Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series following the Carpenter family through the construction of their Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house in Chandler. The final part will come out next year when the house is completed.
Building a home just the way you want it is a dream for many, but something very few people are lucky enough to experience.
Most of us are also unaware of the challenges that come with building a custom home. Even for an experienced commercial project manager like Will Carpenter, there have been bumps in the road.
It is 10 months into this project, and Carpenter is more than halfway done building his Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Usonian house. He shared some of the challenges and thrills he has experienced along the way.
If you ask anyone who has ever tackled a project like this, whether big or small, it always seems to take longer and cost more than expected. Over budget and behind schedule, the Carpenter house is no exception.
Carpenter and wife Melissa had been hoping to move in by the end of October, but are now working hard to make it in before Christmas.
“We might have to occupy before we’re even done,” Carpenter said. “There’s a chance we might have to put in the tile once we’re already in."
Now, he said, everything should be done by February.
"I might have to install interior doors after we move in. The sooner we can get out of that rental house the better,” he said, referring to the 1,000-square-foot home the family of five is occupying temporarily.
The swing in timeline and budget even caused Carpenter, who’s been working on this project full time, to go back to his regular job in order to make it all work. Despite these difficulties, the homeowner is thrilled with the progress and generally very upbeat.
“I’m feeling really optimistic right now. But if you give me 30 minutes, I might be despondent again,” he joked.
Early in the building process, Carpenter realized he overestimated the amount of work he could undertake.
“I fooled myself, even though I’m in the profession and knew what goes into the process of building, about how much of it I would be able to do by myself," he said. "Not because it’s technically difficult, but because it takes so much time when you’re working alone.”
Finding reliable, qualified labor has been the main reason for the time delay.
"The hardest part has been the actual labor," he said.
Indecision is another common problem for those starting a project from scratch.
The endless options available when building a custom house can be overwhelming.
Luckily for the Carpenters, they had a clear idea of the overall design and style they were looking for before they began the process, so the easiest decisions were made during the design phase.
“Parameters like how many bedrooms and what we wanted in terms of style and feel of the house were easy,” Carpenter said. “Frank Lloyd Wright gave us great templates. You know what a Usonian house is supposed to look like. Massive fireplace, red concrete floors, clear story windows, the house being private from the street."
Wright built his first Usonian house in Wisconsin, and later built more than 100 others. He described the philosophy as "organic architecture" and built the houses with natural materials.
Another characteristic of Usonian architecture is a strong aesthetic connection between interior and exterior spaces. In this house, every window is designed to take advantage of the view of the mountains to the southeast.
Melissa Carpenter, an administrator at Mesa Community College, previously spent two months working at Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home in Scottsdale, Taliesin West. This was a great opportunity for her to understand and appreciate the architect’s work.
“Most of the houses that I had seen were in picture books,” Melissa said. “But seeing it in person gave me a much greater appreciation for his style of architecture.”
While her husband did the primary design, the couple agreed this was the style they wanted for their home.
“Had I not had that experience,” Melissa said, “I might have been drawn to some other style. Will was into Midcentury Modern. So this was the one style in common that we could both agree on."
She said she grew up in the Phoenix area, and they were also drawn to this style because it fit so well in the desert.
Adjusting expectations and being able to accept some failures are other challenges the homeowners have had to face.
“There are moments when something might go wrong, and you’ll literally be paralyzed with indecision,” Will Carpenter said. “And then as you evaluate the problem and how it might affect the final product, almost always, the way forward becomes clear. You either adjust what you’re going to do, or you adjust your expectations.”
For instance, Carpenter’s plan had been to run propane to all three fireplaces in the house. Realizing that would be too expensive, he had to change plans and accept that having propane at the main family room fireplace was good enough.
As a commercial builder, Carpenter incorporated some elements into his home that are rarely — if ever — seen in residential buildings. For instance, he installed a floor sink in the garage and a mop sink in the laundry room.
“Those are unusual things to see in a house,” he said. Also, “the variable refrigerant flow AC system is rarely used in residential applications because it costs more money. Very few builders are willing to install them. But over the long term, I will recover all the money that I spend and then some. It’ll pay for itself in about seven years.”
This project has been both the hardest and most rewarding undertaking Carpenter said he has ever had in his life.
“When I walk into a room, and it feels like exactly what I imagined it to be, there’s a great deal of satisfaction in that,” he said. “And as we get closer and closer to completion, the actual physical spaces continue to take shape, and everything falls into place."