Lexington, KY – Having survived cramped apartment living throughout the duration of his medical school tenure at UK, Mat Nicholls and his wife, Julie, were ready to settle into their dream home. They had lived in rural Jessamine County for a few years, and enjoyed the privacy it afforded them, but their son was reaching an age where he wanted to be closer to other people his age, and they were ready for a change. Thus, they were faced with the dilemma of wanting to move to a suburban setting while still maintaining their privacy.
Further, the couple had some very specific elements they wanted to incorporate into their living space, and while they looked at a number of homes that were nice enough, none addressed all of these elements.
“Most of the homes we looked at were too fancy or too traditional for us,” Julie said. “With the budget we had set, we wanted to make sure the home was absolutely perfect for us.”
After interviewing a number of potential designers and homebuilders, the Nichollses commissioned local builder John Schaefer (Schaefer Homes) and architect Graham Pohl (Pohl Rosa Pohl) to help make their dream home a custom-built reality. In addition to wanting privacy within the enclosed neighborhood, the Nichollses wanted the design to address some specific family ties. Mat is one of eight siblings, so it was important that the home included specifications for large family gatherings (as in, up to 40 people). Julie, who has Japanese ancestry and was raised in Hawaii, wanted to honor her own heritage with the design. They wanted a feeling of freedom and lightness to pervade the home, and it was also important that their children had ample room to play and a quiet place to sleep when the couple had company over in the evenings.
The couple purchased a lot in Beaumont neighborhood and in complete collaboration with Pohl and Schaefer, got to work on the highly detailed design plans – only to have those plans initially rejected by the rigorous guidelines of the Beaumont neighborhood. From the unique torii gate (a traditional Japanese design) at the home’s entryway, to the stargazing deck on the roof, many elements of the design were met with resistance from the relatively traditional subdivision.
“We had to comply with the restrictive covenants for roof pitches and building materials and colors,” Pohl said. “The dark colors that we used on the windows were on the edge of acceptability.”
Ultimately, the group was able to create a design that they liked and that the neighborhood residential association approved. Pohl said that after creating a model with the potential home juxtaposed beside the neighbors’ homes, the association was able to see that as different as the home was, it still worked quite nicely with the scheme of the neighborhood.
Nearly five years after starting the process, the family’s dream home was actualized. In addition to meeting the general design aesthetic the couple had idealized, the home includes a number of custom features, from the (amended) torii gate and stargazing deck to a traditional Japanese soaking tub, an oversized storage closet to house tables and chairs for family functions (it doubles as a potential future elevator shaft), and sound-barricading walkways at their children’s bedrooms. The home is also stocked with energy-efficient elements, including passive solar heating and cooling, geothermal technologies and spray foam insulation. When the area’s power went out during the 2009 ice storm, Julie says her family was one of very few households to stay in the neighborhood – and without a generator, at that.
“We maintained 68 degree temperature,” she said. “We just got a fire going, and we were just fine.”
Despite the structure’s unconventional qualities, the family has had an overwhelmingly positive response from their neighbors. “The neighbors call it the California House,” Julie said with a laugh. “I don’t bother to correct them and say it’s actually a Japanese-Hawaiian house.”