Family runs deep, even when distance and time zones separate people from one another. And kin can influence inconsequential details or big, bold choices that stay with us for years—including, of course, the homes in which we live.
This was true for Matt Ellis and Sheila Lee of Durham, North Carolina, who, after hearing that Lee’s sister and brother-in-law in Dallas, Texas, were working with local studio Smitharc Architects, became intrigued by the firm’s work.
“[When] we learned about their project, Matt and I had already started dreaming [of moving],” Lee explains. “So [learning of the firm’s work] started a whole cascade of questions.”
Ellis and Lee were struck by her sister and brother-in-law’s collaboration with the firm, visiting their home throughout the building process and ultimately, when it was finished, spending time there with both of their families. They caught the bug and wanted to do the same.
“We got to meet [firm co-founders] Jason [Erik Smith] and Signe [Smith] and connected with them personally,” Lee says. “[We] started talking to them about whether or not it would be feasible to have them design something and help us build it from over 2,000 miles away.”
But first, they had to find a piece of property.
They already had a particular plot in mind: A tract of land with a pond they regularly drove by to work and their kids’ school had always caught their eye, so Lee inquired about an adjacent property. It was basically sold by the time they got to it, but instead they got a tip: The property with the pond was also for sale. They scooped it up.
“It’s really close to everything that we do, but does not feel that way,” Ellis says. “It has [a] remote feel.”
When the couple started to think about what would be built on the property, they considered going with a local architect who specializes in modern homes. But, because of Smitharc’s aesthetic and their in-laws’ experience, they decided to work with them instead.
“One thing that we loved about Jason and Signe is that they, being from outside of [Durham], had a totally different vibe that we thought would be unique to the area,” says Ellis. But they felt that the design and construction process would be several years off.
When the architects asked the couple what features they most wanted their home to have, Lee responded that they wanted their kids (then aged five and three) to grow up and make memories there. “We realized if we waited long our kids would probably only get to spend three or four years here,” she adds. They decided to jump into it.
The house is full of exterior and interior details that the architects are proud of and that the couple loves. For the architects, the rolling nine-acre plot of land offered an idyllic opportunity to stretch out. Jason mentions that the firm hadn’t yet had many chances to work on such a gorgeous site, and that Ellis and Lee were keen to experience the breadth and width of their land throughout the day.
“We really tried to create something that felt very sculptural and responded to the scale of the property,” says Jason.
Lee was apprehensive about leaning into angles too hard, worried that the interiors would have too many of them and confine how the space might function. Ellis really didn’t want a box-like house, so Jason and Signe found ways to marry the couple’s two visions In the end, Lee says, she learned to embrace the home’s clean modern lines. “I’ve come to appreciate and love the angles; I think [they] give [the home] a lot of interest from the inside without making it dysfunctional,” she says.
“We liked this notion that even though [the home] is on a rural site, it’s not a farmhouse—we weren’t trying to be overly vernacular with it,” Jason explains, noting that the cypress siding the studio used was meant only to echo older homes and barns in the area, rather than mimic them.
“We wanted the forms to be really taught, but use materiality to warm up [the structure] and give it a little more of a rustic [feel].” The durable standing-seam metal roof was also a nod to vernacular architecture in the area.
When it came time for construction, Smitharc worked closely with Rodney McLamb from Rufty & McLamb Building Company, and several Durham artisans and tradespeople contributed, too. For the exterior, Smith says that instead of making everything custom, the design “was more about configuring off-the-shelf components in ways that would be novel and unique rather than designing from scratch.”
They wanted to keep the number of material types to a minimum so they could purchase large quantities and repeat details across the home’s exterior. They introduced a dog trot to the structure that doubles as a covered area for various activities and where the front door is situated, and the home’s crescendo, a cantilevered 15-foot-high master bedroom that juts out into the woods.
As for the interiors, Ellis says that Jason and Signe really understood what the family needed from its spaces. “The common rooms are ‘common’ in that they’re big enough to accommodate our family and our children growing up, but the rooms aren’t so voluminous [that] you feel lost,” he says. Rather than decorating with art, the placement of windows creates shadow and light play that casually animate the walls.
Ellis and Lee wanted a central space where the kitchen and open dining areas were a focal point, but there was also an emphasis on keeping clutter to a minimum. For example, the sink is actually tucked around the corner to keep messy dishes out of sight; a large pantry holds essentials behind closed doors.
Ellis says that the home, because of the materials used and its shapes, just wouldn’t feel quite right anywhere else; it’s truly suited to its site and the region—a somewhat remarkable feat when one considers that the couple worked with an architecture office a time zone and 2,000 miles away.
And still, every time the couple drives up to the property, whether returning from work, school, or social engagements, it’s a bit exhilarating to see flashes of the house as they approach. “It’s intriguing to come home and get that quick peek every day,” says Ellis. “When you’re sitting here kind of looking out at [the pond], you feel almost like you’re on vacation every day.”