Vacation Homes: Family Affairs

News reports may be filled with doom and gloom for home builders, but those professionals whose business is focused on the custom second-home market aren’t seeing signs of slowdown. From North Carolina’s mountains to Montana’s Big Sky country, these pros are staying busy creating high-end vacation retreats designed with a family-friendly emphasis, and with budgets that often rival those of their owners’ primary residences.

Bonnie Pickartz observes the vacation-home market from both a local and national perspective. As owner, with her husband David, of Franklin, N.C.-based Goshen Timber Frames, she sees little slowdown in demand for custom getaways in North Carolina’s scenic Blue Ridge Mountains. And, as vice president of the Timber Frame Business Council, a national association of timber-frame builders, she sees equally strong demand in other areas of the country, as well.

“I don’t think people who are building long-term vacation homes took a hit on the subprime mortgage market,” she says.

“We haven’t seen a slowdown in our market, and we’re not seeing it as a whole in the industry.”

That observation is echoed by other second-home specialists, in areas ranging from Texas to Michigan and Montana. In fact, some custom builders are seeing growing activity in this market segment, as value-conscious buyers seek to take advantage of potentially lower prices.

“With a lot of the really custom stuff, people are starting to move now, because they think it’s a good time to buy again,” says Brian Scott, president of Lone Pine Builders, in Big Sky, Mont. “What you have now is all the builders are fighting for those clients because all the other building has slowed down.”

Casual Comforts

When it comes to design, these big-budget clients are similarly single-minded. They may desire formality in their first homes, but informality is the guiding principle when it comes to their vacation home’s appearance. And, where their weekday residences may feature spacious bedrooms and private spaces, when it comes to the weekend, these owners want wide-open interior spaces for gathering their families together.

“I think, instead of a normal house where you have a grown-up living room, vacation homes are much more about family living together,” says David Webber, AIA, principal of Webber Studio in Austin, Texas. “So there are fewer of those living spaces, and they’re all contiguous to each other.”

But this lack of formality shouldn’t be construed to mean low-budget finishes. In fact, designers specializing in this market see their clients spending as much on these homes as they would on their weekday abodes. However, in these more relaxed surroundings, formal, polished surfaces and hand-carved moldings are giving way to natural materials and cleaner lines. Flooring and cabinetry may even be distressed, to create both the illusion of age and a feeling of casual comfort.

“So, once you get the occupants in there, they don’t feel like they can’t scratch the floor,” explains Kent DeReuss, AIA, vice president of architecture and design for Lincolnshire, Ill.-based Orren Pickell Designers & Builders, who adds these aged materials can carry a premium. “Oftentimes in the market now, the price for those materials is actually quite high.”

However, while vacation-home owners may want their cabinets to bear the scars of apparent age, only the most modern appliances will do when it comes to fitting out their kitchens.

“It’s all ‘pro’ series when it comes to appliances,” Scott says. “If it’s not an inlaid door, it’s stainless — with custom hoods.”
Vacation-home bedrooms, on the other hand, generally are less imposing. While first-floor master suites are as popular in these settings as they are in primary residences, bathrooms aren’t necessarily the grand, spa-like retreats primary home buyers often request. And designs for auxiliary guest rooms often focus more on squeezing as many beds into the space as possible than on size and wall coverings.

“We’ve now done three different vacation homes where some sort of bunk room is desired,” Webber says. Such an arrangement might seem uniquely appropriate in the cattle country of Webber’s Texas base, but DeReuss, Scott and Pickartz all also noted a similar interest in dorm-style accommodations to maximize the number of family and friends who can enjoy the home at any given time.

Outdoor Living

Perhaps private bedrooms aren’t quite so important because guests expect to spend more time outside when they visit, and today’s vacation homes certainly provide numerous opportunities, both inside and out, to take advantage of scenic settings. Public spaces typically are oriented toward expansive windows, whether the view beyond is of mountains, lakes or the Texas foothills. And exterior plans generally incorporate multiple seating and activity areas for maximum outdoor enjoyment.

For example, DeReuss often creates a progression of spaces, from a window-filled great room through to a screened porch, followed by a covered porch, which may then lead to an open-air patio. Outdoor fireplaces are common in these designs, and outdoor kitchens — complete with plumbed sinks and refrigerators — are common amenities, too.

And, for Scott’s Big Sky country clients, ski-in/ski-out doors are common requests. He often provides a second mudroom adjacent to this entryway, with ample storage for skis and other outdoor equipment.

Long-Distance Relationships

Creating these comfortable, laid-back homes can be a deceptively stressful experience, their designers note. First, from a planning standpoint, the lots often are challenging. As DeReuss points out, the high demand for access to water and views means building sites can be both expensive and narrow, so architects have to be creative to make the most of the scenery while also protecting privacy.

Also, in many cases designers and builders are working with either clients or design professionals from other states. This forces the team to create — and stick to — communication plans. It also can require educating both clients and remote building team members about local codes and practices that may differ from what they’re used to.

For Scott, this can mean bringing Midwestern architects up to speed on Montana’s seismic codes and roof-load requirements in a location where annual snowfall averages 400 ft. For Pickartz, working successfully with out-of-state clients means creating a foundation of trust with prospective home buyers. The Internet can help with communications — her company uses an FTP site to move plans and images back and forth — but an e-mailed site photo still isn’t the same as a personal visit.

“It is difficult — they rely on us more heavily,” she says. “I think a homeowner needs to have a more trusting relationship because decisions will be made based on conversations instead of look/touch/feel.”

Patience becomes a key factor in success when long distances are involved, say both Pickartz and Scott. Pickartz — whose clients often see their new vacation homes as future full-time residences once they hit retirement — sometimes finds it necessary to slow down enthusiastic clients who are in a rush to make decisions. And Scott finds patience equally critical to the success of his own operations, in which keeping current clients happy often leads to more business down the road.

“That’s why we only take on two to three projects a year,” he says. “With these houses, you can’t be in a rush to get things done. When we walk away from [a finished project], we want it to be 100 percent successful. In the small community we’re in, the biggest marketing factor is word-of-mouth.”