Traditional Building Portfolio



Field of Dreams

Don Duffy Architecture has developed a unique portfolio of traditional designs in the American South.

By Lynne Lavelle

When Don Duffy, AIA, first meets a client, he lets them do the talking. As principal in charge of Charlotte, NC-based Don Duffy Architecture since 1995, the architect has designed residences throughout the firm's home state, as well as South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, in an array of architectural styles. Duffy approaches each as a blank slate – to be given shape, form and character as directed by the client. "I look at our work from the point of view of a servant," says Duffy. "I have no interest in reinventing how one should live in their house. The client starts the story and we develop it, massage it and add to it. The client is editor-in-chief and through their criticism, together we create a great place in which to celebrate one's life."

Duffy considers his architectural education lifelong, and ever changing. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1981 with degrees in both arts and architecture, and spent 11 years as senior architect at Meyer Greeson Architecture prior to opening his own firm. Don Duffy Architecture has grown to a staff of six – four architects – who share Duffy's love for traditional housing styles. His wife, Laura, runs the business, allowing Duffy to "do what I love to do – serve our clients."

"My mentors have been my peers and my great staff," says Duffy, "especially listening to builders, trade partners and our clients. There is no better training ground than successful people coaching each other to greater success."

While there is no typical Don Duffy client, the firm's roster is filled with those who were referred by friends, and/or sought an architect who would accommodate and grow their own clear vision of the house they would like to live in. "I see no greater honor than to be invited into the life of a family and helping them to make a place in which to live out the good and bad times of their lives," says Duffy. "I make sure our clients have the freedom to criticize and draw. We encourage them to. Many are afraid of hurting our feelings, but the creativity that results from these dialogues makes for the best houses – houses that really fit our clients and stretch us."

For a house in Norwood, NC, the client approached Don Duffy Architecture to create a home for a sporting life filled with dogs, horses and game. The client had purchased 1,200 acres of land, which held infinite possibilities for building a rural vernacular house to complement an existing horse farm. Over four-and-half years of "thinking, talking and dreaming," Duffy and the client selected the optimum location, on a gentle slope, for the three-wing house, which is divided by public, private and guest uses and linked by breezeways.

The materials selection, inside and out, reflects the unpretentious design narrative. "Exterior materials were selected to blend with a magnificent timber-frame equestrian facility built a few years before," says Duffy. "We sought out materials that had a story. Much of the interior finish came from buildings around North and South Carolina, as well as heavy timber trestle wood from Utah, heart pine from the industrial South, chestnut from the mountains and stone from the fields of Tennessee."

In contrast to the creative freedom granted by 1,200 acres in a rural setting, the firm was called upon to complete a suburban transitional style house in a small community in Charlotte, NC. The local architectural review committee had in place restrictions pertaining to the space around the house, sightlines from neighbors and exterior materials and palette, so the firm created a simple, well-proportioned structure. On the exterior, hard coat stucco over brick provides shadow and depth, while inside, the house blends fuss-free contemporary detailing with traditional beams, cypress paneling and wood cabinets.

The biggest surprise in the house is the stairway, crafted of stainless steel. "It was a labor of love for all involved," says Duffy. "It was drawn in 2D, then 3D, and then finally we took dowels to the site and mocked up the lines of the 3/8-in. railing system. It was literally crafted in place, which is no small feat with materials that could not be welded or ground to fit. I was educated that stainless steel is very unforgiving."

Among the firm's most unusual sources of inspiration, the Department 56 ceramic Christmas Village ranks as one of the most unusual. It was the point of departure for a family retreat on Baden Lake, NC, which Duffy designed as seven buildings, connected by a stone wall, at the end of a quarter-mile meandering driveway. The main house is divided into five sections to meet the needs of a large family and constructed of stucco, brick and field stone, with a slate roof and 12-in.-wide white-oak flooring inside that took six months to acquire from the mill.

Designing such a whimsical property required artistry, as well as technical skill. "The fun part for me was drawing inspiration from a decorative table-top model that did not have scale, just cute lines that one would want to place on a mantle at Christmas time," says Duffy. "I was instructed to let the windows be where they needed to go for the look, so we have some in the floor line and some in the roof line." He adds that, "the program was not only to make a place for a family of seven, but also to tell a story."

Duffy cites the great American Beaux-Arts architect Henry Bacon as an inspiration for two projects in Linville, NC. Bacon designed several homes in the area, as well as the All Saints Episcopal Church, and Duffy's work in the area has "immense respect" for his legacy. The firm carefully restored a 1910 house in the town, which featured pedigree chestnut bark siding – a Linville signature – timber details, and a heavy cedar shake roof. "Much of the old stone is called 'grandfather stone,' which is the stone of the Blue Ridge Parkway," says Duffy. "The stone had been sourced from quarries that have been closed for environmental reasons, so when we find a home that has this stone, great care is taken to reuse it." Also in Linville, a new construction by Duffy follows in Bacon's footsteps with quirky rooflines, steep rooflines, and half-timber, bark and stone. "I am a believer in pattern language and see no need to be the odd man in a community," he says. "There is a quiet beauty in a village of homes that are alike."

Design is in the details, so satisfying a client's specifications to the letter is often a time-consuming process. Making a house in Boiling Springs, NC, just right took four and a half years, beginning with some unusual holdups at the site. "Cattle had to be displaced from the site when construction began," says Duffy, "but soon after the foundation was laid, the construction crew arrived at the site to find that the cows had come home. They too liked the view and shade."

Located on a hillside, the 40-acre site was re-graded to accommodate the client's dream of a chateau. The basis for the design was a Tuscan yellow stucco home with features found on European country estates. The pace of construction was slow and deliberate, feature by feature, and entirely directed by the client, from the perfect color of stucco to the rear stained-glass window with the family coat of arms.

Duffy credits the success of this, and every, project to the dedication of its construction workers and craftspeople. "The building community was so supportive. They would tell the client, 'no rush' and work around any delay," he says. "As I tell my clients, we just write and draw the recipe or sheet music. It takes many skilled people to bring our instructions to life. The work is not always linear or efficient, but it is a real calling for some builders, and working with them is one of the many rewards of being in this industry."  

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