Bill and Kathryn Min’s Westport house is compact, efficient … and every inch stylish. Here, the latest home design trends
Subtle but important changes in the design of new houses have begun to appear around town.
While the customary forms — Georgian, shingle-style, and the perennial Colonial — retain their popularity, they have new dimensions. Connect the dots with three other trends — floor plans that complement a less formal lifestyle, richness of detail, and technical controls that are easy to use — and you have some idea of how today’s homes are shaping up. Here’s a look at what your neighbors are up to and an inside look at one new home that has it all.
Mike Greenberg has been in the business of custom building in and around Westport for thirty-five years — he’s seen lots of trends come and go. One of the more noticeable wrinkles in home building is the notion of “bigger is better, and biggest is best,” which may be finding some competition these days.
He recently met up with a client for whom he had constructed a very large house, in the 10,000-plus square foot category. “I have to tell you something,” says the home owner. “I’m annoyed. Next time we build a house, I’m going to want something smaller.”
And why is that?
“Here’s the problem: I can’t find my children. I’ve got four kids, and whenever we have to go someplace, I get three of them in the car, car seats belted, snacks packed, everything. My house is
so big that I have to spend twenty minutes looking for the fourth kid. It drives me crazy.”
For a long time, owning the biggest house in the neighborhood has been a title much sought after.
In fact, many of of the area’s more modest 1950s ranches and 1970s contemporaries have fallen to the wrecking ball to make way for a colossal Colonial or a grand Georgian — but the buzz is in the air and things may be changing.
“Westport is a bit ahead of the curve,” Greenberg says. “Many of my customers in other parts of Fairfield County are still asking for big and bigger, but here, in town, I have a lot of clients whose design parameters are being influenced by the state of the world, the oil prices we’ve been experiencing recently, and the sense that they’re not really making use of all the space they asked for. It’s a combination of things: environmental consciousness, and also practicality. Clients with grown kids are looking to downsize, and those with young families want to eliminate rooms they don’t use and make the ones they do use better. Money’s not the issue here. People are looking for something that works for them at a personal level.”
Interviews with a wide range of architects, builders, suppliers, and other professionals — as well as with those whose homes are a work in progress or have recently completed new construction — confirm that many current and future building projects in the area will have some new dimensions and accoutrements.
Think jewel box, not big box. Buyers and builders of new homes are not pinching pennies to squeeze a needed floor plan into a smaller space. The new spatial restraint is accompanied by meticulous attention to crafting a home that has everything the client wants, without one extra square foot of fluff, and all at a price.
THE MIN HOUSE
Many of the latest trends in local homebuilding, including a less-is-more approach to the floor plan, are contained in a much talked about house just finished along Westport’s Saugatuck shoreline. Executive Bill Min and his wife, Kathryn, opted for a creative approach to their riverside lot and the house, which is constructed on the site of an older dwelling that was previously owned by Kathryn’s great-aunt and great-uncle.
With her lifelong roots in Westport and Bill’s affection for town life — he volunteers as a crew chief for Westport’s Emergency Medical Services — the couple wanted to approach the quarter-acre with sensitivity. After removing the old fifties-era house, they adhered strictly to wetlands rules and actually moved the new foundation farther away from the marshy edge of their property than the original structure.
Using Westport architect Peter Cadoux’s design acumen to guide their plans, they applied the latest technology to develop a logical floor plan that provides a comprehensive wish list of details in a mere 3,400 square feet of space. The house lives and feels larger. Cadoux explains, “The main public space has an open plan and links itself with the windows and the porch to the outside river views. This relationship of inside and outside is one that works to visually expand the volume of a space. Many clients now want to bring this relationship into their design.”
While exteriors may replicate the familiar Colonial, Georgian or shingle-style forms, interiors are undergoing a radical transformation. The traditional living room and formal dining room are disappearing. In place of these discrete, often unused gobblers of square footage and decorating budgets, new designs lavish attention on spaces that hold a more important place in the lives people actually live today. “People are on the go,” says Cadoux. “Things need to be efficient, and people want spaces they can use that still look great.”
Kitchens, for example, are rooms where home owners can not only prepare food and eat, but also chat and entertain. They now open effortlessly to a large dining area and, often, to a gathering area that is fitted with comfortable upholstery, a hearth, and a large built-in plasma screen over the mantel. This reflects today’s living. Also, the family entrance, or the mud room, where the floor is strewn with boots, mittens, hockey sticks and other flotsam, has morphed into a smartly designed, well-organized area in which every family member has a place to stow his or her stuff.
The kitchen/family room is further outfitted with an information workspace, typically designed for the lady of the house as a dispatch center where she can coordinate work, children’s schedules, and everyone’s appointments. In one Westport home, the workstation is equipped with a drawer for each family member. Each drawer is used like an outbox to hold items and paper that need to be transported on a given day. It’s modern space planning that meets the multitasking needs of this busy family.
Many new designs also take into account the stressful realities of our time: Along with fully-equipped workout rooms, the meditation space has arrived, with small, personal retreat rooms becoming part of the reworked floor plan.
In developing the layout for the Min home, for example, square footage on the home’s fourth (top) level, a small and quiet room dedicated to Kathryn’s personal use for meditation and relaxation, and filled with things she chose, was a key element of the original plan. Says Bill, “Kathryn feels that every woman should have her own, private space.” While the home’s main level has an open plan that’s perfect for flow and entertaining, Kathryn’s “room at the top,” affords her a getaway when she needs one.
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS …
A somewhat smaller, carefully designed home provides room in the budget to execute unique ideas and use top-notch materials. Dollars not spent on square footage can individualize a space and make it livable. In the Min house, for example, where a clean, modern aesthetic sets the style, every bit of woodwork is scrupulously refined. Squared stair balusters are made more di-mensional and complex with tiny chamfered corners. In every room, attention has been paid to finish: beautiful tile, custom-made and fitted cabinetry, and unique, artisan-crafted fixtures. There are no shortcuts in this plan, which includes a built-in, continually flowing water wall on the landing of the central staircase above the main floor. It is a unique feature that disperses the relaxing rhythm of moving water throughout the house. “That water feature is an engineering marvel,” says the builder.
Curt Verdi, the Bethel-based general contractor for the Min project, sees many clients opting for refined details over greater space. “There are always those customers who will choose size over detailing, but, these days, many clients are going for a look and a use of materials that personalize their homes and make them very special instead of merely large.”Mike Greenberg agrees: “People are beginning to realize that life can be easier, maybe even more enjoyable, in a house that’s a bit smaller but well done in its fine points. “
The concept of the “smart” house has been around for a while, but improvements in technology that allow almost infinite adaptations for individual homes, plus increasing user-friendliness, have made computer-controlled systems more appealing these days.
Bill Min, who is familiar with technology systems, was not put off by the complexity of the wiring in his new Westport house. It’s been arranged so that everything can be controlled by a wireless touch-screen tablet that sits demurely on a side table in the family room. Lights, music, and the home’s main systems are modified with a few touches to the panel. For the computer shy, the system also duplicates controls with small, wall-mounted panels in every room.
Still more impressive is the Mins’s media room, constructed in a basement space that was excavated beneath the garage. Equipped with eight reclining leather seats, an exquisitely tuned sound system, and a 105-inch plasma projection screen, the space was artfully designed into the compact home without using an inch of living area. In fact, the space under the garage is ideal for a room where darkness and quiet are desirable premiums.
“Bill was an educated consumer,” says Bob Dacundo of Phoenix Audio Video in Fairfield, whose team of programmers and engineers designed the Mins’s system. “He was interested in high-performance equipment and did research beforehand about various products and their capabilities. But each of our customers has different ideas about how they want the technology to work for them, so ours is an individualized business.”
Smaller than the mega-sized homes that have been popular for a decade, the Min house has, nonetheless, fulfilled the couple’s long and detailed wish list. It is a perfect exponent of what is new and desirable in the local home marketplace. Fitting the neighborhood as comfortably as it fits its owners, it’s a “just right” house for today.