Choosing to Satisfy

When choosing a builder to construct their dream home, most homeowners have a clear vision of what they want their home to look like. They also have pictures in their minds of their kitchen countertops, bathroom fixtures and the specific style of fireplace they want in their great room.

The trick to transforming these visions into reality is getting the architect and builder to see the pictures the homeowners see in their minds. Often, this is accomplished when homeowners share photographs of products or designs they like; a process often fueled by sending clients home with magazines to flip through for ideas.

When a builder or architect can see photographs of products a client wants in their home, it makes it much easier to deliver on these wishes than trying to read a client's mind. This ability was particularly helpful when facing the challenge of designing the fireplaces in this house built by McNeil Co. Builders in Omaha, Neb. The fireplace consists of three main stones; two vertically on either side, and one across the top of the side stones, resembling the Stonehenge rock formation in Southern England.

"If you look at (these fireplaces) they're so unique; you won't find these fireplaces anyplace else," says Deb Zandt, McNeil's vice president, design. The homeowner cut out a picture from a magazine of a fireplace he liked, and showed it to the McNeil team. Zandt took it from there, sharing the photo with her stone quarry vendor in Montana.

"The quarry guy would scan pictures of the stones he thought would work, e-mailed them to me, and I'd review them with the client. The client rejected a lot of stones before finding the right ones for his fireplace. So the process of finding the stones was long and tedious, but rewarding in the end." By enduring painstaking processes like this with other clients, McNeil Co. has introduced design ideas to the Omaha market.

Zandt does a good job of researching elements such as this fireplace, and that's the magic for clients who work with McNeil, says Patrick McNeil, owner and president. "We sent out the picture of what the homeowner wanted, and asked our vendors if they've seen similar stone, and who they know who might have it. Five weeks later we're where we need to be with the name of a supplier who can get us the stone we need. Our success is about our ability to deliver exactly what the client wants, every time." (See photo, below left.)

The study room, in which this particular fireplace exists, was not originally designed as a study. The house changed ownership during construction, and the new owners wanted this room, originally designed as a formal music room, transformed into its current casual style.

"This room was to be very formal with a baby grand piano, and places to sit and listen to music," Zandt says. "Changing the feel of the room was done with decorating. But the challenge of changing its design was adding a fireplace, the bookcases, a desk and the credenza. The goal was to change the layout to make it a more comfortable room where you can watch TV."

Construction with the original owner had progressed through the framing stage, at which point the new owners did a walk-through. The new owners' preferences effected many structural changes throughout the house, including redesigning the master bathroom, all of which was sped up by the design/build process.

Design Flexibility

The process of redesigning the study room would have been difficult if it were not for McNeil Co. Builders' design/build process. During the redesign, details were sent to the field to get the building process underway, and to keep it moving forward, Zandt explains.

"The change orders, paperwork and other processes would have been difficult for the architect and general contractor if they were not on the same team because an essential part of the design/build process is communication. The entire redesign and construction process would have been very costly if it were not for the communication and flexibility allowed by the design/build process," she adds.

Another example of the customization level made possible at McNeil Co. is incorporating unique elements such as the wood beams and trusses seen throughout the house. The wood beams are from North Carolina, and the effect they create is a casual, warm feel, helped by combining the wood with other stone elements. This wood has cracks and twists in it, and does not create a smooth, finished look, Zandt says.

"It usually requires a six-month lead time to get a long piece of wood that's just right for a particular spot you've got in mind, like for these trusses. You just don't go to the lumberyard and grab beams like these," Zandt explains.

The wood beams are kiln dried and cured, but still react differently to different climates, McNeil adds. "They have a tendency to twist, turn and check. They're naturally like that and with careful thought and planning this won't cause a problem. Including elements like these beams is a very costly decision, and one that is not made casually.

"You create design fluidity by using similar-looking distressed beams throughout the home. So to hang a fancy chandelier from distressed natural wood timber like these creates a contrast that is not in harmony with the casual feel of the rest of the home. If formal is what you're after, you'd use a box beam with a finished look to it, and create a different ambience in the same room," McNeil says.

Wood beams are everywhere, including the entertainment room in the lower level. But beauty shouldn't exist only in the spaces defined by the four walls of a room. Why can't getting to such beautiful areas like this entertainment room be an enjoyable experience, McNeil asks.

For instance, McNeil believes a hallway leading from one beautiful room to another can be beautiful too, which is why so much care and detail went into designing the handrail on the staircase leading down to the entertainment room. "It's great to have interesting elements to capture your attention along the way.

"That handrail is just incredible. The way it is integrated in the stairway with the wood on either side of the wrought iron posts is wonderful. Interesting ideas like this create uniqueness," McNeil says. "When elements like the stairway work so well, you realize it's really worth the effort to make it turn out right."

The entire design department gets credit for the staircase design, Zandt points out. "The draftsmen come up with good ideas all the time. If they see something that might work better or look nicer, they speak up, and the homeowners benefit. We have a trim crew that makes sure goosenecks on the staircases are right, and decides if we can use standard stair parts or must make custom parts. They go over every stairway to make them right."

Creating Community

All these elements - the fireplace, wood beams, the ornate staircase railing - are elements of a ranch house with traditional style and European flair. This home, like many, is designed with the kitchen area as its heart. The house backs up against a pond, and the many windows in the kitchen take advantage of the view overlooking the pond. To further exploit the beautiful scenery, a screened-in porch sits just off the breakfast area, Zandt explains. It's a permanent structure where the owners can eat breakfast and look out over the pond.

The beauty directly outside this house extends to the entire maintenance-free community. "The house began as part of a neighborhood called Linden Estates for which builders entered a lottery for lots. Patrick (McNeil) ended up with 30 lots in this neighborhood. There was a section of the development that included a U-shaped street that was on a pond. Patrick owned several of those lots, and had a vision to buy the entire street, gate the area, and develop the project. So he bought all the lots and now it is an empty-nester neighborhood called the Four Seasons, Linden Estates," Zandt says.

McNeil Co. handles the mowing, snow removal, window cleaning, and more, Zandt adds. "Patrick owns some ground where we'll develop another neighborhood like this."