Amy and Jason Tesauro visit their Church Hill lot with their five children. (Photo by Jay Paul)
“Go to the end of East Broad Street and we’re the house on your right.” That’s how my wife Amy and I give directions to our place. At least that’s the plan once we have an actual house. Right now, all you’ll find is our slim spit of land squeezed between two dwellings where Broad Street dead-ends just past 36th Street and Chimborazo Park.
In early 2013, we moved into a rental down the street from Libby Hill Park with the intention of buying. By November 2014, we still hadn’t found the right house in Church Hill. We’d nearly settled on something up 27th Street, but we couldn’t reconcile the equation: real estate for seven humans either fit our budget or our style, but not both. Determined to forsake the suburban compromise, Amy ran some numbers and a new idea emerged: “Instead of buying something that half-way works,” she said, “why not spend a little more to build exactly what we want?” It meant tightening the belt for a spell, but it also meant designing from scratch a custom home for us and our five children without sacrificing aesthetics or our street cred. But good luck finding land in Richmond’s hottest neighborhood.
Amy is a Realtor and her company, Linchpin Real Estate Group, specializes in city property, especially Church Hill. Every listing in the 23223 zip code catches her eye. A lot had popped up one morning in November 2014 and by that afternoon, she had made a full-price cash offer.
“I bought a lot today,” she told me. “It’s 22-feet wide.”
This struck me as absurd. “That’s not a lot,” I said. “That’s a little.” Figure in the required 3-foot setbacks from neighbors on either side, plus the
exterior walls, and you’re down to 15 feet. “It’ll work,” she assured me. “Dutch and Japanese families do it all the time with even less.”
Before Amy called me to report the news, she called Nested, a duo of residential designers in Scott’s Addition, to make sure they could design a cool skinny house. Founded in 2010, Nested (formerly Terre Design Studio) is Laura Pitcher and Jennifer Radakovic. Both under age 36, they are young, hungry and innovative. Amy trusted them with their first in-town home design project because she loved the clean, European lines of their previous work.
But before you ever put shovel to earth in Church Hill’s historic district, you’ve got to stare down the purists, appease the preservationists and earn approval from the persnickety Richmond Commission of Architectural Review (CAR). At best, we’d get a skinny house with views of the river basin. At worst, we’d end up with a $45,000 badminton and bocce court for the children.
Amy and Jason Tesauro look at elevation drawings for their new house in Church Hill. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Amy has two kids, I have two kids, and we needed some glue, so we had one more together. Isabella, 13, Brooks, 11, and ‘lil Julian, 2, live with us all the time. Sebastion, 12, and Cecilia, 9, are with us half the time. Amy aptly calls our blended lot an “accordion family.” We got them enrolled in the process right away and made sure to connect the dots between how us saying, “no,” to a Peter Chang outing today could mean, “yes,” to a home theater tomorrow.
As the cliché goes, building your own anything takes twice as long and costs twice as much. When we made the offer, we posted on Facebook that a New Year’s Eve party would christen the new digs. I was thinking that meant singing Auld Lang Syne to 2015, though, not 2016.
We were supposed to close on the lot in December, but due to title issues, we closed in February. On the plus side, that extra time doesn’t just build character, it’s refills the till, which is vital, when the budget drags on, too. Our budget was $300,000 for the house we thought we’d need, but it’s going to cost $400,000 for the beautiful house we want.
Thus it begins and you’re invited along. I’ll be documenting the process — the good (green building materials), the bad (nix the basement, it would have cost $85,000) and the ugly (the verbal equivalent of Molotov cocktails from neighborhood opposition) — as we journey from groundbreaking ceremony to housewarming party over the next year.
In the next installment, you’ll meet our quirky clan and our clever builder, Cory Fitchett, construction manager at Old Dominion Innovations Inc. You’ll learn why our home will be made of SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) instead of 2-by-4s, and you’ll learn what’s essential to us (a big-ass kitchen) and what’s expendable (a Big Ass fan). Most importantly, you’ll learn why small-lot-big-life is our guiding tenet. Whereas some people want a two-car garage and porte-cochère, we want seven passport stamps every two years. And since we’re already sweating over the blueprints for our house, why not line them up with the blueprints for our life while we’re at it.