Listening To the Land

Sally Keeney, Correspondent The Chapel Hill News Sunday, March 28, 2010 Stewart Walker and Pam Richey have just moved into the house of a lifetime. Surrounded by 17 acres of woods that Walker acquired over the past 30 years, this warm, contemporary home was inspired by the curve of the land and the track of the sun across it. Thirty years ago, Walker, a licensed massage therapist, and his friend, Gabriel Olmstead, were doing some clearing in the bottomland and Olmstead looked up and said that a plateau area about half way up the hillside would be a great place to build a tepee. "I've wanted to build a house on this plateau ever since," Walker said. Carrboro architect Jim Spencer ( has wanted to build a house on the same plateau since he and his wife had a picnic lunch on it two years ago. He was taken with the curve of the plateau along the wooded hillside, the stream below and the southern exposure of the site. Walker hired Spencer two years ago to design a house that would honor the land, have passive solar features, heart pine floors, a wood stove and, for his wife, a four-wind screened porch and water feature. "He listened to me, he listened to Pam and he listened to the land," Walker said. Now Stewart's favorite place is the balcony off the master bedroom overlooking that bottomland and the roof terrace facing the top of the hillside. His wife, a licensed family and marriage therapist, loves the screened porch and the kitchen with its wall of windows overlooking the back deck and woods. The kitchen's curved island opens to the great room of the house. And what a great room it is 1,200 square feet, two-stories with glass doors opening onto the deck and flooding the room with warm southern light in winter. Large overhangs shelter the house from heat as the sun moves north for the summer. The look of the room is completed by wide-plank heart pine floors that mirror the 64-foot arc of the house. The floors were installed by E.J. Floors of Raleigh ( and made from old mill beams salvaged by a company in Scotland Neck. "We are going to enjoy living here the rest of our lives," Richey said. Richey talks about watching the progress of the sun across the sky over her plateau like people at the beach talk about watching the sun rise and set over the ocean waves. Wright's influence As an architect, Spencer is always cognizant of the sun's arc. After the picnic, he thought of the solar hemicyclo that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Herbert and Catherine Jacob in the 1940s. See a 1996 restoration of the Middleton, Wisconsin house at Spencer's above-ground convex design is an inversion of Wright's Jacob II house which is concave and bermed. Wright's Jacob II was completed in 1948 at a cost of $20,000. Spencer's was completed last week at a cost of $180 per square foot, which also included extensive surveying, building a private road to the house site and installing the septic system, but not counting the cost of buying the land. Spencer designed the 3,600-square-foot Walker-Richey house with a 64-foot radius laid out to line up with the morning sunrise on the winter solstice at the southeastern point of the house. The heated and conditioned square footage is 2,650. The house has another 950 square feet in decks, screened porch and carport. Spencer said that the 64-foot radius seemed to fit the lay of the land, the track of the sun and open as much of the south facade onto a view of the woods as possible. Spencer suggested to Walker and Richey that Tom Howlett of Synergy Building Company be the general contractor ( Both Wright's and Spencer's designs have C-shaped roofs, but Spencer's is an inverted C, and his above-ground design showcases the metal roof whose lines are slightly reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House thanks to large overhangs. The roof was installed by R.G. Roofing of Garner and had to be hand crimped at the edges because the kerf of the roof is not a standard thing, Spencer said. "Howlett and his subcontractors did things that were out of the ordinary," Spencer said. "There were a lot of difficult things to pull off, and there was such a good spirit with everyone who worked on it wanting to pull it off." Howlett concurs with Spencer's praise of the GAF roofing contractor; not only with the excellent craftsmanship, but also for coming in at a very reasonable price. The kitchen cabinets, which had to mirror the slight curve of the exterior wall, were built by Diane Swan of Diane Swan Galleries of Bynum Church Road, Pittsboro. She spent at least 20 extra hours designing and building those cabinets to fit the curve. The granite countertop also had to be scribed to the curve. The ripple effect The effect of having a curved wall is that it ripples all the way through the construction job, according to Howlett who said that his biggest question mark was laying out the curved house on a sloping site. To allay his worries, he had the surveyors, ENT Surveyors of Hillsborough, stake out the house every four feet before the concrete footers were poured. Then to assure his masons would be able to do a precise job, he had the surveyors come out again and mark the concrete every 2 feet. The surveying costs were higher than typical  "at least twice the cost of what he would usually pay for surveying.   The result,"  Howlett said, "was the masons did a great job, even with no perpendicular north and south walls. Right from the beginning from the footings and masons, everyone did a super job,"  Howlett said. The person that was the most impressive, according to Howlett, was the framer, Oscar Paz, because in order to frame it he had to scribe 2-by-10s to make the bottom and top plates for the 2-by-6 walls. The next bid for framing was twice the price that Oscar bid. The interior trim was done by, who has been in this business for many years. Howlett describes Stroud a "wonderful person and fabulous trim carpenter. The stairs and railings could easily have cost $20,000 each.  Stroud did the whole project for $4,000."  He curved the handrail to the curved wall. He cut it out of a 2-by-10 piece of fur (scribed a curve on the 2-by-10) and ended up with 2-by-3 railing. Howlett said that it was "a challenge from the get go to stay within budget." His original estimate was significantly over what the couple wanted to spend. His firm cut it back to bare bones. They shopped the job extensively. Every raw material, finishes, labor, Howlett had to get a minimum of two bids to build the house within the budget. Walker and Richey knew they would have to go over the bare bones budget, but they committed to try to stay within it and spent many hours helping Howlett shop the job. "I figure we saved them $70,000 because both material and labor costs are down now due to the economy,"  Howlett said. "Whether homeowners are doing remodeling or new construction this is a good time."  To build a comparable curved home, Howlett estimates costs about 30 percent more than a standard house.

The Curved House is Complete!

It’s done! It’s been a great experience all around. The curved features of the plan for this home required some thought and coordination not necessary in most projects. But, the extra time and attention to detail has paid off. The impact of the curves on the exterior is clearly apparent as you approach the home. It’s obvious why the curve was needed now, as you look at the finished house against the landscape. It fits in perfectly. The impact of the curve on the interior finishes is dramatic as well. The curved walls, handrails, cabinets, counters, and trim pull it all together. This was really a project that required a lot of “synergy”…and we’re all proud of the outcome! Click the image below to view a slideshow of the completed project.
Curved House Slideshow

Finishing the Kitchen!

The custom kitchen cabinets went in this week. Installing these too were tricky, owing to the curved south wall. But they are solidly built and look terrific. Diane is an artist and has been doing this for many years.

I’m giving two and a half weeks to get the interior trim and stairs in. We’re simultaneously installing the ceramic tile and most of itshould be in at the end of this week.

We’re also templating for the granite countertops. The weather has been very cold but the kerosene heater inside allows us to continue staying warm and on schedule.

To read more about this project click here.

Insulating & Decking the Curved House

We are now about to spray foam insulate the roof and walls. The beveled cedar siding looks great. All the corner boards and trim are 5/4” cedar. Installing on the curved walls took more effort to get the measurements down but went well. The 5-V crimp metal roof (find more here) also took more effort, particularly at the rakes since it all flares out since the south wall is much longer than the north wall and it shows up on the roof accordingly.

Installing the pine decking on the first floor and the Trex on the second floor took more effort as well, not to mention the deck railings.

The mechanical, plumbing, and electrical rough-ins, however, didn’t have to put in more effort than usual, unlike what I expect in laying the tile and hardwood flooring as well as installing the interior trim. Next week we hope to start hanging drywall and we’ll be moving into the finishing stages. The owners are pleased and challenged to get us their finish selections in a timely way. There’s a lot of running around to suppliers on top of living a busy work life! But I think that by seeing the house being built, with quality and good subs, is invigorating despite the stressors.

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Exciting New Project! A curved wall…

Synergy Building is very excited by the new challenge we've undertaken.  We cleared a lot and staked out a curved house last month! We’re now at the stage of roof framing.  Both the south and north walls curve to the bend in the creek below.  Staking the house and putting points in the footing were done by the surveyors.  The curve is significant. Yea technology!  It made things so much easier to compute the foundation plan into field instruments and let the survey team get it down.  The foundation contractor did an excellent job and the framer is doing the same.  Everyone is excited.   Even the interior walls paralleling the north and south walls are curved.



The framers have to cut all the bottom and top plates on the 2x6 exterior curved walls from 2x10’s.  They’re doing it with a circular saw as they would ripping any framing lumber.

There are structural steel components that are carrying the weight of an elevated walkway as well as a floor system above the carport.  The wall sheathing (7/16” OSB) bends to the curve. framing-walls-7




Framing of the screened porch began this week, too.


In short, this is a challenge to build and we all understand it adds approximately 30% to the job costs. Installing drywall, trim, cabinetry, flooring – all have to be thought through due to the special requirements of the curved walls.  This is a dramatic house unlike any we’ve done before and we're looking forward to sharing the process with you.

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