Beloved home grows
to best suit its family

CorrespondentFebruary 4, 2014 

Scout Will Johnson

A hidden steel beam adds the strength necessary to open up the old kitchen to a large living space in this 1957 ranch-style home off Mason Farm Road in Chapel Hill. “Juliska dishes and a scrubbed ash breakfast table — both from South in Meadowmont Village Shops --— grace the kitchen which homeowner Sandy Alexander says “turned into this magical room with a huge island and nice colors to blend and migrate into the older parts of the house.”


Tabitha and Sandy Alexander moved into their 1958 ranch-style home near the UNC-Chapel Hill in 1999. Only the second family to live in the house built for Dr. William and Jane Joyner, the Alexanders love the house and location, but with four growing children — the eldest a sophomore in high school — the couple needed to remodel the space to fit their needs.

“About 18 months ago we said if we are going to do this, let’s do it now before all the kids run off to college,” Sandy Alexander said.

Remodeling the house would be more than knocking out a wall, since houses along Mason Farm Road in Chapel Hill are in a Conservation District wherein residents come together to create regulations — such as setbacks and height restrictions — to keep the character of their neighborhood as commercial development encroaches. In this case, the growing neighbor is the main campus and medical complex of the University of North Carolina.

“We wanted somebody who could understand all of that from an architectural perspective,” Alexander said.

Years before the remodeling project began; the couple met the architect they would eventually hire – Jim Spencer – at an elementary school function. Both couples’ children attended the school; and Alexander said he put Spencer’s name in the back of his mind as he and Tabitha kept dreaming and saving for their home’s renovation.

“We always thought about what we would want,” Alexander said. “The small bright yellow stove in the kitchen was a great conversation starter, but it didn’t fit our family of six.” When the time to renovate came, Alexander started asking around about Spencer as an architect.

“Everybody we asked was good with Jim,” Alexander said. “He has chaired Chapel Hill’s Historic Commission – not that our house was historic – but my sister is an architectural historian and she said, ‘Don’t goof this up,’ and telling me things like any older sister would.”

The Alexanders had conversations with Spencer whose staff, Alexander said, “got a lay of the land – saw how we lived, and interviewed us really well” before coming up with some plans.

In addition to Spencer, Matthew Ford was the project architect who did a lot of the permit and construction drawing for the job. Whitney Drumhouse also worked on the project for Spencer, as did structural engineer Bob Munach of Excel Engineering, who did the planning for the steel beams necessary to create large, open spaces in the old ranch-style house. The design process lasted about six months, Spencer said. Alexander remembers it as “no more than four,” which is a testament to how well the relationship between architects and homeowners was. Architectural fees are 8 to 12 percent of building costs – depending on the complexity of the job.

“Our desires for the house changed as we got to thinking more about it, and so the scope of the project changed,” Alexander said. “We locked in on a design and had to wait on the town’s ruling or neighborhood conservation district approval.”

The scope of the project also changed after the project started as the builders uncovered things in the house that needed updating to today’s standards. “It was a challenge to increase the scope to include everything the family would want to stay in the house for a long time,” Spencer said.

The most challenging, Spencer said, was adding different types of spaces and a lot of it to an historic home that was also fairly constrained by setback of Conversation District, which doubles setbacks on the sides. The house is on a corner lot.

The couple wanted to keep the cottage feel and appearance from the front of the house. They like to entertain their friends, and didn’t have a space indoors or out where friends could get together and watch games.

Spencer satisfied that need by tearing off an old, shallow, but wide screen porch. That let lots of light into the kitchen area, which was opened to the family room by installing a hidden steel beam in the ceiling.

A new screen porch was built closer to the street side of the house and two patios and a basketball hoops pad were added to enlarge the outdoor entertainment space. What was originally Dr. Joyner’s room to receive patients was redesigned three ways: as part of the master bedroom suite, a vestibule with a small coat closet and an entry to a bath. After the Alexanders “tweaked” Spencer’s plans, a list of six builders were considered from both big and small firms. A couple of these builders decided not to bid because they didn’t want to work on more than one house at a time.

The Alexanders say they chose Will Johnson Building Company because it was very established in Chapel Hill and had done projects similar to the Alexanders’ and bigger and smaller projects.

“We had a very comfortable feeling with Will and knew he wasn’t going to sugar-coat things,” Alexander said. “His preliminary quote was good with Jim Spencer who said he didn’t care if we went with builder A or B as long as the quote was fair.”

Alexander also said that Will’s daughter-in-law, Rebecca, who works as a product selection manager for the building company, offered something that other smaller builders didn’t. She brought Tabitha into the design and selection process.

“Rebecca could help Tabitha with cabinet fixtures, appliances, colors and all of that – someone who could hold our hands and pair down the choices of light fixtures – give us three or four choices based on the rest of the house. She made us really comfortable.”

 Sandy and Tabitha met almost every Wednesday during the renovation to review the job and pick out selections.

“Often times I would pull some choices that I knew would fit their style and bring them to the jobsite,” Rebecca said. “Other times we went to the vendors together.”

The kitchen island countertop is a granite called Vermont White from Custom Stone and Marble. It has the durability of granite with the look and feel of marble.

“After trips to several stone suppliers, when we walked in and saw this one, we knew it was perfect,” Johnson said.

Will Johnson builders started clearing October 1, 2012, and finished the whole-house renovation on August 5. The Alexander family moved to a rental house diagonally across from a house Will Johnson grew up in on Westwood Drive off Columbia Street until the renovation was finished.

The house was basically torn down to the studs, Johnson said. Other than the size of the project and finding things that needed repaired that weren’t in the initial consideration, the biggest challenge for Johnson was getting the steel beam in the middle of the kitchen. The span was long and there was only eight inches in which to hide the beam because the ceilings were already less than nine feet high.

It would have been a hindrance to easy living for the family if they had dropped and boxed the beam, because Sandy is six-foot, four-inches tall. The house had no insulation in the walls and very little in the ceilings. This is where the spray foam insulation that Will Johnson Building routinely uses when building custom new homes made all of the difference in the world.

The other challenge was grading the lot to handle ground and rainwater. The basement was flooding and water was also flooding into the neighbor’s yard. Johnson hired Arnold Smith Grading and Excavating to swale the land away from the owner’s and neighbor’s homes. He hired Sealing Agents to waterproof the Alexander house foundation. Stonehinge Masonry was hired to build knee walls, which also helped as water barriers.

The initial addition evolved to where Will Johnson Building redid the whole house from floors and walls to paint. Johnson explained that as the renovation progressed, the place was looking so good and things were going so well, that the couple said, ‘Let’s just go ahead and do this.’

For example, when Johnson removed the old clapboard siding, the couple decided to have new siding installed. They chose a Hardiboard with a unique thickness that mimics the home’s original clapboard siding. But the new siding is termite proof, won’t rot, resists cracking, and holds paint really well because it was shipped by Fitch Lumber Company to be prefinished at a North Carolina finishing company.

For the renovation of the Alexander home, Will Johnson Building Company won a second place for Best Major Interior Remodel in the 2013 Professional Remodeling Achievement Awards by the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties. To review photos of the winning homes visit

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