My Home is Your Model

Chris Morgan recently opened his new home-a 9000 square-foot French-provincial style residence in Windemere, Fla., near Orlando-to more than 30,000 of his closest friends.

November 01, 1999

Chris Morgan recently opened his new home-a 9000 square-foot French-provincial style residence in Windemere, Fla., near Orlando-to more than 30,000 of his closest friends.

As a principal in the regional luxury contracting firm of Goehring & Morgan in Orlando, Fla., Morgan is accustomed to helping attract crowds of upper echelon homebuyers to view home sites, but seldom on the scale of the Greater Orlando Street of Dreams event that opened October 21 and rarely to his own house. But, with the best in home building on display, thousands turned out for walk throughs of the house his family will soon call home.

Indeed, when builders build their own houses, their designs are often dictated as much by viewing considerations as they are by personal living needs. In the extreme case of Morgan’s featured show home, residential designer Jim Zirkel of Home Design Services Inc. satisfied public and private requirements through a careful process of give-and-take with Morgan. For example, the French provincial theme of the exterior was a personal requirement. A second staircase in the rear of the home, however, was added to improve visitor traffic flow. And, says Morgan, as the show date approached, interior design decisions became more difficult to make when compressed to meet the show deadline.

"Communication [between decision makers] was harder to balance during the course of construction,’’ says Morgan, who feels that, in the end, the house consists of everything he and his wife wanted, but, "there are things in there that I might not have wanted for one reason or another."

Two of the other personal residences featured in The Tour are more typical of the approach that builders take when designing and building their own homes. They did not plan extensive walk through periods, but occasional viewings by prospects and clients were anticipated. To these luxury homebuilders, personal residences often must double as exclusive showrooms.

"In doing my house, I knew that a lot of my clients and customers would be going through it," says architect and builder Charles Page of Page Builders, Northfield, Ill. "I felt them kind of looking over my shoulder and I didn’t want to veer too far from what we do ordinarily, because they all will want what I have in my house."

Brad O’Neill of the design/build firm The O’Neill Group in Blaine, Wash., near Vancouver, B.C. admits that if personal living considerations completely ruled the design process, he and his wife would be living in a home about half the size of their newly constructed Puget Sound dream house. "I have to say that [luxury amenities] do spoil you. As I get older, I like my creature comforts very much. We live in about a five thousand square foot house and my wife and I would do well with about a 2500 footer," but, he says, "it would probably have the same amenities."

Demonstrating New Features

An empty nester, architect Page recently designed and built his personal residence for the eighth time. The result of his effort, a 7000 square foot masterpiece in Winnetka, Ill., is completely in keeping with all of the major trends in empty nester luxury living. Its large and inviting kitchen/great room attests to the decline and near death of the traditional American living room, which is much smaller and out of the way. And, a deluxe master suite is positioned where it must be for empty nesters on the main level.

"I would say that staying up-to-date is the reason I build a house every four or five years," says Page. "You are so tuned into trends and all of sudden your house starts feeling old-fashioned. As builders, we are right there on the cutting edge and so you want it for yourself and you want to experience it. And you want to be able to show it."

And showing it takes on added importance these days with the increasing presence of high technology products being built into luxury homes, namely: lighting controls, home theaters, video intercoms, and networked computer workstations. In talking with prospective clients and clients about these electronic amenities, O’Neill, Morgan and Page agree that the ability to demonstrate these items in their own homes helps to overcome obstacles. Aging-boomer homebuyers are surprisingly resistant to extra technology in the home, they say. To them, technology shopping is confusing and not an important use of time spent with their builder or architect. O’Neill’s new home offers extensive networking capability and his approach to clients is to stress the practical and logical aspects of built-in electronics.

"What I have done in my house is bring in at least two coaxial cables, knowing that we are going to have computer feeds that will be using cable as opposed to telephone lines very shortly," says O’Neill. "We home base all of our satellite and cable and phone systems to one center so that there can always be additions and easy renovations to the communications system. We have computer centers. We have scene lighting, which is very simple and very popular. But it is very helpful to do it in your own home. We did it all here in our residence and then we let the clients in and let them play with it. They get more enthusiastic about it when they see how simple it can be."

Site Selection with A Purpose

When builders build their own houses, the for-show aspects do not end with the home design and its interior. Site selection and location are key elements. Our roundtable participants each had specific goals in mind with regard to their building sites. For Morgan, a prime lot with excellent building dimensions to enhanced the "wow" factor during the Street of Dreams show. For O’Neill and Page, difficult terrain for one and irregular lot shape for the other provided a forum to showcase the ways such obstacles can be turned to advantages with excellent design.

Morgan’s and his wife selected a lot in Windemere’s Keene’s Point subdivision that is situated between a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course and a 200-acre private lake. "With the golf course in front of our house and the lake in the rear," says Morgan, "a major consideration in designing the entries was capturing all of the views especially at sunset." And the Morgan’s home includes nighttime views as well. Fireworks from Disney World’s nearby Magic Kingdom are viewed particularly well from an upstairs bonus room.

Because buildable salt water frontage property in Washington is precious, much of it is similar to the site selected by Brad O’Neill steep and mountainous with numerous old-growth trees. It presented an intriguing design challenge, but one O’Neill overcame with the use of large cantilevering decks. And his success working with the very tight design envelope put a positive light on his firm’s design and construction abilities. "The art of doing it, is to design a traditional home that fits within the parameters, and when it is all done, to make it look like the house has been there for 30 years,’’ adds O’Neill.

About a half-acre in size, the lot Charles Page selected was the least desirable of 10 he developed in an area near Lake Michigan. The lot had twin problems of a small back yard and was adjacent to a main road. He is proud to show clients how well-positioned landscape elements and the inclusion of a rear screen porch to the home negated these design issues. "I have completely screened the back yard. It is all flowers. And it just shows the possibilities," says Page.

Home Building from Home

In addition to using their new homes’ as client show places, Page and O’Neill either plan on working from home in the future or currently do so. Among the advantages: both view working at home as a way to become more closely linked with their client base, many of which live nearby.

"We have found that if you have your design studio within your community, and if you make that studio part of your residence, there is tremendous merit in that arrangement," says O’Neill, who long ago gave up the downtown office. "People naturally feel that you are hands-on and accessible and like that you are a stone’s throw away from their project. And to keep our resale options open, we designed our studio space, to be easily converted into a maid’s quarters or a mother-in-law suite or studio."

Page, on the other hand, says he is just beginning the process of closing his longtime office to begin working from home. "I still have an office, but I am closing it. Everyone wants to come here anyway. I just let visitors drift through to look at something and refresh their memory and get ideas."

The Builder as a Design Client

After designing Chris Morgan’s home and those of several home builders over the years, Jim Zirkel says the design process for builders is, in many ways, easier because of their knowledge. They come in knowing what they want but, he says, as products need to be selected their knowledge tends to slow things.

"It’s a two-edge sword," says Zirkel of designing homes for builders. "It is easier to communicate. Most builders conceptualize and understand ideas. On the other hand, they have been exposed to a lot of different designs and unless they come in very focused with a preconceived concept, it is sometimes difficult getting them to settle down on what they want because there is so much out there for them."

They don’t know exactly what it is that they want, you know like a little kid in a candy shop. Except they have seen the whole candy shop.

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