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Making Your Dream Home A Reality

Building or remodeling a home can be one of the most stressful times in a person’s life. It ranks just below divorce and death of an immediate family member, and some say that it can cause either one or both. With 25,000 houses currently under construction in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the potential for headache or heartache is high. However, two area couples, who have survived the processes, say the much talked-about-tension is avoidable.
By Vinton Murray |

How do you make sure thai building or remodeling your dream home doesn’t become your worst nightmare? Choose your builder like you would any other important relationship…very carefully and with lots of research.
With the exception of this conviction, die following two couples have little in common. They live at opposite ends of a Dallas Mapsco?, and their lifestyles are as different as their homes. Marcia and Jerry Allen will become “empty nesters” upon sending their second daughter off to college in August. They bought a California style, “spec” home under construction, and had it decorated from top to bottom by a prominent Dallas designer.
The second couple, Sally and Dick Smith (names have been changed to protect privacy) have a “full nest” with three children under 12 and live in a very traditional Highland Park home built around 1920. Having added rooms and features to their original house, the Smiths then transformed a fire-damaged house next door into a guest house, and are approaching a third remodeling project with the same builder. Their house is warm, casual and intentionally un-designed.
Both the Smiths and the Aliens are resolute in praising their builders. “When you build or renovate, it’s the most important decision you’ll make,” says Dick Smith. “If you choose the right guy with the best reputation, you’ll be fine. In remodeling you have to be ready for surprises, if you demand a fixed price and end date, you’re dead,” he adds.
The Smiths met builder George Lewis more than 10 years ago when they were considering renovations on their small home west of Douglas. Dick says, “I knew George was honest and a good man to work with early on. Not only did our instincts tell us he was die right guy, but he told me not to add anything to our house. He said we would never get our money out. So we started looking.”
In April of 1987 the Smiths moved into a larger home in the heart of Highland Park. The three bedroom, two and a half bath house sufficed for two years, but with their first child on the way and the need for a larger closet and bathroom for the master bedroom, they decided to add on and update. Lewis utilized the space above the porte-cochere on one side of the house and above the sunroom on the other to create the extra rooms.
“This is where flexibility comes in,” says Sally Smith. “We had taken our first trip since our son was bom; I walked into our house after a long weekend to find toilets in my living room. George had ripped them out while we were gone. Thankfully, he left us one. But that taught me to expect anything.”
In the early days of the project, just after they received the variance to proceed with construction, a fire broke out next door to the Smiths, destroying almost half of the house. When the elderly neighbor decided to sell, the Smiths bought the property, complete with burnt house and a pool in the center of the driveway. “Here is where George is so brilliant.” says Sally. “He literally took a buzz saw and cut off the damaged side of the house, looked at the remaining half of the two-story house, and created the guest house of our dreams.”
“For many people, the pool in the front might have posed a problem, but it worked out to be a perfect part of our back yard,” she adds. Hidden by shrubs and trees in the front yard, the pool and second lot are barely noticeable from the road. “Today, eight years and two children later, I need a den and a more efficient kitchen,” says Sally. “Construction will begin in late July, and as they did before, the Smiths will live in the house during the project. “It’s really not that difficult. We’re going to move our kitchen to the sunroom and adapt for as long as it takes.”
When the addition is complete, the house, originally 3800 square feet, will be over 5000 with the guest house adding another 1400. “The beauty of it is that we have gotten exactly what we wanted; we love our house,” Dick says. “But our house is not everybody’s dream house. We’re set up for our family, not for display. A typical dream house is ornamental; we’re not working at that. We’re working on having a dream family, and that means a house that supports that.”
At the other end of the spectrum and the Tollway is the Aliens’ dream house. It is in Kings Gate, an exclusive development in the northwest part of Piano. Jerry Allen considers it his “trophy,” perfect in every detail. “For the first time in my life, I am excited about my house. I get on the Tollway and I’m thrilled I’m coming here,” he says.
The Aliens had searched Piano, Preston Hollow and the Park Cities for the perfect home. They were considering moving to Florida or renovating their Piano home when they met builder Sim-mie Cooper and discovered Kings Gate about two years ago. A native of Oak Cliff and a resident of Piano for the past 13 years, Allen saw a California style house under construction that intrigued him. “’My wife and I looked at it, and said ’No, that’s not us,’ but every month or so we would go back and reconsider it. During our search we met Simmie, and became friends. Finally, one day in June, Simmie and I were sitting by the pool, the house was sixty percent done, and we worked out a deal. I just bought it. We moved into the house last August.”
Because Kings Gate is situated on the highest elevation in Piano, the house’s many windows offer dazzling views of soft hills and greenery more reminiscent of the Texas Hill Country than anything in or near Dallas. Designed by architect Ron Bogard, the 8400-square-foot home features limestone floors, four satellite dishes, a pool room, a library that doubles as Jerry’s home office, and an award-winning media room (see the A.S.I.D. design ovations awards special section in the June, 1998 issue of D).
Although his favorite place thesedays is outdoors by his pool and his second favorite is anywhere else in his house, Jerry says for the right amount of money (in the neighborhood of two million), he would sell it tomorrow and build another, as long as he could build with Simmie Cooper. “This guy is terrific. He doesn’t just drive around and talk to the workmen over his telephone. He is on site, working and overseeing things. I trusted him completely, and that is why there were no horror stories that you hear when other people build.”
“Our only problem was the furniture. Because we only moved our dining room and master bedroom furniture for the new guest room, we had to buy every thing else,” Marcia says. ” Because of all the building in Dallas, you cannot find modern furniture; it is bought the minute it gets to town. And if you have to order it, it can take much longer than you’re told. That was probably the most frustrating thing. All of the artwork, the rugs and the window treatments had to be designed and installed. It took months, and we had a deadline. My parents’ 50th anniversary was in January and we had planned a party for 200.”
Dallas designer Joanie Wyll, who has collaborated with Cooper and Boga-rd on at least 10 Dallas houses, tackled the $300,000 project. She designed the rugs, searched galleries for sculpture and artwork, and coordinated the colors and feel of the house. “It was a very sophisticated, clean-lined home. We had to pay particular attention to scale and proportion because of the high ceilings and open space,” says Wyll. “The artwork was the hardest part. It had to be dramatic. We comissioned the living room sculpture, but the 6 by 9 foot piece did not arrive until three days before their party.” Although the stress generated a few sleepless nights for Wyll, she says, “It was worth it. The Aliens were so enthusiastic, and they love what we’ve done.”
The two builders are as distinct and interesting as their projects. Simmie Cooper is South African by birth and a Califomian by training. He began his career as a CPA but after a year as an accountant, he left the profession and went to work laying hardwood floors. Cooper learned the construction business literally from the ground up. After 12 years in California, he moved his family to Dallas in 1989 and founded Cooper Custom Homes. Since then, he has built more than 70 homes in various developments, including Oakdale, Stonebriar, Timarron and The Downs. Cooper has begun work at Tour 18 and continues building at Kings Gate where the average home size is bet wen 7,000 and 10,000.
George Lewis has been building and remodeling homes in the Park Cities and surrounding neighborhoods for 28 years. Armed with a degree in diplomatic history from Princeton and an MBA from Harvard, Lewis began his professional life as a contracting officer for the Air Force. He worked on the original military project, “Star Wars,” and later joined a technology company. In 1970 he moved into land development and then contracting and building. Today, with more than 300 projects to his credit, remodeling accounts for 20 to 30 percent of Lewis’ business, and his new homes range from $800,000 to more than $1 million. Known for thoroughness in his work and loyalty to his employees, Lewis has some second and third generation family members on his crews. “I promote long-term quality and I let all my clients know how the process works up front. I emphasize the deliberateness of the process,” Lewis says.
DREAM HOUSE TIPS:
When asked for their advice to people considering building or remodeling, Lewis and Cooper’s responses were similar. Compiling their remarks, D came up with the following list:
Building or remodeling a house is probably the single biggest investment you can make, so it is imperative that you trust and have an absolute comfort level with the builder. If you aren’t comfortable, you won’t communicate and then the house will not reflect your dream.
The interaction between client and builder is key. The earlier a builder is involved the better, so you can determine costs and project all the possibilities.
It is best to design while you are still on the drafting table, but if not, get all the bugs worked out by framing-in stage. After that it gets very expensive.
Worry about resale. Don’t overbuild or you will never get your money back.
Never remodel on a weak foundation. It’s a lose-lose situation.
For most new houses, it is a year long process: two months of planning and 10 months to build.
THE FINAL NOTE CAME FROM THE CLIENT DICK SMITH:

“Remember: Whether your dream house is practical or ornamental, traditional or contemporary, in Piano or Highland Park, the key to creating your dream house is to know what your dream is. If you get up every morning with a new dream, you’ll drive even the best builder crazy.”

(Vinton Murray is a freelance writer in Dallas.)
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