The French Broad River is one of the oldest in the world—it twists and turns its way through the ancient Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, then continues on through Tennessee to Knoxville, where it combines with the Holston River to form the Tennessee River. Just a short drive west out of Knoxville, along a scenic bend of the French Broad Basin, Brandon Pace’s clients wanted to build a modern house.
The clients owned a 5-acre property adjacent to the wife’s sister’s place, creating the opportunity for a private family compound. Their lot was the high ground, a forested ridge with seasonal views of Mount Le Conte and distant glimpses of the Great Smokies. Its other notable feature was a stand of handsome beech trees, lovely to behold but clustered like autocross hazards across the ridge.
They approached Sanders Pace, an award-winning generalist practice in Knoxville, with their ample wish list and very tight budget. It was an astute choice. The firm is known for its modernist sensibilities and its talent for value engineering. Still, even for Brandon Pace, this one was a strain on his team’s resourcefulness. The value engineering began almost immediately.
“The initial budget was $500,000, but they had a pretty big program,” Brandon recalls. “The original project called for a music studio, in addition to the two-bedroom house and garage. And we knew, given the budget, that we needed to keep the project at $250 a square foot.” Other challenges to the goal were those lovely beech trees and the tricky access to the site. They could bring power in from the sister’s lot, but everything else factored into the construction costs—including septic, a geothermal system, and a new driveway approach to the site.
Still, the firm did its due diligence on the wish list, devising a number of schemes that included the studio. “We had a sinewy option that worked its way through the stand of trees and placed the music room above the garage. Then we put it through pricing,” says Brandon. “We were building too much square footage to hit the budget—600 square feet too much.”
It’s a little heartbreaking to have those disappointing conversations with your clients, the ones where an important part of the dream has to go, but Brandon believes it’s superior to a slow death by a thousand cuts. “When you value engineer, you can take a hatchet or a scalpel,” he explains. “You have to take big swipes out, otherwise you end up with dozens of inferior choices—like cheap flooring. We all decided the music room would have to wait for a later phase. We worked together to get the house smaller—to stretch the quality of spaces over quantity.”
Even with these efforts, the square footage price hit $300 instead of the $250 goal and the construction cost reached $600,000. Part of the bloat was attributable to the difficult site and the pace of the small-scale builder who led the project. “He was a toolbox builder, not a laptop builder,” says Brandon. “And it ended up taking him 18 months instead of 12.” Slow and steady wins the race, however, as he pulled off the difficult, modern detailing with considerable skill. “We still saved money using him, but it does cost more in design fees to manage a toolbox contractor.”
Although the music studio ended up on the cutting room floor, the “sinewy option” that snakes through the stand of beeches prevailed. Brandon’s team pulled apart the winnowed program into three modules, linked by a continuous, overhanging roof and a series of shallow decks and deeper porches. The roof shelters the decks, and those protected outdoor spaces extend the home’s perceived square footage while also framing wooded and mountain views. The overhangs also eliminate all but one run of gutters over the front door.
The garage module and bedroom module flank the central living, dining, and kitchen module. Covered porches serve as elbow joints between the volumes. The resulting twists and turns maximize and optimize the property’s long- and short-range views while tiptoeing around the beech trees.
In the interest of budget and low maintenance, the material palette is straightforward but deployed with art and precision. On the exterior, there’s a careful logic as to how windows are placed, detailed, terminated, and how metal siding and cementitious panels clad the remaining planes. “We always want to keep the language considered and consistent,” says Brandon.
Originally, the team envisioned a yellow color palette for the cementitious panels, but a site visit in the fall steered them in a different direction. “When we arrived for that meeting, our client had spread out a collection of fall leaves from the site,” he recalls. Her wishes carried the day: Red-toned panels blend with golden cypress elements (soffits, fascia, skirt boards, screening) and reddish-brown cumaru decking to evoke an autumn tapestry.
Pieces of the Dream
Inside, more species of woods make appearances. There’s painted pine shiplap for the ceiling, white oak flooring, and maple semi-custom cabinetry—a big savings over custom. “We generally don’t like using semi-custom cabinets, because we don’t get the information we need from the companies,” says Brandon. “But when it means the difference between $10,000 and $40,000 in cabinets on a budget-driven project, sometimes we have to make it work.”
Other savings came from specifying 8-foot windows and topping them off with stock transom units, mimicking the effect of much more expensive 10-foot units. And cost-effective track lighting integrates with the shiplap ceiling. “At this point in our firm, we know what dials to turn to bring in savings,” says the architect. “The value we bring is in streamlining choices for our clients and curating information.”
Certainly that’s true, but then there’s also the immeasurable value of inserting a little extra delight. The husband lost his music studio, but in recompense, the team designed a custom, maple-clad built-in for his music collection—complete with a cozy listening nook.
Complete involvement in the process and the lives of the clients are what draw Sanders Pace to even price-constrained projects like these. For careful, considerate architects there’s tremendous opportunity to make a meaningful impact on people’s lives. There’s artistic payback, too, in the granularity of decision-making that residential design affords. “It’s a little bit selfish, really,” Brandon explains. “With these houses, we have an opportunity to get involved in every aspect of the project from site selection down to the doorknob. It’s a great experience for everyone in our 14-person office.”
Plans and Drawings
French Broad House
ARCHITECT: Brandon Pace, FAIA, principal in charge; John Sanders, FAIA, Daniel Jones, AIA, Alec Persch, project team, Sanders Pace Architecture, Knoxville, Tennessee
BUILDER: Joe McNabb, McNabb Modern Construction, Knoxville
PROJECT SIZE: 1,979 square feet
SITE SIZE: 5.25 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: $300 a square foot
PHOTOGRAPHY: Keith Isaacs Photo
CABINET/DOOR HARDWARE: Emtek
CABINETRY: ArtHouse & Co.
CLADDING/ROOFING: Metal siding and roofing, Central States Mfg.; James Hardie HardiePanel; cypress; cumaru
COUNTERTOPS: Caesarstone (kitchen); Corian (bathrooms)
ENTRY DOORS/WINDOWS: Weather Shield
FAUCETS: Delta (kitchen); Hansgrohe (primary bathroom shower); Mirabelle (guest bathroom)
FIREPLACE: Empire Comfort Systems
GARAGE DOORS: Haas Door
HVAC: ClimateMaster geothermal heat pump
LIGHTING: WAC Lighting
LIGHTING CONTROL: Lutron
MOISTURE/THERMAL BARRIERS: Huber ZIP System
RADIANT FLOORING: Schluter
RANGE/WALL OVENS: GE
ROOF WINDOWS: Supreme Skylights