If you manage to find the driveway, you'll think you're lost. But keep going. The home at the end of the mile-long dirt road, through dense woods, is worth finding. The bright red metal roof marks the end of the trail and also the home of Larry and Cheryl Diegel of Pittsboro.
The Diegels didn't ever plan on living in the woods. The couple moved to North Carolina from New Jersey in 1990 with their daughter and lived in a sprawling house in North Raleigh for many years. Once their daughter was grown, the couple downsized to a home in Fearrington Village.But that didn't feel quite right either. It was 2005, and their lives were changing. Larry was retiring as a corporate executive; Cheryl changed careers and began teaching yoga. "We weren't actively out looking for anything," remembers Cheryl. "I just saw an ad in the paper one day. I spent a lot of time out in the county, doing yoga retreats, and I really just started loving the land out here."
The Diegels purchased a 10-acre parcel in Pittsboro and started to think about what they would want in a home if they could build it from the ground up. The story-and-a-half home was designed by architect James Morgan, principal of the firm BellaDomus in Carrboro, and built by Bill Newnam of Bill Newnam Construction. It took eight months to build. "It was our intent to bring it down to a livable size where it wasn't overbearing," says Larry of the 2,200-square-foot home. "We had a concept of what we wanted. Lots of light. Open. Using materials from the land. Green." Adds Cheryl: "I wanted an Italian palazzo feel where you just walk in the front door, no porch."
The couple also wanted to build the home as green as possible, using wood and stone from the land and implementing the latest technologies to reduce energy costs, including sealing the crawlspace and using dyed clay to cover the drywall instead of traditional paint. The walls are thicker than normal too, embracing the concept of thermal mass, which saves energy. Cheryl and Larry are big fans of Sarah Susanka's Not So Big House book series (advocating less square footage and better usage of space), but other than that relied on past experience to build their home.
"Over the years, you get a feeling for what you use and don't use," says Larry. Adds Cheryl: "This is our ninth home. We've been married 40 years; Larry was a corporate guy so we moved around." It's hard to assign a label to the Diegel home. It's equal parts green, urban, mountain-esque, Southwestern and Arts & Crafts. The plan is very open, with no formal dining room. The floors in the main living area are tinted concrete. A natural stone fireplace is the focal point of the living room. The ceiling is covered in cedar planks and accented with Red oak beams. Both the stone and some wood came from the property.
"We wanted to use as many materials from the land as we possibly could," Larry says. "Our builder was very good about deciding what could work. All of the exposed beams are from Red oak trees that were lying down from Hurricane Fran."
Originally the ceiling was supposed to be a 14-foot flat ceiling. But the Diegels changed their mind. In fact, the Diegels changed their mind about a lot of things during the building process, which didn't bother builder Bill Newnam one bit.
"One reason I enjoyed working with the Diegels so much is that they were open to letting the house evolve as the construction progressed and were not slavishly bound to the plan and specifications," says Newnam, 64 and semi-retired. "When rendering a concept into an actual three-dimensional space for living, one has to be attuned to the opportunities to improve on the plan." The kitchen has concrete countertops; Morgan designed an eat-in bar that looks like a grand piano from an aerial view. For the bar, Newnam scored a piece of mahogany from a renovation of a local hotel; the luxurious burnished wood complements the Red oak and cedar. Leftover mahogany was used to build the bar's support brackets as well as the outdoor plaque which holds the house numbers. "That's one of the reasons I love Bill," says Cheryl. "He's more resourceful than I've ever seen anyone be in my life. He never wasted any materials, and he's extremely creative. A lot of builders don't want to take the time."
Throughout the Diegel home are expansive windows in all shapes and sizes. "James Morgan is very much about bringing light into the house," says Larry. The windows go up the stairwell, and the 10-acre view follows. The hammered wrought-iron handrail with copper accents was crafted by a local artisan. "I wanted something that was really fluid, not with lots of curlicues," says Cheryl. "This house just doesn't call for something fancy. But I wanted the home to be graceful and interesting."
It is both — thanks to the exposed beams, custom woodworking, window seats, rounded corners and natural stone. "It's more beautiful than I expected," says Cheryl. "The detail that went into it is just amazing."
The home fits Larry and Cheryl's lifestyle in a way no other has. There's even a yoga studio on the second floor where Cheryl teaches. For the Diegels, downsizing felt good. "We just got rid of all of our formal furniture," says Cheryl. "It was something we needed to do. The transition was pretty easy."
The only thing Cheryl wishes her home had more of is storage space. Then again, maybe not. "When I hear myself say that, I think, ‘If I just went and cleaned out a few closets it would be fine,'" Cheryl laughs. "We've been in the process for a few years now of purging and paring it down to what we really need and what we really use. There's still stuff we could get rid of. The decisions are so hard when you make them, and then a few years later you're thinking, ‘Now why did I keep this?'"
The Diegels have advice for anyone who building a home. "Be prepared to be totally engaged in the project," says Larry. "If you're not going to be engaged, then you have to accept what comes your way."
Adds Cheryl: "We're very fortunate because we found the right builder and the right architect, and they were so easy to work with. I think that was key. If you're clear about what you want, it really helps."