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National Green Building Awards

"Michael has a lot of skills in terms of craftsmanship that other builders don't bring to the job," said Carrboro architect Giles Blunden, whom Chandler worked with as a young builder, adding that Chandler works with difficult materials that other builders tend to shy away from. "I admire what he does."

Second Place At The National Green Building Awards

On March 12th Beth and Erica and I traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico to attend the National Green Building conference where we received second place in the Custom Home of the Year category for the Vidra residence.

The whole experience was a thrill, we got to meet Ron Jones, a green builder and writer we both respect, and had a good conversation with him. We spent some time with folks from Fine Homebuilding, and generally enjoyed the displays and the networking.

Clearly the best part was the article that appeared in the Chapel Hill News by Emily Matchar about the award and how Beth and I work together as a husband and wife team. This paper gets very wide distribution in our area so the positive press is undoubtedly good for business. Emily really listened to what we said in a way that got at the essence of what we are about as a business and what it is like to work in a creative enterprise with your spouse. The text of the article is below...

When Michael Chandler and Beth Williams want to have a quick weekday lunch together, the husband and wife don't have to travel far -- just a few steps from their home office to the airy kitchen of their Saxapahaw house.

"It's like a date," Williams said.

Williams and Chandler, married for four years, are, respectively, the "design" and "build" sides of Chandler Design-Build, a custom home construction company based out of their home in Saxapahaw. Williams, 40, with a degree in architecture from N.C. State, is the draftsman, hand-drawing blueprints with a pencil in her home studio. Chandler, 49, who founded the company in 1987, is a general contractor and a master plumber. He does everything from sales to Web site management to inlaying bathroom tiles.

"I get the fun job," Williams said, nibbling bits of halvah and sipping tea in the couple's kitchen on a recent Sunday afternoon.

"I do everything that's not fun," Chandler said. "We joke that it's Beauty and the Beast -- she comes up with all the beautiful drawings, and I pick out what can be built affordably."

The couple has only been married for four years, and has worked together for five, but in that short time they have created several houses that have gained recognition in the building community. In March, they flew to Albuquerque, N.M., to accept the second-place award in the National Association of Home Builders Green Builders Awards. Their winning design, a house in rural Orange County west of Chapel Hill, is a certified Energy Star Home, and uses about 30 percent less fuel than required by N.C. State Energy Code. The house was built using as few volatile organic compound-containing materials as possible. Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are a variety of chemicals common in construction materials like paints, varnishes and wood conditioners. While the house has no solar panels or solar hot-water heaters, total hot water expenses run to only about $140 a year, thanks to a special energy-efficient water heater.

Chandler Design-Build's philosophy of sustainability extends to the company's seven employees -- their 60-40 profit-sharing split has earned the company a spot on the "101 Best Builders to Work For" list in Professional Builder magazine for two years running.

More than just building "green" houses, a term that the couple is somewhat uncomfortable with ("it leaves you open to other people's definitions," Chandler explained), Chandler Design-Build houses embody the principles of "not so big," authenticity and respecting the vernacular.

"Not so big" refers to a series of design books by architect Sarah Susanka, who coined the term "the not-so-big house," and whose work Chandler and Williams greatly admire. Not-so-big houses value craftsman-like construction and cozy details over tons of space. It's about building "on a human scale, as opposed to an ego scale," Williams said.

For Chandler and Williams, authenticity is all about letting the innate qualities of a material shine through. No fake stone or faux finishes here.

"It's not about perfection, it's about what it is," Williams said. This means simple, acid-washed concrete floors, natural cedar shingles and unpainted yellow pine walls. Williams, who lived in Japan for five years, is particularly influenced by the Japanese aesthetic concept of "wabi-sabi," which, roughly translated, means the beauty of the imperfect and the impermanent.

Respecting the vernacular means building houses that respect their environment, with an eye toward incorporating materials that have traditionally been used in the area.

"We try to build houses that look like they belong on the land they're being placed on," Chandler explained.

You won't see Chandler and Williams putting up any Mediterranean-style palazzos in the middle of Chatham County. What you will see is a lot of tin roofs, slate, cedar, yellow pine, locally milled oak floors and soapstone fireplaces.

"Michael has a lot of skills in terms of craftsmanship that other builders don't bring to the job," said Carrboro architect Giles Blunden, whom Chandler worked with as a young builder, adding that Chandler works with difficult materials that other builders tend to shy away from. "I admire what he does."

All of Chandler's and Williams' design philosophies come together in their Saxapahaw home and office, which are joined by an outdoor walkway.

The one-story house lies low on the land, laid out vertically so that the front view belies the home's actual size.

The kitchen and living area share a vaulted ceiling, and are separated only by a soapstone room divider with a fireplace on one side and a stove on the other. On the side of the divider is a small column of built-in shelves, where Williams stores her papers -- just the kind of quirky but utilitarian detail that their customers love.

The walls are southern yellow pine, the floor locally milled oak. Outside, the house is covered in cedar shingles cut from the normally discarded stumps of trees -- an example of the couple's waste-not philosophy. The master bedroom has a row of windows overlooking Cane Creek; the master bath's shower stall has a sliding door that opens onto a porch, leading down to an outdoor Japanese soaking tub.

Outside, Williams' 8-year-old daughter Erica Chiba and a friend played with handmade stilts in the driveway, next to a pen where seven sheep -- Erica's pets -- graze.

The couple's one-room home office, just a few steps from the front door of the house, is cozy -- too cozy, sometimes.

"There are parts of my work I like doing without anyone else around," Williams said. So she keeps her own "office hours" on weekdays while her daughter is in school, during which her husband knows not to bother her.

Unlike the vast majority of draftsmen, Williams draws all her designs by hand instead of using a CAD (computer-aided design) system.

"I was trained to draw with a pencil," she said, explaining that while she owns and has worked with CAD software, she vastly prefers doing things the old-fashioned way.

"I hated it, I hated holding a mouse with my right hand for eight hours a day," she said of working with CAD.

It's clear that Williams enjoys a hands-on creation process -- besides working as a draftsman she has also been a professional baker, and plays her guitar so much that she has worn a patch through the wood.

Williams likes to work with "smudgy" pencil lines, eventually building up more solid lines as the design takes form.

Then it is up to Chandler to turn the plan into a three-dimensional reality.

"It's wonderful for us to be creative together," Chandler said, of working with his wife.

"It does keep us close," Williams added. "If we didn't work together that would be really strange."

* By Emily Matchar, Correspondent to The Chapel Hill News

Dedicated craftsmen having a great time building beautiful, high performance homes for enthusiastically satisfied clients.
Mailing address - 3249 Henderson Field Rd. Mebane NC 27302
Office address 1610 Jordan Drive, Saxapahaw NC 27340