When the owners of this new South Carolina lakefront home were first confronted with what 10,000 sq. ft. can look like laid out on paper, they were taken aback at the potential scale of their future residence. The family-focused second home they’d been dreaming about looked more like a grand chateau.
“Their initial reaction was, ‘Wow, this looks like a big hotel,’ ” says Matt Tindall, AIA, project architect with Neal-Prince Architects of Greenville, S.C. So the architect went back to his drawing board and focused his ongoing iterations on ensuring Carolina comfort — not high style — as the predominant theme. “A lot of the decisions were born out of that reaction.”
Although it’s difficult for a house with five bedroom suites not to appear grand, Tindall’s choice of the shingle-style motif certainly aids the effort. Like a latter-day Stanford White, Tindall used the approach’s mix of materials and massings to break up the square footage and create the multiple large and small spaces the owners’ entertaining needs required. And that historical style’s emphasis on opening a home’s interior to its surroundings also proved a perfect fit for this project, which makes the most of its stunning location.
Visitors who approach by car are given teasing glances of the expansive Lake Keowee vistas the home’s site provides, thanks to an open-sided breezeway that connects the home’s two wings. When they walk through the domed foyer and into the main living space, however, the house seems to explode outward toward a rear façade that really is the home’s more public-facing exposure.
“This house embraces you and then just opens itself up to the lakeside,” Tindall says, noting the experience his firm has had on numerous other homes in the same development. “[They] are building on the lake for a reason. A lot of entertaining and visiting is done by boat — so a lot of times, the lake elevation is the front elevation.”
The site brought challenges along with its charms, though, with the peninsula’s point forcing a somewhat idiosyncratic layout into the plans. In addition, Tindall and contractors Sexton-Griffith Custom Builders also had to work with some existing site conditions. Significantly, the lot had been cleared and a septic system installed by a previous owner. Changes were required because the new home’s footprint was larger than the lot’s previous owners had planned. While the pump-based drain field stayed in place, the main tank had to be relocated to ensure appropriate clearance.
To address both the site’s shape and septic needs, Tindall tucked the house, L-fashion, into a corner, with the main body of the house facing the approach and the garage at a right angle. The breezeway connects the two structures, and it is topped by an enclosed, gallery-style hallway that leads to separate guest quarters, complete with a playroom, over the garage.
Inside and out, the home showcases an extraordinary level of detail. The exterior stone veneer, for example, was hand-chipped on-site — masons were on-site six or seven months out of the 16 months of construction, according to Barry Griffith, one of Sexton-Griffith’s two owners. The parking area’s cobbles were similarly hand-cut and set around bluestone slabs placed to look as though they’d rested in the same spot for millennia. And, where others might have turned to a manufactured product for retaining walls, Tindall turned, yet again, to the region’s characteristic Doggett Mountain stone.
“Matt wasn’t going to put anything manufactured in that house except for the PVC piping,” Griffith says.
While existing lot conditions played their role in the home’s siting, the overarching goal in the plan was to maximize the view. In addition to the expanse of Lake Keowee, there was also the opportunity to catch glimpses of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which tower above the lake’s surrounding trees. Tindall met this challenge with a third floor anchored to the lower two levels by means of a turret-shaped tower.
“That became the hinge point of the home,” he says of the turret. At its top, he located an observatory that provides wonderful opportunities for small-group entertaining. But a third floor also added complications — chief among them, providing a means to get there. A single grand staircase rising up three levels would have fostered that “big hotel” feeling the clients had rejected, plus its positioning would have made difficult the goal to enable water views from every room.
“That might have been one of the most complex set of negotiations we had,” Tindall says. The solution involves multiple staircases, including front and back stairwells connecting the first and second floor, with a third set of stairs leading up to the observatory. An elevator also serves all three levels.
The front staircase illustrates the attention that was paid to details throughout the house — along with Tindall’s hands-on involvement. The staircase is lined with coffered paneling in a pattern of Tindall’s design. But you won’t find the detailing on any of the drawings — Tindall drew it onto the bare wall, providing carpenters with a shape-to-fit template right at the site.
Similar care was spent on the kitchen, which could possibly support a medium-sized restaurant. It has all the amenities, including two refrigerators, three sinks and a signature steel stove hood finished in copper. But to add a bit of country — or make what could seem oversized and commercial more comfortable and homelike — the kitchen’s dominating features are a custom designed and built bar and center island, created by a firm specializing in period reproduction furniture.
“For all purposes, they’re furniture pieces,” Tindall says. “They have the feel of big pieces of furniture, leaning more to casual elegance.”
Planning for Success
For Griffith and his partner, Kevin Sexton, the sheer scale of the project was a learning experience. The 20-year-old partnership has handled its share of custom homes, along with some commercial efforts, but this job was among the most demanding in the firm’s two decades.
“There may be some that have been bigger, but certainly none more complicated,” says Sexton, whose partner ticks off the challenges of scheduling both trade and craft work, when everything from shingling to paneling features
“It’s not that there’s anything here we haven’t done before,” Griffith says. “But this is the most we’ve had in one project.”
The partners agree that their long-standing relationship with Neal-Prince Architects was a boon to the project, along with a commitment among all involved to design/build principles. Because of their involvement from the beginning of design, the contractors were aware of the architects’ design intent, and the architects and clients had realistic pricing from the start.
“The customers like the fact that we didn’t try to talk them out of some of the details on the plans,” Griffith says. The pricing input continued throughout design and construction — an especially important factor in the project’s success, the partners say, because numerous changes and upgrades made the final cost a moving target.
While public accolades — such as RD+B’s 2010 Design Excellence Award — certainly help make all the work worthwhile, Griffith gets greater satisfaction from a life-choice the completion of this planned weekend home prompted the owners to make.
“After they finished the house,” he says with a smile in his voice, “they liked it so much, they made it their primary home instead of their secondary home.”