panels were hand-stained to match, as closely as possible, the bark on the trees around the house.

Ralph Busco, who built the New Jersey beachfront home featured below, says one of his biggest challenges was to coordinate deliveries of materials, particularly the massive amount of stone and tile imported from overseas. Architect Paul Kiss recalls that finding just the right shade of white for the stone on the exterior was quite time-consuming.

Project #1: Castle in the sand

With its white stucco and stone exterior, the Sand Castle is appropriately named. The home’s three-story stone chimney is visible from the street. The windows look custom, but most of them are standard, says architect Paul Kiss: “They’re just put together in a unique way.” PHOTOS: WRECK POND PARTNERS PHOTOS LLC



With its views of the Atlantic City skyline, this 5,386-square-foot home in Brigantine, N.J., embodies the clients’ dreams of a luxurious getaway. Since it’s only a few hours from their primary residence, they use the home as a weekend retreat, says architect Paul Kiss of Olivieri, Shousky & Kiss, Collingswood, N.J. 

“They regularly entertain their entire family, including children and grandchildren,” says Kiss, adding that as many as 30 people visit at one time.

Obviously, maximizing views of Atlantic City was a big priority for Kiss: “I wanted to encompass everything from the oceanfront casinos to the marina casinos. You can see them in a panoramic way from the living room and dining room.” He angled the three-story house to provide vistas from all the bedrooms as well.

The family room and two secondary bedrooms are on the first floor, while the kitchen, living room, dining room, and two additional bedrooms occupy the second floor. The entire third floor is devoted to the master suite, which includes a sitting room, a huge walk-in closet, and a palatial bath with dual vanities, a clawfoot tub, and an oversized shower with a built-in seat. Slabs of onyx line the shower walls.

Kiss says the clients wanted an elevator from the start, not just the rough-in. “Almost every beach house we do now has either an elevator or a shaft that is used as a closet until they need an elevator,” he says. “It’s become a feature that people expect in a multimillion-dollar home.”

The grandest space is the living room, where the ceiling rises to 20 feet. To meet hurricane-zone requirements, the ceiling is framed with steel. Steel was also used as a structural element to support the massive amount of stone and tile in the house.

The great room affords panoramic views of the Atlantic City skyline. In lieu of draperies, the homeowners installed motorized window shades for light control and privacy.


Building on the beach comes with many site constraints. In this case, there were setbacks dictated by local zoning. A special permit from the state Department of Environment Protection had to be obtained, and FEMA regulations required the home to be built on pilings, above the minimum elevation of 10 feet, 6 inches. The home couldn’t exceed the maximum building height of 37 feet.

As if that wasn’t enough, the buildable area was limited. “The site is only about 60 by 100 feet,” says Ralph Busco of AlisonPaul Builders, Brigantine, N.J. “We had to stay within all the setbacks, which differ from other lots in Brigantine because it’s a corner lot on a dead-end street, in addition to being direct beachfront property.”

Busco describes the home as a mix of contemporary and Mediterranean. The clay-tile roof, he says, was “fabulous to work with because it gave the house some character.”

He adds that the whole-house automation system is “way beyond anything we’ve ever done before. You can push one button and turn on every light in the house. There must be 600 wires coming out of the electrical panels.” 

The cost of the imported stone and tile ran into the high six figures and included limestone flooring and stair treads, onyx walls in the master shower, and custom tile work in the secondary baths. The monochromatic interior evokes the calm, relaxing atmosphere the clients desired, says interior designer Rob Hesslein, The H Group, Red Bank, N.J.

Hesslein used linen white throughout the home, with slightly darker trim in some areas, and textures of off-whites and light tans. Strategically placed glass sculptures add pops of color. 

Kiss points out that there is no wood decking on the porches and patios. “It’s all natural stone, for durability and low maintenance,” he says. “The clients wanted something that would be there for generations.”

Finding the white stone that surrounds the base of the building took some effort, says Hesslein. “We looked at many different batches to try to get a white exterior stone. A lot of the samples were on the pink side.” But now that the home is finished, it’s easy to see why the owners dubbed it the Sand Castle.


Project #2: Respectful of nature

A covered porch offers respite from the Texas sun. Water for the pool and landscaping is supplied from an on-site, 10,000-gallon storage tank. PHOTOS: TRE DUNHAM/FINE FOCUS


More than anything, the owners of this home in Wimberley, Texas, wished to minimize their impact on the land and save as many trees as possible. That wasn’t easy given the hilly, rocky terrain; a successful collaboration between the builder, architect, and client made it happen.

“They wanted a house with good views that was kind of sheltered in the woods,” says Gary Cunningham of Cunningham Architects, Dallas. The clients’ admiration for the work of renowned California architect Richard Neutra inspired Cunningham to design a modern home with lots of glass. 

The 5,000-square-foot home is nestled into a bluff and has an L-shaped plan that separates the bedroom wing from the more public kitchen, living room, and dining room wing. There are essentially two boxes: one of glass and the other with an exterior of stained cement fiberboard. “The home starts out as one story, then steps down the hill to become a three-level house,” Cunningham says.

Roughly in the center of the home, beneath the main living areas, are a guest suite and a media room that doubles as a storm shelter. The roof deck offers expansive views of the surrounding area and is a favorite spot for large family gatherings. It also acts as a rainwater harvesting surface for an on-site, 45,000-gallon collection system that supplies all the water for the household’s needs.

“The clients didn’t want to drill a well,” Cunningham explains. Another 10,000 gallons of water are stored separately for the pool and landscaping.

It took the team six months just to lay out a half-mile road up to the property. There were many trees they wanted to save, including Texas mountain laurels and live oaks.

“The road up the hill to the site was a challenge,” says Grady Burnette of Burnette Builders, Wimberley, Texas. “Parts of it are fairly steep and there are some sharp curves in it. Getting massive pieces of equipment up there took some thinking and planning, and because there was such limited access, excavation was tricky as well.”

Slats in the living room’s fir ceiling conceal lighting and insulation for sound attenuation — critical in a home with concrete floors and glass walls. Sliding doors open to capture breezes for natural cooling. 


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