When Liz and Will Stewart moved south from their home in East Hampton, New York, they took it for granted that they would shop for a site and embark on a new construction. They were tempted, briefly, by a house in Charleston that met all of their specifications, but decided what they really wanted were “the stretches of beach and open skies of Kiawah.”
As they became acquainted with the processes involved in Lowcountry building, though, they found they would be unable to move as quickly as they had hoped. “It was discouraging,” recalls Liz Stewart, herself a retired architectural and interior designer. “The architectural board reviews necessary to move forward can be very time-consuming.”
The Stewarts’ broker combed the Kiawah real estate market for more options and found “a great place” in The Preserve that met their criteria.
“When we rode up the winding drive, we were struck by the marvelous siting of the home and the illusion of being surrounded by nature, with a maritime forest on one side and lagoon on the other,” she says.
The site resonated and they took the plunge, knowing the house would require substantial work to come up to their standards. Stewart began the planning process with Sam Furr, a Charleston architect who had designed her sister’s home. Furr referred the couple to Colin Regan, owner of River Creek Construction, a building firm that specializes in custom renovations.
“He told us a great story about learning the construction business the old fashioned way,” recalls Stewart.
“I worked for three partners,” explains Regan, who is currently working on his first LEED Gold construction project. “Their philosophy was to do everything on the site themselves. It couldn’t have been a better situation—I learned the building process through hands-on experience. From the foundation to the finishes, I was on each site actually doing the work myself.”
The plan that emerged from the architectural drawings called for building out a space above the garage for an office, adding a bathroom, installing an elevator, and gutting 60 percent of the interior.
“The Stewarts wanted to add a lot of function to the home,” notes Furr. “The original owner’s plans did not utilize all its space and potential.”
“We really liked the shell of the house, it was simple, pure,” adds Stewart. “But if I had designed a home from scratch it would have been a modern interpretation of traditional Lowcountry architecture.”
Tight and clean and well done is how Regan describes the Stewarts’ vision for the remodeling of the home’s interior. At roughly 3,500 square feet, the house is modest compared to others in the neighborhood. “We love that,” says Stewart, adding that she wanted to keep it simple, and “edited herself” dramatically when they moved.
“What really makes that home special is what Liz did with her rugs and furniture, and the lighting,” notes Regan.
Regan created a beautiful blank canvas to showcase the Stewarts’ mix of contemporary and antique furnishings, collectibles and art by removing the original drywall and covering entire walls with compound in what’s called a solid skim wall treatment. This type of application creates a perfectly smooth, seamless look.
The homeowners were ready to take a less formal approach to the floor plan, so the kitchen, living room and dining room were opened up, and excessive trim was replaced. They transformed the living room fireplace with a limestone finish and added cabinetry and bookcases to the surround.
Windows throughout the house had been very poorly installed. Instead of ripping them all out, Regan saved time and money tweaking them meticulously to make them square and plumb so they would mesh with the trim.
“The interiors are now comfortable and work for us,” notes Stewart, “and we’re surrounded by this lovely Lowcountry habitat which we’re enchanted with.”
She adds that they brought in landscape architect Sheila Wertimer to trim up trees, open up the views and install native plantings in keeping with the surrounding environment.
“You can really get a sense now, looking through the home, that the living spaces and lagoons are all connected,” notes Will Stewart, an active board member of the Kiawah Conservancy.
The Stewarts are now happily ensconced in their “new” home, and in record time. The renovation began in November 2012, and was completed by the following May.
“It’s fantastic how well it worked out given the scope of the project,” Liz Stewart says. “We had site meetings each week—it was a very thorough process and completely financially responsible. Now it feels totally like our place and we love it. Sam Furr and Colin Regan proved to be, in every way, the perfect team to collaborate with to make this Lowcountry cottage into a true custom home.”
Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based writer.