The Giving House

What factors make a new house special? The best ones have a lot more going for them than bricks, mortar and granite countertops. Location is one element, a gracious scale is another and quality of execution is always important. But then there are the intangibles — those indefinable elements of style and design that call to the passerby to look, and to admire — that make a house exceptional. The best houses also have some backstory, just as this one does.

A little more than a year ago, a couple was driving around Westport. Passionate sailors who had spent several years in a Westchester suburb, they were thinking about settling in a Connecticut community — one that had a shoreline. They were taken with the gently rolling fields and quiet of Greens Farms, and happened upon a house under construction that had a profile and a setting that made them stop the car. They pulled into the as-yet-unfinished driveway for a closer look.

At the same moment, builder Joe Feinleib was also circling Westport, with his toddler in the car seat. Like so many parents before him, Joe had discovered that the key to a good nap when a two-year-old is feeling cantankerous is a nice long ride down curvy country roads. Putting the drive to good use, he was also making the rounds of several sites where he and his partner Ryan Moran were raising new custom homes. When he passed the Greens Farms property — a large house for which he and the company had some very special plans — he noticed the car in the driveway.

He pulled in to check on the visitors and introduced himself to Peter and Heike, the Westchester couple on a mission. They were already excited about the house, and he already had multiple bids, with the top bidder close to contract. After a brief conversation, the builder and the very interested prospects continued on their separate ways. Unbeknownst to both parties, kismet had already become part of the equation.

The house itself had had an interesting genesis. A New York magazine editor had recommended the work of Feinleib and Moran’s company, Coastal Construction Group, for consideration as builder of the publication’s annual charity show house. Intrigued by the prospect of opening one of their more ambitious speculative projects to the public, which would at the same time raise money for a well-known and worthy cause, Joe and Ryan became eager participants.

Scheduled to support the local chapter of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the project was influenced by the design ideas and preferences of twenty Westport women who participated in a focus group. Partnering in the endeavor was local architect Robert Storm, whose plans created the envelope for a vision that would satisfy the women, the charitable foundation, the builders and, hopefully, a future owner — as well as the town’s setback requirements for a substantial house on a narrow lot. Things were all coming together; it was January, the house was ready for finish work, and the show house was scheduled to open to the public in April before it became a new family’s home.

It wasn’t very long after Peter and Heike’s meeting with Joe that a wrinkle developed in the plans: the winning bidder on the house had dropped out, and the property was again available. The couple moved quickly to secure the house, albeit with its role as a fundraiser interjected between their contract and moving-in schedule. And because the final phase of construction was yet to be completed, Heike was able to add her taste, preferences, and family needs to the finish details.

Compressing the finish into less than three months required discipline and continuous participation at the construction site. Heike would make the daily drive from Westchester, join the construction meetings and weigh in on all of the details: colors, finishes, fixtures and use of the spaces that had not already been designated for a specific function. She managed to shoehorn the many meetings and decisions into an already hectic schedule as mother to four sons, ages five through college.

The specific requirements of the four boys and her husband figured in the final arrangement of rooms; the home became even more functional than the original plans had anticipated.

The two college-age sons were provided for with a third-floor suite: two bedrooms, two baths, and a sitting area that creates a completely private home-within-a-home. The teenage son has his own private enclave in one wing of the second floor. Like his older brothers, he has a bedroom and bath, and a spacious sitting room perfectly capable of doubling as a private space so that he and his friends can do their teenage hanging out in his very own quiet corner of the house.

The bedroom and playroom for the couple’s five-year-old is the closest to his parents’ master suite — an ideal spot for the youngest in the family. This spacious plan is rounded out by a sixth bedroom and bath for guests.

On the first floor, removed from the central axis of the public rooms, an elegant oak-paneled space is positioned away from family traffic and daily bustle. It has morphed from its original intended function — a library — to become Peter’s “corner office,” as Heike calls it. It’s a serene and generously proportioned room from which he can conduct business full-time.

Marvels Heike, “The way this layout works, the house is well designed to be a multigenerational space. I can truly see us living here forever. The children love it, and the configuration will function well when the boys are grown and have families of their own. They’ll still have great, private space when they come to visit. It’s a very comfortable arrangement, even as our lives change.”

While there was pressure to get the project completed in time for an April fundraiser and public opening of the show house, the process moved smoothly for several reasons. Says Joe Feinleib, “We had an eleven-month schedule, which is tight for a home of this size and detail. We probably would not have finished for anyone else, but Heike was very decisive. Her taste matched the vision that Ryan and I had for this project. It was really a satisfying and successful collaboration.”

The work went down to the wire, with the final touches for the show-house festivities completed not twenty-four hours before the first function began. Connecticut design retailer Lillian August moved in all the showhouse furnishings, and the whole team was able to gather for a celebratory cocktail hour.

Many visitors to show houses ooh and aah over the luxury fixtures and fittings, and then wonder: Who will move in here and will they change things? The Greens Farms house, now transformed into a family home, answers the questions. Before Heike could install her family and their belongings, the house needed to be prepared for its charitable function, which included fundraising parties and tours. After, Heike would change some ideas to her own specifications.

This is when it was time for more moving vans, and for the house to undergo its last, quick and very personal evolution. Where the focus group envisioned a playroom off the kitchen, Heike saw the ideal space to make an office for herself. Out went the toys, in came the sleek white desktop computer and all of her own papers and projects.

“My youngest boy likes to be in the kitchen with us,” says Heike, “so it was clear to me that I wouldn’t use the space as it was planned for the show house. As it is now, with its views and light, the room is ideal as my personal workspace.”

Another quick change to the original plans was to substitute a sitting area for the children’s wash-up station in the mudroom. On short notice, in the time frame between showhouse and family move-in, Coastal not only transformed the playroom into Heike’s office, but removed the mudroom sink, illuminating the space with a triple window and installing banquette seating.

“It’s still a mudroom,” says Heike, “but it gives me a great view from the office and is less kitchen-like.”

The kitchen also received a little tweaking. Show-house sponsors had provided a suite of appliances, but Heike and Peter, who is himself an accomplished cook and loves to work in the kitchen, had their own preferences. So a Pro-style Wolf range, massive Sub-Zero refrigerator and freezer and twin Bosch dishwashers replaced the originals. Countertops of quartz and oak accentuate the warmth of the kitchen.

Heike also exercised her own taste with fixtures. Simple, modern lighting from Robert Abbey in the kitchen and eating areas is just one of the contemporary touches that she added. The rooms are not weighed down by their important, traditional woodwork and cabinetry. Her accent choices and soft, pale color palette provide the rooms with a light and airy feel that contributes to the comfort factor of the finished home.

Long before they envisioned themselves as Westporters, Heike and Peter always enjoyed the annual fine art festival in town, and purchased several pieces that she loves and now displays in the Greens Farms house. “Houses are my theme,” she says, pointing out a David Gordon painting of houses in the master bedroom, and a standout blue barn by Al Lachman in the dining room, both Westport Art Festival purchases. Antique prints that hang on another dining room wall are architectural plans for six English estates.

The home is finished with furnishings special to the couple. A beautiful antique inlaid wood chest holds pride of place in the elegant and welcoming main entry. And simple linen curtains now hang in the new master bedroom. “We’ve used them in every home we’ve lived in,” says Heike with a smile.

Everything is so perfectly placed and finished that it’s hard to believe that this young house has already had two incarnations and was the scene of some very hectic activity to make them both happen. It is a serene environment, a different universe from the bustle that brought it into being.

Heike reflects on the process: “The excitement as things came together was contagious, even though the work involved was very compressed and intense. It was wonderful to have my ideas incorporated in the project and have them so enthusiastically received. In the end, we turned out to be a great team. It was gratifying to be a part of this project; it has worked so well for us. And even before we moved in, it had already done some good for many other people.”

Not a bad backstory for a “vintage” 2007 house.                


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