How to lessen the stress and engage success when building a custom home

“I started simplifying some of my work around 2010 and gradually became more intrigued by modern style,” says Pat. “I’ve embraced the ‘less is more’ concept. I still like traditional shapes and forms, but over time I gravitated to this idea of stripping those forms to the bare minimum.”

Therese was immediately on board with the idea of a modern house, particularly because she has always been anti-clutter.

“Our old house was very traditional, but we were ready to move on to a place with a simpler style with lots of glass and windows that go down to the floor,” says Therese.

The Keatings, who downsized from the home where they raised their three daughters, were determined to stay in their much-loved neighborhood, the Garrett Park Historic District in Montgomery County, where they have lived since 2000.

“This is our third house in Garrett Park,” says Therese. “One of the things we love about it is that you have to walk to the post office to get your mail, so the post office is the social hub of the town. There’s a neighborhood association, progressive dinners, a farmer’s market and a pool, plus we can walk to a MARC train station to get to Union Station downtown.”

The Keatings also appreciate the way the neighborhood is tucked between Beach Drive and Rockville Pike, with easy access to biking and running in Rock Creek Park.

Design challenges

Building a new home in a historic district can be a challenge, but PKK Builders and GTM Architects have worked together on numerous projects over the past decade, many in historic neighborhoods.

“This place was Pat and Therese’s dream home, so it was a great collaboration of ideas,” says Luke Olson, a senior associate with GTM Architects in Bethesda. “We would pitch an idea and Pat would immediately run with it and make a quick decision.”

The Keatings found a lot in Garrett Park with an outdated home on the property which they received permission to tear down. The narrow lot wasn’t perfect, but it was in the exact location the couple preferred.

“We overspent on the lot because we wanted it and we overspent on the house, but this project wasn’t a monetary decision, it was our dream,” says Pat.

The couple spent about $800,000 on the lot and approximately $1.2 million on the house, which has 5,000 square feet on three levels with five bedrooms and five bathrooms.

“We had to design the house to fit in with the historic character of Garrett Park,” says Olson. “It was also a narrow and tight lot, which meant we had to increase the functionality of the space inside. The Historic District doesn’t want to discourage modern design, but the house must fit in with its neighbors in terms of height and massing, and cover less of the lot than the county mandates.”

GTM designed the house to be shorter than the house on one side and slightly taller than the house on the other. The architects presented a height study, a streetscape rendering and a 3D model of the house to the Historic Preservation Commission for approval.

“We weren’t able to do a finished attic in this house because we needed to be in line with adjacent houses,” says Olson. “We were careful not to make the house look too boxy, so there’s a little push-and-pull on the exterior and some overhang over the windows.”

On the inside, Olson designed the home with minimal details, warm wood, natural stone and three sides of glass.

“Some people who have seen our house wonder what happened to the crown molding and other details they’re used to seeing in my houses,” says Pat. “They think we’re trying to save money, but the truth is that building a modern home takes even more skill. There’s no margin for error in a modern home. Everything has to be perfect because there’s no trim to hide anything.”

“The narrow and long lot meant that we needed to work with our landscape architect from the beginning to make sure that we were connecting the indoor and outdoor space,” says Pat. “There are no steps from the family room to the screened porch to the patio, so it feels like one big area, which we were able to achieve with the landscaping.”

Features for both spouses

The Keatings had strong ideas about the elements that were important to them individually.

“Both Pat and I come from big families,” says Therese. “I’m one of four siblings and he’s one of five and we love to have our friends and family over often. I convinced everyone that we didn’t need a separate living room because I wanted a dining room large enough to entertain our extended family.”

The dining room, just off the front door, has a specially built conference table that seats 16. Therese says it will have to convey with the home when they sell someday since it’s too big to be moved.

“The conference table isn’t delicate, so it functions well as a desk for our daughter sometimes, too,” says Therese. “We bought comfortable chairs from West Elm and then bought five more of the same chairs for the kitchen so we can bring them into the dining room when we have bigger groups. Some of our happiest memories are when Pat’s 93-year-old dad would sit at our dining table and tell stories from 40 or 50 years ago.”

Therese found hand-blown glass globe lights from Canada that hang over the dining table.

“Our neighbors compliment us on the lights because they see them from outside when they walk by in the evening,” she says.

Instead of a traditional breakfast area, the Keatings opted to have a breakfast table that seats five built as an extension from their kitchen island. Hedy Shashaani of Jack Rosen Custom Kitchens worked with the Keatings to design their kitchen for style and efficiency. The kitchen has glossy white cabinets with a dark base cabinet for the island, a dark accent wall with an oversized built-in refrigerator, stainless-steel appliances and extensive storage drawers.

“Functionality was a big priority for this house,” says Olson. “For example, off to one side of the kitchen we extended the kitchen cabinets and created a little office for Therese that connects with the mudroom.”

Therese says she appreciates that she has a built-in desk with space for files and a slide-out shelf for a printer that are made of the same material as the kitchen cabinets. The pantry and mudroom nearby provide additional storage.

For Pat, says Olson, a linear gas fireplace, a statement staircase with floating stairs and the maximum possible use of glass were important.

“The staircase was a design challenge because we wanted to incorporate the windows, make an eye-catching focal point with lots of light and yet also provide enough privacy so that someone coming down the stairs in the morning wouldn’t be seen from the street,” says Olson. “We added remote-controlled motorized blinds to screen off sections of the windows in the stairwell.”

A welder spent about a week installing the wrought iron staircase, says Pat, which is blended with wood to warm up the space. Shiplap walls also surround the stairwell windows.

“We had to decide on the blinds before the house was built because they recess into the ceiling,” says Therese. “It looks like we don’t have window treatments at all, but we needed the privacy and we can adjust the blinds with an app.”

Spaces to work and entertain

The Keatings moved into their home in June 2018, long before the novel coronavirus would impact everyone’s lives. They’ve found their home functions as well for working and sheltering in place as it does for entertaining in normal times.

“Even though we downsized, it’s important to us to have plenty of space for our daughters to come and go easily,” says Therese. “Right now, my sister is staying with us for a month and one of our daughters is living with us and working from home.”

In addition to the four bedrooms and three full bathrooms on the upper level, there’s a full bathroom and guest bedroom on the lower level.

The lower level also includes Pat’s office, a gym and a storage room.

“Pat’s got a great eye for detail, so he created a metal screen for privacy without needing to close off his office entirely,” says Olson. “The metal screen ties in with the metal staircase, too, and there are barn doors if you want more privacy. The lower-level storage and exercise room are clad in plywood with a natural finish instead of drywall, which softens the space.”

While Pat finds privacy in the home in the office and gym, Therese likes to relax in the upstairs sitting room or on the deck off the master bedroom that overlooks the back patio. The master suite also has a spa-like bathroom with a freestanding tub under a window, a glass-enclosed curb-less shower and floating vanities.

The Keatings enjoy celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and holidays with friends and family in their new home, which has been designed for a seamless transition from the kitchen to the family room, to the screened porch and to the backyard.

Olson is particularly impressed with the back of the house, where the family room has retractable glass walls to open onto the screened porch. A steel pergola around the porch hides the mechanics for motorized screens, so it’s possible to open the house and porch entirely to the backyard. The yard includes a stone patio with a two-level fountain and an outdoor fireplace.

“People gravitate to the back of the house to sit in the family room or on the screened porch and it’s like one huge room,” says Pat. “We have a big flat-screen TV where the whole family can gather to watch sports, too.”

Therese says she expects to move again in five to 10 years when she says she’ll be ready for a smaller condo, but Pat says this is their forever home.

“I love being in this house because it feels like we’re outside all the time no matter what the weather is like,” says Pat.

Tips from a custom builder

● Technology improvements such as remote-controlled blinds, retractable glass doors and walls of glass make wide-open floor plans easier to design and more livable.

● Extensive planning before building begins can save time and money on any project.

● When location is important, it’s often possible to make a challenging lot configuration work.

● Thoughtful interior planning for functionality can reduce the amount of land needed for a home, which can be a significant savings.

● Retractable glass pocket doors can be expensive but designing for standard sizes rather than custom sizes can make the price more manageable.

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