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Custom home builders: Their strategies, their vision and their musings about building

Whether you have a dream of building a 1,500 square-foot cottage on a perfect piece of land or a 4,000 square foot home within an established community, one of the most crucial parts of doing so is working with the right builder.

Custom builders cater to both specificity and versatility – focusing on a client’s wants and unique vision. Most importantly, is incorporating all those wants into a cohesive structure that is lasting and livable.

I reached out to three Lowcountry custom builders. Each have their own unique style. I’ve interviewed several builders over the years, and the common thread among these industry professionals is a “marriage” of sorts between builder and client. Custom builds or renovations can take more than a year to complete in some cases. There are ups and downs and unforeseen obstacles along the way. The most successful partnerships are ones where communication is a top priority. 


The Builders

Adam Copenhaver of Cope Grand Homes takes on structurally tough projects – from existing ocean front homes with extreme termite damage to historic homes to brand new builds. He and his brother have 24 years of combined experience in both engineering and building construction science.

“We’ve taken on a very technical full renovation on a concrete home where they’re opening the rear of it, using steel, concrete and wood framing for views over a golf course and to the Intercostal waterway,” Copenhaver said. “We’re becoming known as the team who has the education, experience and guts to take on some really technically difficult projects and frankly, we’re having a lot of fun alongside our clients.”

Their current Harleston Village project downtown is up for a number of awards in 2020. Copenhaver said the full gut renovation and its completion put it on the list among Charleston’s top pieces of real estate. Cope Grand Homes’ builds are scattered throughout the Lowcountry. “We remain versatile which gives us the ability to build custom home projects from slightly under $300,000 up to $2 million,” he said. “We’re extremely focused on building projects with the right folks so our approach doesn’t start with building to a certain price point – it’s centered on how we can provide extraordinary service and value for each client and budget.”

Mark Regalbuto of Renew Urban Charleston has a reputation of building “sophisticated turnkey” projects that include new construction and historic renovation and preservation. Featured in Dwell magazine, Charleston Home + Design magazine, Vogue and on the television program, “This Old House,” he and his team are a boutique construction firm, filling a refined style of building niche in both commercial and residential projects. Their approach is to honor and preserve historic structures throughout the Lowcountry and provide discerning clients seeking brand new builds, a home or space encompassing unique, high-end features and finishes. 

“My clients look for more subtle sophistication,” Regalbuto said. “They look for more in terms of craft – it’s the handmade tiles, unique wonderful fixtures, honed stones – less glitz, more craft.”

Renew Urban Charleston’s residential and commercial builds include downtown Charleston, Kiawah Island, Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island and most recently, the Old Village in Mount Pleasant.

Lane Baker of Saltwater Homes and his team were awarded a 2017 Builder of the Year award from the Charleston Home Builders Association (CHBA) and his builds decorate Lowcountry beaches and bedroom communities – Isle of Palms, Mount Pleasant, Awendaw and Daniel Island– with a focus on Lowcountry classics, traditional and craftsman style homes. Saltwater Homes has received two “houzz” awards for “Best of houzz” in 2017 and 2018 and a GuildmasterAward in 2016 and is one of a five companies in the Charleston area to earn certification as a Certified Master Builder. Baker is a firm believer in matching the right builder with the right client.

“If a modern home comes in the front door, I’ll usually refer it out,” he said. “We focus on Lowcountry classics and we’ve built close to 100 of them. That’s what we enjoy doing, and we look for the right client and right project. If either of those don’t fit our business model, we won’t do it.”

I posed a few questions to them about building. Here’s what they had to say.

What are you seeing as the most requested features or finishes in custom homes?

Regalbuto: Everything is behavior driven. What I’m seeing is more of a kitchen/keeping room combination where the kitchen and an area with a loveseat, chair and maybe a television that all are essentially in one space – not divided by a wall. There’s a nesting component where parts of the family may be on the couch and parts are in the kitchen, but they’re all connected.

Copenhaver: The most requested feature we’re getting this year is to be “unique.” Folks want to design homes with a Lowcountry vernacular, but they want it to look unique. We’re designing a number of homes right now that don’t have balanced elevations or uniform pitches to the roofs. As a result, there are some really cute and cozy spaces within the homes.

Baker: We’re seeing a lot less shiplap interior trim, more brass plumbing fixtures and all white cabinets with maybe a colored island in the kitchen.

Have you seen an uptick in green and/or sustainable building?

Copenhaver: In general, folks want to build green and use sustainable features, but we’re not seeing a huge push or demand of it in our market. We include a list of features that we’ve decided to go green on, but the majority of clients, they’re excited that we’ve selected the value add green features for them and most of the time they don’t often go much further with “green” features.

Baker: We’ve been building with higher end products and energy efficiency in mind for years. Impact windows and doors, foam insulation, higher SEER HVAC systems and energy-efficient appliances, lighting and plumbing fixtures are a standard for us. People like them, but most of them are not that into it until we explain the benefits.

Regalbuto: I think the “green” thing was over-hyped. I’d say there’s been a step back from “overly green” and processes that became so complicated in terms of documenting them. Geo-thermal, tankless water heaters and water systems that collect water, good insulation are here, but you’re not seeing an uptick for the sake of some social reason. We’ve always done whatever we can to repurpose quality materials. I just did a project where it was getting difficult to move around, but I couldn’t throw this beautiful wood away. Instead, those beams or that wood goes into building a gate. So that wood or that mantle is taken out of a home that wasn’t needed and shows up in another home. It makes its way around.

What’s the average square footage – are clients leaning toward “right sizing?” Price points?

Baker: They’re getting smaller. Most clients want 2,800 to 3,500 square feet, but we always have at least one big one that is 5,000 square feet if that’s what someone wants to build. We focus more on the project and the client. If their project is a good fit for our company. If not, I’ll usually refer it to another builder that I respect and know will take good care of them. 

Regalbuto: We’re seeing 3,000 to 3,200 square feet in homes. Those giant 5,000 square foot homes – we’re seeing less of that. In terms of price point, that’s a hard thing to nail down. There’s a whole stratum in terms of the structural side of it – is it on piles? Is it concrete block with stucco? It’s normally building methodology, more so than finishes that drives price points. Copper roofs, incredible hurricane-resistance window packages – that’s very expensive construction methodology. Will it be here for a thousand years? Yeah.

Copenhaver: Our experience is we’re seeing between 2,800 and 4,000 square feet for our clients. There are a lot of folks who are looking to downsize, but there’s still a number of them who like to have the space to fit a lot of features into one home.

What about flex spaces? Designated fitness rooms?

Copenhaver: Yes, we’re designing amazing spaces into homes. Our design phase specifically focuses on maximizing exterior views from these spaces. It’s also about learning the most about our clients’ lifestyle so that we can come up with some really unique ways to build “amenities” into our homes. About one out of five homes that we’re building includes a proper home gym. Usually when clients are interested in this, we go “big time,” the rooms are 500 to 1,200 square feet and they have structural features for weights, punching bags, audio/video upgrades and almost always, a sauna.

Baker: Almost all have an office and/or media room. We try to get them to put a closet in the office so it could be a future bedroom if that makes sense. We try to get them to put a bathroom and closet in the media rooms so they can it can be considered a second master for resale purposes. Some of our homes do have fitness rooms, but not often. Most of our homes are elevated and I hear them talk about putting in weights and punching bags down there, but most don’t end up doing it.

Regalbuto: I’m not seeing fitness rooms. Instead, there’s an area – say their study – that they might want room for a Peleton or something like that. But really, the trend in fitness has been in group training – of course not in today’s current situation, but most of our clients say they prefer going out for that – to a class because it motivates them more than having a weight room in the house.

Do your builds adhere to Lowcountry classic or traditional styles or are you seeing more modern builds on our landscape? 

Copenhaver: We’re planning builds at the moment that are specifically adding more modern design components but are based on a traditional Lowcountry style. We’re excited about driving some of this new style from our end, and we’re happy to see clients are loving it.

Regalbuto: I’m seeing a trend away from what I would call purely traditional, such as French Country – I’m seeing a trend away from that. What you see more of is transitional, not quite ultra clean and modern – though we do build those – but overall, transitional. I have clients who have historic homes where they may add a wing to it and the wing is more modern.

Are kitchens getting bigger? What about finishes?

Copenhaver: They are getting a little bigger, but much of that is because the kitchens are connected to the dining area with an open design concept. The most popular finishes we’re working with is matte black and polished nickel. Black and a lot of variations, with navy being used in the background and pops of bold colors coming from fixtures and décor.

Baker: Yes, wide open floor plans and brass are back in, lots of quartz, white walls and finishes are all over the place as far as tile and lighting. Lighting fixtures have become expensive and bold – it seems the wilder the better. Not my style, but I do appreciate it. 

Regalbuto: The majority of my clients don’t want massive kitchens. I’m seeing a very big trend which is a look back to the past. A scullery or a “dirty kitchen” that’s a smaller area where you have appliances – the microwave, the coffee maker, blenders, maybe a wine cooler. They are galley style, more of a straight shot narrow space, eight feet wide or longer. You shut the door to that room, but you go in for those brief activities, then close it off and you don’t have to worry about it being a little messy. Clears the clutter out of the main kitchen.

Bring in the outdoors

All three builders agreed that outdoor spaces are top-of-the-list requests among their clients. Outdoor kitchens, grilling spaces, fountains, pools, nice gardens – large and compact – with NanaWall glass wall systems that bring the outdoors in and connect to interiors – are here to stay.

Regarding the current pandemic we’re faced with, Regalbuto said, “I’m very optimistic that all will be well.”

Copenhaver echoed that saying, “We’re making progress on planning projects for the rest of the year. Our architects, draftsmen and real estate pros are still working full time so it’s been an effective time for us. Charleston is an incredible place with incredible people and we’re excited to see our businesses bounce right back after we get the all clear.’”

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