At the age when most people are ready to downsize and simplify, Doug and Sherry Caves suddenly found themselves wading into a big complication.
"I never thought I'd be building a house at 60," Sherry says, laughing.
The Caveses - he's a semi-retired economist, also 60; she's a homemaker - had lived for 20 years in a converted cottage on the west end of Madison's Lake Mendota. Built in 1939, it needed a lot of work. But there were too many expensive problems, including structural deficiencies, for a conventional remodeling. "The cost / benefit equation just didn't work out," Sherry recalls.
Still, they were determined to stay in their leafy Middleton Beach Road neighborhood, with its beautiful lake views. So the couple, with four grown children, bought the 80-foot-wide property next door; tore down their own house, recycling much of it with Habitat for Humanity; and combined the two lots.
That would enable them to build a 2,900-square-foot house - smaller than most teardowns, but just the right size for the Caveses, who have been living in their vacation home in Spring Green since construction got under way in June. "We wanted something welcoming and earthy, not something dominating," Sherry says.
To find an architect who would have the same vision, they looked at other custom homes, asked around and narrowed the search to a handful of candidates, whom they interviewed. They chose Doug Kozel of Madison's KEE Architecture, who had come highly recommended by someone they met at a party. Kozel and his three partners have won major awards from AIA Wisconsin, the state arm of the American Institute of Architects, and are admired for their beautifully scaled, well-detailed modernist homes.
"The temptation in these cases," Kozel says of teardowns, "is to solve problems by making things bigger. Here, we tried to keep things smaller, more modest," as architect and author Sarah Susanka advises in her "Not So Big House" books.
"Smaller is plenty good, usually," Kozel says, "and it's more interesting."
Sherry declined to reveal the price tag for the project, but Kozel said his fee will be 10% of the construction cost - in the middle of the 5%-to-15% range statewide.
The three-bedroom, cedar-clapboard house Kozel came up with will be 1 1/2 stories, with a cascading roof. Accessible features, allowing the Caveses to age comfortably in place, include a ramped entrance, a ground-floor bathroom and wide doorways that can accommodate a wheelchair. And there's an old-fashioned veranda facing the street and generous windows that will afford sweeping views of the lake.
There was a bit of sparring between Kozel and the Caveses over the number and size of the windows. Sherry said, "My husband was always saying, 'More windows, more windows!' so there was a little tension over that."
"They pay for that view, so you can hardly blame them," he said. "But when you look at a building, you should be able to read the essential core and the mass of it. You need weight, substance and edges."
A model of the house suggests that the resulting compromise, which Kozel calls "a modern take on the simpler cottages that were here before," will be both airy and substantial, bringing the outside in while allowing the timber-frame structure to express itself.
Except for the window skirmishes, the Caveses didn't second-guess their architect and his team very often.
"We didn't want to spend a lot of time and energy worrying about the project," Sherry says. "We just wanted to get it done and live in it."
By next summer she'll have her wish.
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