Somewhere among Joe and Donna Ahmann's vacation snapshots, there are always a few of the family, but they're outnumbered by a gallery of gables, stately stairways, coffered ceilings, and crown moldings.
They've clicked away on tours of century-old mansions in Newport, Rhode Island; new French country enclaves in Tulsa; and homes for sale in older parts of their hometown, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Joe is a home designer who practices what he preaches: Details make all the difference between a new home and a new home with character. "People say you can't get today what you got in old homes, but we can do it. You have to research it and make the extra effort to find the product it takes to get the look," says Joe, who head Ahmann Design, Inc., in Hiawatha, Iowa.
The couple's 2,875-square-foot home -- a marriage of French country and cottage styles with a dash of farmhouse flavor -- proves his point. "We could have built bigger but we wouldn't have had as many nice details in it, so we decided to build smaller and trick it out," his wife Donna explains.
Instead of building a 4,000-square-foot home with a routine interior, they devoted 25 percent of their budget to upgrades such as distressed alder doors, European hardware, divided-light windows, wide-plant oak flooring, beefy millwork, and an ornate wrought-iron stairway.
"We wanted a more timeless, traditional look and a home that feels cozy and comfortable, not overbearing, when you walk in," Joe says. "My parents still live in the same house I grew up in. When we go home, that's home. That's the kind of feel we wanted to create for our kids."
Joe prefers that clients have their building site selected before he starts designing their home, and he and Donna did have property -- the wrong property. After touring new and old French country homes in Tulsa, they decided the cottage they envisioned would look too new on their treeless, cornfield lot. So they found 1.6 wooded acres along the Cedar River. Often, he says, "...people will design a house and stick it on a lot, [whereas] this home is designed into the property," he says. "It was a major change, but it's perfect. We can walk to the river with the kids. There will never be any homes behind us."
Natural materials and French country details give the cottage a sense of place and that "been there forever" look the couple wanted inside and out. The cottage is clad in rubble stone quarried in Oklahoma and has typically French brick accents, shutters, sloping gables, and a rounded dormer. A courtyard entry with gardens and a fountain welcomes visitors.
Inside, flexible spaces fit the lives of the Ahmanns and their children, Talor and Alex. They've turned the formal dining room, included for its resale value, into a music room for Talor and her piano. They use the elegant great-room daily for relaxing and reading. The master suite, with a bay-window view of the backyard and woods, has a private corner on the main level. The children's rooms are upstairs, where they've turned a potential fourth bedroom into a study and playroom.
As a home designer, Joe Ahmann knows what it takes to plan a home, but that doesn't mean he was able to take shortcuts as he and his wife, Donna, worked through the details of their new French country cottage. "We spent three years planning this home," Joe says.
The couple's budget wasn't as large as some of Joe's clients', but they made it work through careful selections. The kitchen countertops, for example, are reasonably-priced plastic laminate with a granite-look. Appliances are high-end consumer-grade models. "Pro-style appliances would be great, but we don't cook enough to justify them," Joe says.
Some upgrades didn't add much expense. "The coffered ceiling in my study looks complicated, but it's just made with drywall beams and crown moldings," he says. "It looks great and was cheap and easy to build."
Although the footprint is a compact 63 x 68 feet, Joe found plenty of ways to give the cottage a manor attitude, starting with the dramatic see-through view from the foyer across the great room. He threw a curve into the European-style iron stairway.
Ceilings are character-builders, he insists, so each is treated differently with soffits, trays, or heavy crown moldings. In the great-room, he combined decorative beams with a tray ceiling that slopes down from 12 feet.
Reproduction furnishings and lighting, such as the iron pendants with gold-leaf accents and frosted shades in the foyer and kitchen, wrap today's easygoing comfort in an old-house look. The Ahmanns also designed niches to flank the great-room fireplace for antiques and art someday. "I didn't think anything built-in was relevant to the period," Donna says. She and Joe aren't in a hurry to find perfect pieces to fill the spaces.
In all, the Ahmann's experience was similar to anyone else's -- when working with a good home designer. Comprehensive planning, give-and-take on the budget, and a willingness to be flexible during construction resulted in a home that reflects what the owner wanted. In this case, the owner just happened to be the designer, too.