For years, Eileen and Jelle Kiesling spent much of their time in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, she as a teacher, and he as a manager for Royal Dutch Shell. Reaching semi-retirement, the couple, who live in the Netherlands, were looking for a vacation home back in the United States, specifically northwest Arkansas, where Eileen grew up.
Their search had been difficult. “What we wanted,” Eileen says, “was a house that was both modern and affordable and based on a stock plan. And when it turned out that we couldn’t find anything modern, we decided that the only way to get the kind of house we wanted would involve an architect, which, inevitably, was going to be expensive.” Then, one day, while on the Web, Eileen chanced on architect Gregory La Vardera, and the couple found a design that fit all of their requirements.
Dwell readers may remember Gregory La Vardera as a recipient of the magazine’s Nice Modernist award in 2003 for his contributions to our online community. On the Dwell discussion boards up to six hours a day, La Vardera grew increasingly intrigued by postings from people looking for modern stock plans. After an in-depth Internet search, he discovered, much to his surprise, that very few entities were selling stock plans and the plans he was seeing were not to his liking. He recognized a great opportunity. “This constituted my start into selling modern house plans,” he explains. He began working on a set of designs and was soon ready for business. “Many architects are wary of stock plans,” La Vardera says. “Too many turn out to be insipid. That said, though, stock plans are just a fraction of what an architect would charge, so it’s a great value for the consumer.”
After purchasing home plans from La Vardera through his website www.lamidesign.com for $1,000, the Kieslings’ next step was to hire a builder for their 1,420-square-foot modern home. That wasn’t easy in Berryville, Arkansas. “All the people who work for Wal-Mart and the people who supply Wal-Mart are building $1 million and $2 million houses all over the place,” Eileen says “It’s easy for a builder to find work.” But the Kieslings were lucky. Their builder, who was tiring of log cabins, decided that building a modern vacation home was just the change he needed. “Basically,” Eileen says, “I stayed around during the construction phase and acted as the general contractor—which means I learned more than I ever wanted to know about building! It was interesting but hectic to say the least.”
While Eileen dealt with the day-to-day drama inherent in ground-up construction, La Vardera watched the building’s progress on the Internet from his office in Philadelphia. Jelle posted photographs of the home as it was built in Berryville, and even teamed up with La Vardera to write a construction blog. This entry, filed by Jelle, was posted in early spring of 2005: “Builder tried to clear land and dig a hole for the foundation. Machinery got stuck and had to be towed out, but [the driver] finally got a hole dug!”
The Kieslings’ willingness to take on general contracting duties themselves helped keep costs under control, and their Berryville bungalow was completed by mid-2005 at a final cost of $150,000. “We love the look and feel of it,” Eileen says of their new retreat. “It’s as if we were living in a tree house. And there’s no wasted space; we utilize every single inch.”
Their architect would like to see more people building modern houses. The country’s housing stock, he generalizes, is “1 percent modern and 99 percent conventional. But that said, there are lots of people out there who like modern houses and can’t find them.”
La Vardera remains hopeful. “The tide is starting to turn. Lots of people are unserved at the moment, and there are others who have never been exposed to modern at all. Many people are looking for something new. They’re eyeing the possibilities.”