STITCH Design Shop in Winston-Salem gives new expression to Modernism
By Nancy Oakley • Photographs by Amy Freeman
“I say it’s the Dr. Seuss house,” says Kelly Wainscott, jokingly referring to the newly constructed dwelling that she and her husband, Mike, and their two children, Elizabeth (“Eli”) and David, moved into in March. “Everybody likes it,” she continues, pausing before admitting that on occasion, passersby have confused the house with a place of business. It’s an understandable mistake, for the striking structure set back on a wooded lot is unlike any other in Greensboro’s Starmount Forest neighborhood.
Outwardly, the house, with its boxy shape, adjacent three-bay garage, and walls of glass and sleek wood paneling, looks as though it were plucked from a downtown office park. But on second glance, it blends seamlessly with the towering old hardwoods surrounding it and appears to have taken its perch on the sloping lot years ago. That was the intent of its lead architect, Adam Sebastian of STITCH Design Shop in Winston-Salem, whose downtown does, in fact, contain similar-looking structures: the AFAS (Art for Arts Sake) Center for the Arts — home to STITCH’s offices — and the art park, ARTivity on the Green, across the street, Bailey Park in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, Krankies Coffee, Crafted and the mixed-use NoTra building downtown. Just a stone’s throw away, in the Twin City’s neighborhood of West Salem, is more evidence of the design firm’s work: five houses, (including two more belonging to fellow STITCH architects Ben Schwab and Pete Fala) similar to the Wainscotts’ residence.
“I think they call it ‘Cube Modern,’” says Mike Wainscott of the blocky, geometric look. “It is Modern architecture if you can fit it into a style,” Sebastian clarifies. “Its roots are in Modernism.” But these houses aren’t mere replicas of the Mid-Century style that has become so popular once again in recent years; their character is distinctly 21st-Century. Sebastian attributes the aesthetic to the N.C. State College of Design, where he trained. At the forefront of Modernist design from the late 1940s through the ’60s, the university produced a generation of architects who were disciples of the style that proliferates throughout the state — Matthew Nowicki, who designed Raleigh’s Dorton Arena, for instance, or Bill Freeman, responsible for the B’nai Israel Synagogue in his hometown of High Point. “That lineage continues to be taught there,” Sebastian says of his alma mater. He has always been passionate about Modern architecture, design and houses, which he and his colleagues at STITCH are pushing to the limit. From a design perspective, he explains, “The inside is a reflection of the outside. Clean lines, use of natural materials are prominent in our residential projects. And a lot of natural light. That’s really key to the success of a Modern home,” he says.
And those were exactly the features that Mike and Kelly Wainscott wanted in a new place when they decided to build. They once owned a beach house, “a ’40s split-level,” Mike says. “We gutted it and made it very Modern. You always felt like you were on the water,” he recalls, owing to the generous use of glass. “We had a sitting area outside the master and loved it,” Kelly adds, “because you could see the Intracoastal [Waterway] and birds and animals.”
The beach house was a far cry from the Wainscotts’ previous main residence on a cul-de-sac in the Vineyards development in Summerfield, with its coffered ceilings and wine cellar beneath the basement stairs. But its draw, too, was nature — a stream running in back of the house, walking trails. With Eli and David approaching their teens, Mike and Kelly started casting about for “a bigger area, a development with a pool and tennis courts close by,” says Mike. They looked in Winston, where each works. (Both husband and wife are CPAs: Kelly works part-time as a consultant for CliftonLarsonAllen in Winston and as a controller for Greensboro’s Lake Jeanette Orthodontic and Pediatric Denistry. Mike is CFO for Technology Corps International, headquartered in the Twin City, with offices in the United Kingdom.) But the closest area that met their criteria was Clemmons — about the same distance from their workplaces as Greensboro. Might as well live in the Gate City and commute down I-40. It made sense with Mike’s mother living in town and the children enrolled in Greensboro Montessori School.
The Wainscotts found their answer on the tree-filled haven overlooking the Starmount Country Club golf course, with the pool and tennis courts a short walk away. In July of 2015, they bought the existing house on the lot, which they would raze and replace with their Modernist dream house. “We had an idea of the space we needed and a larger common area,” Mike says. But the Wainscotts needed an architect. They trolled the North Carolina Modernist Houses website (ncmodernist.org) for names, “and contacted folks in Raleigh, Durham and Winston,” Mike recalls. “We really just cold-called and cold-emailed to see if it was something they were interested in. What styles? STITCH’s work was just good,” he affirms.
The couple had culled some ideas from Houzz and Pinterest and knew that in addition to the clean, uncluttered lines and natural light, they wanted a larger common area for family gatherings and entertaining and an outside deck.
After a few meetings, Sebastian needed to gauge just how Modern the Wainscotts were willing to go. Using what he calls a visual preference survey, Sebastian showed his clients various images of houses and asked them to rate their fondness — or aversion — to them on a scale of one to 10 and explain why. “We did it independently,” Mike remembers. “And we couldn’t cheat!” he says with a chuckle. “It was really cool to see, at the end of that test, where Mike and Kelly’s preferences were. The stuff that Kelly didn’t like and Mike didn’t like, and where they aligned and where they didn’t align,” Sebastian recalls. And how did their Modern sensibilities measure up? “I would say, on a scale of one to 10 they were probably an eight or a nine. With 10 kind of being a steel glass box,” Sebastian notes. But the survey was more than an interesting exercise; it helped the architect and clients make specific choices, and says Sebastian, it would prove useful, during the course of the house’s construction to stick to the original design concept.
Additionally, Sebastian says he and his colleagues at STITCH typically query their clients about their daily living patterns so as to create a floor plan: “What do you want to see when you look out the window? Is that the sun setting or the sun all day facing south or is that the sun in the morning when you really want those sun rays to come into your shower?” These kinds of questions, he explains, allow the architects to “achieve interior spaces that feel so much better because they’re capitalizing on Mother Nature,” he says with a laugh.
And certainly, Mother Nature was top of mind to the Wainscotts, who insisted on preserving as many trees on the lot as possible.
“We love the trees,” says Kelly. “I think there were 13 varieties of trees on this lot.” STITCH first came up with a floor plan: an open living room and kitchen on the ground floor and to the side, a home office and a master; a second story for a home gym and the children’s bedrooms, outside of which is a loft sitting area overlooking the living room; and a basement, complete with a bar and a separate room for storage and an outdoor patio for casual gatherings. Reminiscent of the Wainscotts’ beach house are decks off the living room, master and upstairs gym. Then, Sebastian’s team enlisted a landscape architect to map out all the trees. “We did some pushing and pulling on the site, and twisting to maneuver the house forwards and backwards to mitigate the number of trees that would have to be taken down,” he says. Because the house would sit so far back on the lot, the plan, Mike explains, involved placing the garage to the left of the house as seen from the street. (And a garage was another must to accommodate the Porsche Targa 4S, bright yellow Lotus Elise and the two Jeeps belonging to the two auto buffs, who, as Kelly says with a gleam in her eye, “love cars — old cars, fast cars, sports cars.”) When construction crews began clearing the lot in the late spring of 2016, the Wainscotts had to part with only a handful of trees. Even so, Kelly remembers, “I cried.”
But the remaining hardwoods and the house’s elevation on the slope overlooking the golf course create an effect of being inside a treehouse. This, says Sebastian, “is the power of really good design.” Adhering to one of those tenets of the Modernist aesthetic, the inside is a reflection of the outside. He adds, “Through good design you can have a space that’s maybe only 200 square feet, but you can make it feel like 400 square feet. And that’s through the height of the ceiling, the placement of windows.” These two elements give the Wainscotts’ house, and the ones in West Salem, a soaring verticality that has become part of STITCH’s signature.
Not only do large windows and window-walls let in natural light, they also add to a home’s energy efficiency in what Sebastian and his colleagues call “a building envelope.” But first, a thicker wall. “On our residential projects — one thing that we don’t do is use 2×4 construction,” Sebastian says, referring to the wall framing. In Wainscotts’ house, he and his team used 2×8 walls. “What that allows us to do is, we can get more insulation packed into the wall,” Sebastian explains. Thicker walls can also accommodate the kinds of windows that the STITCH architects prefer. “We don’t use vinyl on anything,” says Sebastian. “We used solid wood, aluminum-clad windows. And then we did a double-layer of insulated glass that has argon gas in it. It’s sealed really well so the thermal performance of that window is really high.” It’s an expense worth paying for, he adds, because it makes for lower energy bills down the road. As is a sealed or conditioned attic, a staple of European home construction that, in the last decade, has been permitted in U.S. building code.
The windows, especially a picture window installed behind the kitchen stove where a backsplash would normally go, were one of many things new to Todd Powley of the Greensboro construction firm, Gary Jobe Builder, and his crew of subcontractors. Though he had worked on a remodeling project of a Mid-Century house in the nearby neighborhood of Hamilton Lakes, Powley had never before built a Modernist home from scratch. “We’ve been doing the Greensboro-style traditional houses for years and years, so Modernist is something new to us,” he says. He found that “the Modern thinking of the architects, their designing, is like putting cubes together, blocks. The foundation is similar with any basement foundation home, but once you get above that, you’ve got to think outside the box a little bit and break it down into pieces and parts; then it assembles easily.” In large part because the STITCH architects detail their drawings in such a way that “any competent builder can pull it off,” says Sebastian. “This house kind of forced them to look at our drawing sets and build it.”
Powley found that the biggest structural difference in this house from the others he and his subs had worked on were “some very large cantilevers you don’t normally see. But we had good engineers and good vendors who helped us through that,” he is quick to point out. The finishing details and the order in which some of them were executed, however, required more planning and foresight. Powley is generous in his praise of Sebastian and company for creating a collegial working relationship that made for a “seamless” experience. And the feeling is mutual. “Looking back on it, they did a fantastic job,” Sebastian says of Powley and his subs. Both the architect and builder give credit to the Wainscotts, who, says Powley, “worked tirelessly to get the fixtures that they wanted and that the house was asking for.”
And here is where the Modernist notes sing.
Many of the details, which STITCH has borrowed from its commercial building projects, stand out in a residential context. Starting with the front door. Sebastian didn’t want it to look like a door at all but part of the 10-foot panels of window-wall surrounding it. “It’s called a pivoting door,” he says of the 5×10, custom-built piece, the largest residential door STITCH has used and the first Powley had ever encountered. “When it opens, the pivot point is not at the hinge, like it is on a traditional door,” Sebastian says, explaining that it pivots midway, at the 3-foot point, from underneath and overhead inside the door jamb; the hinge apparatus is concealed. The door also required painting, which Kelly distinctly remembers. The painter, she says, was taller-than-average — 6-foot-7, as it turns out. “And he said, it was the first door he’d ever had to use a ladder for,” she says.
Once inside the door, which moves easily despite its size, is another feature that Mike and Kelly were eager for: the glass-sided, mono stringer staircase in which a single steel beam supports wooden stair treads. For this, Sebastian suggested Andrew Viator, a Winston-Salem–based fabricator who’d learned how to construct the staircases from his father-in-law in Miami, where the design feature is commonly used in commercial building. He had collaborated with STITCH on several commercial and residential projects. “He’s very talented. And we kind of nail the design, and he can put the nuts and bolts to it to make it work,” says Sebastian, who highlights a particular detail in the stairs’ construction to circumvent a problem: a gap between the center mullions of the glass window-wall that would have been larger than the 4 inches that code allows. “Working with Andrew, we were able to create a stair tread that chucks and meanders around these mullions, which is a pretty cool detail. A lot of people probably don’t notice it.”
What a lot of people likely do notice right away is the striking linear fireplace or “ribbon fireplace,” to use Sebastian’s term, and the California red cedar paneling above it, “selected not to have knots,” says Mike: “to give it a clean look.” Adding to the clean look and drawing the eye to the outside is the seeming continuity of the paneling over another ribbon fireplace on the deck with cable rail all around.
Both are gas fireplaces that contain a heat source below, which when activated — by remote control — heats up crystals on the hearths and makes them glow. “The outside is actually LED, so you can change color,” says Mike, whereas the living room hearth uses only white rocks. And there’s one thing the Wainscotts can’t — or rather shouldn’t — do when the rocks are fired and lit: watch TV. Installed above the hearth is a lift to conceal and lower the flat screen. It was a later addition and a bit of a puzzle to configure because the living room fireplace adjoins yet another one in the master. “Basically you’ve got 12 feet of fireplaces in one wall,” Mike explains. It was a challenge Sebastian enjoyed designing around. “We hadn’t done a 72-inch TV lift on any project yet, but it made a lot of sense, because most times the TV’s up and you see the beautiful fireplace. You can imagine if that thing were there permanently. It would take away from that wood [paneling].”
The TV and gas fireplaces aren’t the only things operated remotely. “Their home is fully automated,” says Sebastian. “It’s fully integrated to a smart phone. Fully integrated to iPads. So from anywhere in the world, they can cut on the lights, they can control the air. They can get a performance check readout on how the house is performing.” And since lights are controlled by a central panel, smart phones or iPads, there aren’t any light switches (apart from in the bathrooms and kids’ bedrooms, a point that draws an impish smile, if not a sigh of relief from daughter Eli). “Getting Greensboro inspectors and electricians to do it was a very different process, an interesting process,” says Mike. “The subs really took a lot of pride in getting it done.”
As they did with so many details that called on their craftsmanship. “The only trim really was the baseboard,” says Powley. “The doors had no trim. There’s no crown molding. The pieces of trim, a lot of times they cover up gaps, like between sheetrock and flooring or sheetrock and doors, so we had to create this whole thing without any gaps.” That meant everything had to be flush. “The wall tile was flush with the sheetrock. The door jambs were flush with the sheetrock. The baseboards were flush with the sheetrock,” Powley recalls.
And that kitchen window behind the stove, he says, had to be flush with the countertops and sized with the cabinet space. “We’ve done ribbon windows through there, which is a really nice design detail, but we’ve never done one where we’ve gone from the ceiling to the countertop and then hung the wood in front of it,” says Sebastian. But, Kelly recalls, “We said, ‘We have got to have that!’” She likes that the cabinets go all the way up to the ceiling and, she notes, “The neighbor’s landscaping is so beautiful.” The window also gave residential inspectors pause. “They were not used to seeing it; they were not sure if it was right or wrong or in the gray area,” Sebastian remembers. Like so many things Modern, if people are unfamiliar with it, they’re liable to be suspicious or downright critical. “It’s an educational process for everyone involved,” says the architect.
But who could be critical of another stunning feature directly opposite the kitchen window walls with the expanse of the golf course in full view? A floor-to-ceiling, glass wine cabinet. “It was definitely one of the things we wanted to do here,” says Mike, adding that the wines stored in the temperature-controlled case are for drinking, not collecting. The cedar paneling is repeated inside, unifying the kitchen and living room. Concealing the cooling apparatus are river rocks, neatly distributed on the cabinet’s floor. “When you do something like that, you don’t want to do it in just one place,” says Sebastian. So the river rock reappears in a nook outside, visible from the sliver of window in the powder room. Yet again, there is a continuity of nature inside the house and out.
The bottles of reds and whites and the wine labels contribute to the pops of color in the Wainscotts’ décor, which according to Powley, they selected entirely themselves. “They didn’t have an interior decorator,” he says admiringly. The bright reddish-orange sectional, which makes the hearth all the cozier, brings out fall foliage in the enlarged photograph by Australian photographer Peter Lik. It hangs over a polished, gnarled wood side table that looks like a stump from an old growth forest. (It is, in fact, a piece from the Phillips Collection, which provided the playful silver-colored spheres over the upper stair landing; a painting of corks and a corkscrew by wine-inspired artist Thomas Arvid hangs over the lower landing.) There is one minimalist, square-shaped chandelier over the dining room table, but otherwise, the Wainscotts didn’t want any wire or pendulum lights interrupting the flow between kitchen and living room. They reveal more of their playful side in a colorful metal wall sculpture made by artisans for Furnitureland South. “It reminds me of CDs and champagne glasses,” says Kelly. She and Mike have acquired some pieces from their friend Jim Gallucci, whose children also attended Greensboro Montessori: an arch with a vine motif stands in the Wainscotts’ front yard, while one of the sculptor’s benches, similar to the whispering benches he fashioned for Kids Path at Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro, sits on the lower back patio. And here, they will install yet another Gallucci piece: a vine-covered gate that once enclosed the wine cellar under the stairs of their old house in Summerfield.
Other spaces also burst with color — bold reds in the master bedroom and bath that feature another commercial detail the Wainscotts had used in their beach house, a textured red wall over the sunken tub. Downstairs in the basement, the shelves are installed with LED lights that change color, adding a festive touch to any gathering. It is where Mike and Kelly can play cards or pool with friends. The spare room just beyond the bar has become what Mike describes as “teen gathering area” where Eli and David invite friends, play music and work on art projects.
Some of their handiwork is on display in the loft area outside their bedrooms: multi-hued collages on paper and, of all things, skateboards, that hang above rows of bookshelves. They have adapted to the new house though David was sad to leave the woods and trails of their old Summerfield home. But all it took was one promise to change his tune: “I said, ‘We’ll get a dog,’” Mike remembers, smiling. And that is how Luna, a miniature Pinscher became the latest member of the Wainscott family. “I keep telling everybody, I didn’t anticipate getting a purse dog,” Kelly quips, as the tiny puppy struggles to climb the wooden treads of the mono stringer.
Like so many people, she’s learning to accept the Modern style. “People need to realize that it’s not cold,” Mike says. “It’s much more inclusive inside and outside. It is a very liveable space.” Sebastian acknowledges that the style is an acquired taste. “It’s kind of like looking at a piece of art,” he reflects. “When you look at it, it takes a lot to really appreciate what you’re seeing, and I think we really want to take our architecture projects and think of them as art.”
He also believes the style’s time has come. “I think people have been yearning for it and wanting something new,” he remarks. “People really want it. And that covers all spectrums of young, old, black, white, in between.” Todd Powley at Gary Jobe Builder is starting to see a trend emerge, too. Since working on the Wainscotts’ house, he’s already fielded inquiries about remodeling some houses in the Modern style.
Sebastian and his colleagues are grateful for the community’s response to their designs, which are indeed catching on. About 90 percent of STITCH’s projects are commercial. In addition to their work in downtown Winston and West Salem, the group designed the outdoor climbing pyramids and the new lobby of the Greensboro Children’s Museum and will collaborate with the Raleigh office of Gensler Architects to renovate Kaleideum Downtown (formerly the Children’s Museum of Winston-Salem). Park commissions or “parkitechture,” as Sebastian says, continue to be staples. Quarry Park, built around an abandoned quarry in the southeastern edge of the Twin City, opened just this summer. Two more in Raleigh and two others in Goldsboro and downtown Danville, Virginia, are in the works, as are more remodeling projects on Fourth Street in Winston-Salem. And the 10 percent of residential work in STITCH’s portfolio? The architects drew preliminary plans for another Modern house . . . just a few streets away from the Wainscotts.
“Oh, the places you’ll go!” wrote Dr. Seuss, and 4-year-old STITCH is certainly on the move. As for the Wainscotts, they’ll have plenty of places to go, too, in the course of their busy lives. But at the end of the day, there’s no place like the 21st-Century Modern they call home.