Changing the Game in Homes
By Kecia Bal
Stillwater Dwellings has taken advantage of the versatility of contemporary home designs and used it to offer homeowners a better home and a better process. With a mission of simplifying the process of building a custom home, Stillwater uses contemporary prefabricated home designs—from 800-square- foot accessory dwelling units to larger than 5,000 square feet—to tailor to the elements of a home designed for its site and its owner.
“We are hyper cognizant of making homes respond to the site,” founder and CEO Matthew Stannard says. “Topography, approach to the site, view from the sun path—those are the elements you want to understand. Put the morning sun in the kitchen. The evening sun is in the great room. All pieces in the right place. As it turns out, it’s not that difficult for me or my project architects and project managers to take a design and understand the site and modify the design to work with the site.”
While the Stillwater team has the capability and design savvy to create totally custom plans—the company has been named among the “Best of Houzz” for design three years running—Stannard says he has found that what most homebuyers want is a modern house that still feels like home and is well-built. That can come from a totally custom plan or a tailored existing plan. In fact, sometimes after visiting a site and whipping up the beginnings of a new plan, he says, they realized basically the same design already exists in the company’s annual Plans Gallery and Planning Guide.
“Our appeal is to establish something they like—all the details—working with templates,” he says. “During phase one, which is a minimal cost, we produce a very complete set of drawings and specifications for a hard pricing. And then we can price our components and get the local builder to bid installing the components and finishing the home. Now the customer has very quickly received hard numbers—all in one or two meetings and in a few weeks,” he adds. “People really want a good, quality house that they love. It doesn’t have to be a totally original one-off house.”
Changes can range from simpler, like expanding a bathroom, to more dramatic. As an example, the company created two courtyards in a home where a site offered stunning views of Puget Sound along the northwestern coast of Washington state. The house actually ended up being the basis for a new template, the sd191—a common theme as the Stillwater designers become inspired by the modifications along the way. “Most view sites have a view in just one direction, not 360 degrees,” Stannard says. “For this house and a number of others, we’ve intentionally put the master bedroom with the major view in the same direction as the great room.”
Though the concept of prefabricated comes with connotations of a house that’s built and waiting in a warehouse—Stillwater’s handiwork has worked to break those down. “It’s still a custom home,” he says. “People like our aesthetic and just choose the best plan to start with what works with their lifestyle, property and their budget. We modify it. Sometimes, it’s flipping the house; sometimes, it’s flipping half the house. The whole process turns out to be much more straightforward, less stressful and a better value proposition.”
While builders on the East Coast have touted the benefits of the prefabricated process—materials that aren’t exposed to weather through a build, a swifter path to a structure or smoother build—the West Coast has been slower to follow the concept. Stannard says a “panelization” technique has made for quicker builds with improved quality. That’s important as it has become more and more challenging to find quality trades in the booming construction industry. “We ship a very precise wall-framing packet,” he says. All wall panels are prepared within a 16 th of an inch. Stillwater works with manufacturers that use 3-D modeling software to frame the house on-screen before any lumber is cut. “We can check and know everything is in the right place,” Stannard says. “Then the same software converts 3-D models into panel drawings.” Every piece is bundled carefully. “We know what we’re getting is built exactly as we want it—within a 16th of an inch,” Stannard says. “For the builder, it frames up really quickly and easily. We can get a process that almost directs itself.”
As the push for more modern and contemporary homes has arisen along the West Coast, Stillwater stands out in its ability to offer thoughtful contemporary styles—ones that have the warmth and a residential feel but with strong, clean lines. “What modern and contemporary homes have in common is a lot of indoor and outdoor space, a lot of glass,” Stannard says. “Modern, I think, can be more abstract, nonresidential and super sculptural or industrial. Minimal to an extreme.” Interestingly, those overly boxy structures happen to be popular in the urban infill markets, he says, where going minimal to the extreme can also shave costs with looks that Stannard says just don’t have the inviting feeling of home. “If it’s contemporary, it still feels like home,” he says. “It often has a lot of natural materials—and particularly wood—a warmer feel and often generous roof overhangs detailed in a contemporary way. It’s a modern interpretation of traditional elements.”
Well-positioned among homeowner styles and tastes on the West Coast, Stannard says the company is continuing to expand as more people see the value in their process and product. “Coming out of the recession the market is asking for a bit bigger house, but not huge ones with multiple rooms that never get used,” he says. “We took the spine and wings and realized it’s an incredibly versatile diagram, with plans that work for all sorts of different sites.”