Uknes Home

Scott & Sue Uknes knew they wanted something very special for the parcel of land they had found near Jordan Lake. The house was to be the centerpiece of a comprehensive landscape plan with carefully considered pond, plantings and outbuildings. When asked to describe the process of working with James on the plans for all this they both had plenty to say!  

Scott: "I'm a person who's pretty interested in the psychological effects of the way a house is shaped and how it feels. I think it's important for quality of life and, because it affects me a great deal, I like to spend time and energy on it.

"We looked at a lot of home designs in magazines and books, but we found there were a lot of constraints placed on those designs. They were done out of ordinariness. That is, the whole idea is how many people can you sell the design to. They don't take into consideration the specifics of the site nor the specifics of the people. Basically, you can't get something you want from a book.

outbuilding and chain  
"Also, I've always been fascinated with American architecture but I wasn't happy with the modern interpretations of the American Craftsman movement or Mission style. It was either too great a compromise -- not getting the style or functionality I wanted -- or it was not the right feel. It got dark and moody. I know they don't have to be that way, but that's how those styles are always portrayed.

"James was recommended by builder Frank Cole. I really liked James' approach the first time I met him. He was very open. It wasn't "here's what I want to do" or "here's what I have to offer." It was more like, "I want to listen to what your situation is and what kinds of things you're doing, and we can work together to make that happen."

"He was someone who was willing to work with me on that as opposed to offering seven different cookie cutters."

Sue: "I'm real estate. All I kept saying initially was 'resale, resale'. That's just how I think. James finally said to me: 'You're paying me to help you design a home to fit your needs the way you like to live. Your house will sell. It may take longer because it's a bit more unique, but it will be fine.' He was very good and tactful in helping me to realize I just had to let go of that. And it's true. We wouldn't have gotten this house if I had held on to that."

Scott: "For us the design was a blank slate. It was more like we can do whatever we want, so what do we want and what is our budget?

dining area"The house, therefore, is totally designed from the bottom up. We did look at some plans, but it was to go through what I did or didn't like about them. That way James got a real sense of what I was thinking and could focus on what the list of important items was.

"We made some concessions due to budget. James helped us focus on what might be the more important things long term, as opposed to the things that you can adapt to. Or the things that you can easily change later on, as opposed to the things you can't easily change later.

"James took into consideration the things I THOUGHT were really important while putting into the design the things he KNOWS are really important and I was ignorant about.

"I had a really good idea of the spatial layout, but I didn't have a concrete understanding of how to make these things function properly. What James did was great. For instance, there are no hallways in the house that don't have another function: a hallway on the 2nd floor is also a library and a hallway on the first floor is a sunroom."

Sue: "We thought we needed a master bedroom on the first floor for resale, but we really wanted to sleep upstairs. James gave us both. He placed our master bedroom on the second floor, but designed a guest suite on the first that could also function that way."

Scott: "I really am a function guy. I want the space to work. If the space isn't working, I don't want the space. The efficiency built into the house is off scale. Even though it's 3,000 sq. ft., the house feels a lot bigger, more like 4,500 sq. ft.

"Another provocative thing James did was to choose a roof and eave design that I would not have picked if it were left up to me alone. I believe that form ought to follow function; I don't like adornment for adornment's sake. After living in the house for several months, I realize it's absolutely the best design for this climate. A wide eave with a hip roof gives a lot of shade in the summer and lets sunlight in during the winter. For the North Carolina piedmont, it's the right roof design. In the first month here, the air conditioning bill was about the same as for our old 1,800 sq. ft. house.

"We also wanted the house to be part of the natural setting as opposed to being separate from it. That's probably the part that I contributed to the deal. I basically wanted cedar shakes or stone. Although it's material that takes a little more maintenance, the amount of detail it provides to the house and the way it feels make it more than worthwhile. The house feels like it's been here for a hundred years and fits in with the environment.

SE open rendering"Finally, James really helped Sue and me to work on this together, especially by providing 3D computer models to help Sue visualize the design and feel better about the process. Though I'm pretty good at visualizing things, there were a couple of views James showed us that pleasantly surprised me too!"

Sue: "James also has great people he can recommend, and they are very enthusiastic about him. For instance, the landscaper knows that James takes the landscape into account in his design. We didn't go wrong with anyone he recommended. James was on target with what it was we needed.

"We never had a problem calling on James. He was very responsive to our urgent concerns and was always able to help us out. In the process, he was very calm. When I was stressed out, he never was.

"For me, one of the other important things is James' enthusiasm and how he understands what you want. He has great ideas -- you can almost see his brain working. I just like the way he thinks.

outside rendering"I was impressed by how well James and Scott worked together. Scott thinks out of the box, but I'm pretty concrete. So I like that James didn't blow me off. He was very patient and helpful, so ultimately I was able to just trust the process. Several of the things that I initially didn't want -- like the round window -- turned out so great. I love it. There were a lot of things like that."

Scott: "James listens very carefully. He creates a tone that's amenable to making progress. The issue is never that you can't do something. It's do you want to? He views life as a series of choices and that's the way I feel about it too. That makes for a very open relationship. Because he listens a lot, he gets a real good grasp of what's going on.

back of exterior"He also gets a fundamental thing about life that most people don't. A lot of people are interested in I, me, mine -- what contribution they make. James thinks a lot about the process and how to make it work to get the best product delivered in the end, independent of who does what. It's 'let's make sure that everybody is using their full skill set to get this done.'

"So, Sue picked out all the colors and hardware on the inside, and coordinated with the builders. I wasn't interested in that, nor good at it. She did a fantastic job. It really was a team. All the best stuff is done by groups of people. James gets that, and because he does, it allows an openness and honesty and a lack of competitiveness about ideas and contributions that's unusual.

"With James and me, there was always an excellent intellectual give and take. He has a good sense of what's really important, from a design and functionality perspective. The things that he viewed as being really important wound up being important, and he was pretty persistent about them. Things that were just the way he would have done it versus the way we would have done it, he would just suggest and walk away from it.

"Not only is James easy to work with, he basically saved the project. Several times contractors told us, 'You can't do that.' After meeting with James we would come upon, from their perspective, a very clever solution. James knows a lot about different construction techniques and materials that are commonly available, but not often used in homebuilding. They're used in commercial or industrial building. Yet they're not necessarily expensive at all.

"James' commercial projects like Weaver Street Market keep him fresh and aware of what's available. It doesn't bind him to only a certain type of design. That's really powerful if you're trying to do something new and unique."

Sue: "The house works--and people feel it. Every person who has seen the house has commented about "the flow, the energy." Just talking about it gives me goose bumps!

"With this house we doubled the square feet we had, but we didn't want to feel lost in a big house. We wanted an intimate place and I wanted to feel secure when alone. The house immediately felt comfortable. That surprised me.

little square windows 
"There are so many little surprises. I find them every day. For example, how light hits a surface. We have these high square windows. At certain times, a perfect square of light hits above the fireplace where you would put a picture. And, there are views I didn't anticipate. For instance, from the bedroom I can see through a series of windows. Cool!"

Scott: "It's fantastic! Not merely good, it's off scale good. From a design perspective the space performs way better than I expected it to. There's nothing that I would say was designed inappropriately.

"The house has an unusual feel. It's 3,000 sq. ft., but it feels a lot bigger. Each space you go into has a transition that makes you feel like you're in an entirely different kind of space.

"The tower room is all pine with windows all around. When you sit in there, you feel you're part of the treetops. That's a very different feel from the dining room which is almost craftsman style, with inlay in the floor and built-in cherry cabinets. There, you're aware of the workmanship. The floors in the house are red oak, but in the master bedroom it transitions to maple flooring with thinly whitewashed trim. It's very peaceful, calm, and relaxing. That's very different from the more formal craftsman downstairs or the informal upstairs.

"I wanted an open plan, but wanted to feel intimate in the rooms. James did that with transitions in ceiling height, as well as some short walls that come down out of the ceilings to create a separation of the spaces yet still let you look right through. The placement of the fireplace between the kitchen and the living room also creates a real separation. These are very subtle things that had a dramatic impact.

big round window"On the exterior, from the west, the house looks very Asian, with a big round window. From the south, the house looks like a multi-story suburban house, but boomerang shaped. You're in the open part of the boomerang and it looks very comfortable and symmetrical. From the north, there's this big tower. I've grown to love it. It takes the environment into consideration.

"Because the house is not actually symmetrical, as you move around, even a few degrees, it changes shape and form dramatically and quickly. As James said, it's like you're walking around a person. From every perspective, the person's profile changes.

"The house is also more flexible to different lifestyles than I had anticipated. We decided early on that we were going to build a house for us, not for every person in Cary. Ironically, in doing that, we wound up with a house we think probably everyone would want. Part of it is having a consistent design throughout. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I think that a lot of time the choices people make just for resale are pretty poor compromises.


"When I started this project, I was really pushing hard toward what the end product would be. But I enjoyed the process more than I thought I would. The process of designing the house was part of having it, as opposed to being all about what you get done. To a certain extent it's how you got there too. Having investigated most of the alternatives was very helpful. It gives you a comfort about what you have and lets you see the result not as a set of compromises, but a set of positive choices.

"The result is good and the process is fun. What more can you hope for in life?

"I could not only wholeheartedly recommend James, anything I do in the future that requires a designer, I'd like to use him."