Mountainside Retreat

When a homeowner likes an architect’s first set of drawings for his new house enough to move forward with construction, that’s a sure sign the relationship between the two is not just any ordinary client/architect relationship. And in the case of Jorge Garcia, ceo and founder of the architectural firm Garcia Brenner Stromberg, Boca Raton, Fla., and his clients, the Millers, this is definitely the case.

Garcia and Miller first met almost 20 years ago when Garcia had started his own business and Miller’s construction company was nipping at Garcia’s feet. Then one day Miller invited Garcia to lunch and said, “Why don’t we work together?” The two became personal friends and professional colleagues who have worked on several projects together through the years.

With solid personal and professional relationships in place between one person who designs houses and another who builds them, it was only natural to use the design/build process to construct the Millers’ house, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It also was natural for Miller to use the construction company to build his own house.

The two have completed several projects using the design/build method, and consider the design/build process a collaboration from the beginning of each job. “We’ve been successful at completing unconventional jobs on time and on budget because of the teamwork afforded us by the design/build process,” Garcia says.

Throughout the entire process of building the Millers’ home, Garcia did not find it difficult to separate his interactions with Miller who is both builder and homeowner. Miller spoke clearly of his wishes as a homeowner, but followed most of those comments by interjecting a “however” and then speaking as the builder, Garcia says. “We both spoke about meeting the project’s guidelines while keeping in mind a balance between what he wanted, and what must be done to get it,” he adds.

Miller says he doesn’t recall being conscious of distinguishing between his interactions with Garcia as both homeowner and builder. “My wife acted more as the homeowner than I did. I’m a construction guy and look at everything from the construction perspective.”

The custom nature of this house, working within the developer’s design restrictions, and building on the side of a mountain, combined to make design/build the only viable solution to the challenge of building this home.

“I doubt this house could have been constructed as it was without the design/build relationship in place,” Garcia says. “You can build great structures within budget if the builder and architect work closely together. I don’t think this house could have been accomplished if not for the ability to work closely with the builder from square one.”

Miller agrees the tight relationship with Garcia made the construction process go smoothly. “When you build a design house like this, there are always many things that have to be decided which end up being related to budget and schedule, and that sort of thing. But because we worked so closely together, and had the same goals in mind, and there was a trust in place, we were able to work together and get it done in budget and according to what we both wanted to accomplish.”

Garcia emphasizes that the Miller house was constructed with a budget which was not out of the ordinary. “Doing so is a matter of intelligently looking at the project and staying in control. If I told a contractor how much it cost per square foot to build this house, he’d say, ‘Yeah right. There’s no way you built it for that amount.’ Then he’d tell me he can build it, too, if he bumped up the cost.”

No process or materials involved with the Miller house were scary in terms of cost or construction, Garcia says. The key to staying within budget is to talk about costs while building the house so there are no surprises that cost anyone more money later in the game. “That way you’ll have no fear of where you’re going with the project,” he adds.

Pushing the envelope Like many developers of private communities such as the one in which this home sits, those in charge established several restrictions and guidelines for the homes built on their property. The constraints imposed by developers typically are intended to deter someone from building a home that looks like a spaceship, Garcia explains. One such regulation for this development was to build the homes so they cannot be seen from the golf course, and the golf course cannot be seen from the house. Another of the development’s requirements was to locate the house in such a way to keep as many trees as possible.

Miller and Garcia walked the lot and painted the ground several times according to how they thought the house should be positioned. Ultimately, the main view is not straight out the back of the house. “We chose the best view before construction even began, and staked out where the angle was most productive for the view to the outside,” Garcia says.

There was not a big choice of areas to position the house in, even though the lot is four acres, Miller adds. “The house could only have been placed within 20 to 30 feet of where it sits now. That’s how little flexibility we had.”

“We consciously conformed to the regulations,” Garcia says. “We never anticipated that staying within the restrictions would be a challenge. Nothing we did is contrary to any of the regulations they put forth. In fact, we had no exceptions. There were questions about certain aspects of our design, but no exceptions. Once we explained that this design was not radical, and we were within the restrictions, the developers have been our biggest fans.”

One design element denied by the developers was a glass railing on the deck. Glass was chosen so people would notice the nature beyond the railing rather than the railing itself. The restrictions mandated that the railing was to be of a certain material, so the glass version was abandoned.

“It was [Garcia’s] responsibility to deal with the development’s restrictions, and it was his company’s job to sell it to the developers,” Miller recalls. “And within reason, they showed the developers how the house’s design fit into their restrictions, even though the house wasn’t exactly what they wanted there. Now they bring by potential buyers to show it off as an example of what can be done with creativity.”

Focus on design The Miller home juts out prominently from the slope of a forested ridge. The primary living quarters sit solidly on a tall base of locally quarried limestone, creating the illusion that they are actually floating above the tree line. A curved wall of glass reflects the neighboring hills and sky, acting both as a mirror for the outdoors and a frame for the interior space.

Inside, the living area was conceived as an organic, flowing space that would allow the Millers to feel connected to the environment no matter where in the home they happened to be. To achieve this, Garcia Brenner Stromberg’s design team developed a floor plan with 4,000 sq. ft. of living area that runs parallel to the ridge slope, offering panoramic views of the surrounding mountains from every angle.

Garcia hesitates to categorize the style of the Millers’ house. “I don’t know exactly what it is. I suppose you can call it contemporary because contemporary means it is of the moment. And you can call it regional because it has a mountain vernacular.” Regardless of the style, the Fort Lauderdale chapter of the American Institute of Architects bestowed its Award of Honor on the Miller residence in December 2004, something both Miller and Garcia are proud of.

Before asking Garcia’s firm to design their home, Miller and his wife had a vision of it but not of the architecture itself. Their vision was more of the layout of their home, including where they wanted a great room with a master bedroom attached. They also wanted the great room to be part of a two-story wing with the master suite opening into the great room with a balcony from which to view it all.

“The great room and kitchen area came out magnificently,” Miller says. The view outside is from the kitchen, not from the dining room, because as in most homes, most time is spent in the kitchen. “The play of the huge windows and the large beams that fan out across the ceiling and toward the windows is interesting.”

One of the reasons the house turned out so well is because Miller approached Garcia with a description of what he wanted in the house, in writing. Miller did not want to talk with Garcia about what it should look like. “And believe it or not, the first concept we showed him, he liked. We tweaked it and tweaked it, but they never said we missed the boat,” Garcia recalls.

A main feature of the home is the great wall of windows that open up the back of the house. The intention was not to impress people with the amount of glass that could be incorporated into the wall. The glass wall was designed to be high enough for people to look out and see sky above the trees, Garcia explains.

Framing the windows was an interesting process. “We did not want it to look industrial or commercial. And we did not want the mechanical systems to be enslaved to the windows. So we worked with the mechanical contractors as to where the grilles would go, and did some design work that in effect allowed for the correct placement of the ductwork from a design point of view. This is another example of how good things happen from working closely together,” Garcia says.

As one enters the house the architecture is experienced first, and the nature beyond the windows is experienced second. “A lot of architects will tell you the outside is the outside, and the inside is the inside, and you should keep the two separate. I believe that when you come in you should not see the backyard immediately. I believe being able to walk through the house and experience it as architecture first is important. But in this house you can experience either the architecture or its environment when you choose just by changing the focus of what you’re looking at,” Garcia says.

The relationship of the more public spaces to the visitor spaces — the hierarchy of spaces — as a first timer seeing the home, is successful, Garcia believes. A person can walk through the public spaces of the home without having to walk through any doors. “The way the spaces are laid out, one can meander through the entire home, and you’re way in the back room before you know it. The only thing not connected visually to the rest of the house is the bedrooms. You can see any part of the house from any other part. It’s organized like an X, in a simplistic plan. And I believe simplicity in design is one of the more difficult things to accomplish as an architect,” Garcia says.

The positioning of the garage is for privacy purposes, so the view into the Miller house is blocked for the people who live up the hill. As a result, the garage becomes located in a prominent position on the site. Therefore, it needed to look interesting. “We had to cut away at the mountain to tuck the garage into it. We took the pattern of the natural stone on the mountain, and organized it to appear as if the garage grew out of the mountain. I thought that was a big achievement. Also, the roof of the garage is stacked with soil and landscape so it blends into the mountain,” he says.

The contemporary framework of the home turned out to be a challenge faced by Miller as the home’s builder, but not because of the design itself. This building style is not seen much in the mountain area in which he lives and operates his construction business. The homes in this area typically are more traditional in style, he says.

“From the first time [Garcia] showed us the concept, my wife and I wanted to go that route. But we went ahead not knowing that it would create issues with subcontractors who are not used to seeing this sort of project, which includes elements like wood beams that aren’t square, and aren’t parallel to each other. These subcontractors are mostly smaller companies whose owners we worked with directly, so we built relationships with them and ended up getting the work done as needed. It just took working closely to get it done.”

Working together is something Garcia wishes more builders and architects would do. Builders and architects need to quit bickering about how each one is ruining the other’s project, he says. “With the speed and methods we work with today, neither side can absorb all the information available, so we must work together to process it all. Architects no longer can simply say, for instance, ‘We’ll just hang this projector here and a screen here,’ without investing more thought in the design of a home theater. Both sides must deal more with specialties, so our obligation becomes bigger to work together, be successful and do a good job.

“We need to close the gap between design and construction to get things done appropriately, within life-cycle costs and budgets. If done correctly, as a collaboration, we’ll get off our high horses and begin building better homes.

“Moving forward, architects have to consider construction as one more part of doing business. For us, construction should be considered a successful way to get things done, not just a bunch of jerks who stand in our way. The design/build way is here to stay, and the more you ignore it, the more it could hurt you.”

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