Owners Beverly and Adam Hess have to think hard when asked to identify something in their $500,000 remodel they would have done differently. “Well, we might have traded the six-panel [interior doors] for more authentic three-panel doors,” Beverly volunteers after some thought. This $2,000 upgrade is about all the couple can drum up, so thrilled are they with their Morris-Day designed and built 3,160-square-foot home in Arlington, Va.

A quick glance around the Hesses' authentic Shingle-style home with its Arts & Crafts romance tells you most people would be tickled to live there. Architecture aside, the Hesses are pleased because their remodel stayed on schedule, on budget, and delivered in reality what the plans promised.

Choosy Buyers When the Hesses decided that their townhouse was too tight for a family of four, they cursorily shopped for a new home. Husband Adam was unimpressed with what builders had to offer: “You could have Plan A, Plan B, or Plan C — like packages. With a new house, you couldn't target what was important to you.” They were equally unimpressed with the existing home market, saying they couldn't find, or afford, an older home that had charm.

Ultimately, the couple braved the hot Northern Virginia housing market and put an offer on a rundown 20-by-28-foot asphalt salt box in a rolling-hilled neighborhood boasting a terrific school district for their two children. For $350,000, the Hesses got the dirt and building bones for their dream house.

Floor Plans To find the right architect to rehab their box, the couple scoured nearby neighborhoods for inspiration. “We … kept pointing at houses saying, ‘Who did that?'” remembers Adam. Inevitably the homes the couple admired were designed by Morris-Day, a residential design and construction firm in Arlington, Va.

The couple met with company owner Rob Morris and bonded instantly. “We fell in love with his company,” Beverly says. “We talked to other architects, and they were neat, but not as neat-o as Rob.”

The Hesses chose Morris-Day for their project because Morris gave them a level of comfort about the remodeling process. “We didn't have the vocabulary to describe what we wanted when other architects asked us,” Beverly explains. “Rob's homes were just such spectacular examples. I mean, how do you say to another architect, ‘Can you design me a Morris-Day home?'”

The 13-month project got rolling after Morris studied the box he had to work with. “There was simply no charm to the house,” worried the couple. Morris was nonplussed, pleased even: “Don't worry, we fabricate charm.”

True to Style The Hesses' program was a departure from today's popular great room/kitchen combo. “We absolutely wanted the kitchen and living areas to be separate,” Beverly says. “They needed to be connected, but there had to be a way to separate them also. The kids weren't that young that I needed to constantly see them, and we knew as they grew up they wouldn't want to see us either.”

Morris-Day's architecture team — Morris and Dwight Mc-Neill — designed a flowing, but not open, first floor. From the entry hall, a large family room lies to the right; to the left, a modest-sized living room. To make sure the living room remained relevant, the architects tucked the staircase leading to the four upstairs bedrooms unobtrusively into its back wall. “When you empty the staircase into [the living room] and connect the dining room to it, it's not an isolated room,” Morris says. “It's a point around which the house gravitates.”

To enhance the coziness of the separated rooms, the Hesses insisted on 8-foot ceilings on the main floor, a move that gives the house an intimate character. The Hesses' decision to lower ceilings and divide spaces resonates with Morris, who notes that though open plans and high ceilings are popular in theory, they are often difficult for owners to live in or decorate.

Morris thinks what people are after, but perhaps can't articulate, are open plans with intimate spaces where you could feel comfortable alone or with 10 people. He also notes that you can't effectively trim a house where rooms flow unobstructed into each other. “The trim has to come to door jambs and stop so you can start a trim color, stop a trim color, start paneling, stop paneling,” he points out.

The Hesses' favorite room is the kitchen. Adam, a “weekend wannabe chef,” enjoys the high-end appliances, including a Viking stove. Although the space is separated from the family room by a doorway, it doesn't feel isolated or inconvenient, probably because the space also opens to a sizable L-shaped, screened-in porch. Double doors leading to the family room allow parents to close off the room when the television annoys.

The family stuck to basic product choices throughout the home because it allowed them to spend extra on the things that mattered, like the concrete composite countertops in the kitchen and upgraded appliances.

“You can spend a lot of money on great finishes. Or you can pay your architect to work with some cheaper materials and make it look even better than those expensive ones,” Beverly says. “We could have bought a production home and spent way more than we did. But we also wanted design … things to make you feel this way in this room and a different way in another room. That's the value of a great architect.”

Morris facilitates product choices simply by knowing what can be bought inexpensively, which he's learned after years of building houses — including 15 homes for himself over the past 20 years. “The next one is always the best,” he says.

“I have a running library of materials based on aesthetics, value, serviceability, and consumer reports,” he explains. “When you can look at an imported master bath sink faucet that retails for $3,000 without recognizing that you're looking at a $3,000 faucet, you know there's a slippery slope,” Morris warns.

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