A few of our city’s best architects and interior designers share a unique recent project and the process of creating a remarkable redesign
By Morgan Cartier Weston | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Cheng Li and Ben Goldstein moved to Durham from California in 2015. “At the time, we had a newborn and were renting a home in Chancellor’s Ridge,” Cheng says. “We planned on growing our family, so we needed room, and we were excited to find a great home in Croasdaile.”
The three-bedroom house included a first-floor guest room and an unfinished attic. “We quickly realized the guest room location was not ideal,” Ben explains. “The space is right off the kitchen, sort of in the middle of everything and shares a bathroom with the rest of the first floor as well.” The couple began to dream up an attic space that could serve as both a guest room and a lounge area for their family.
In February 2020, Cheng and Ben kicked off their project with Liz Templeton Scisco of True Design, named one of our readers’ favorite interior designers. “The timing worked out well, because home offices became important a few weeks later with the onset of COVID-19,” Ben says. “We were [also] able to add that function as a primary component of the remodel.”
Liz designed a highly practical footprint, carving out a small section for each use while keeping the central area flexible. “We were able to combine two offices (one for each homeowner), a flexible space for homework, a lounge [area] and a full guest suite with a full bathroom and small coffee station for visitors, all in one room,” Liz says. The guest room also features a Murphy bed and fridge. On the weekends when folks aren’t visiting, the family uses it for movie nights. “The kids (Malcolm, 8, and Noah, 4) bring up their beanbag chairs, we pop some popcorn, and make a night of it,” Cheng says. “We originally intended it to be more of an adult space, but it has evolved into a family space.”
“And, let’s be honest, the whole house is the kids’ space,” Ben laughs.
Cheng adores the seating area and the natural light. “Before this project, we felt there was not enough light in the attic and worried that adding more furniture would make it feel dark,” she explains. “Liz did a great job with color choices to help balance that, and we added a solar tube to the bathroom so it is beautifully, naturally lit most of the day.”
“Having the attic as a workplace, in a room removed from everything, is ideal for me,” Ben adds. “Sometimes, prior to the renovation, we shared space, working at the kitchen table or floating around while Malcolm carved out space to do his homework.”
“The most critical thing about the design of this space was its flexibility, and this was difficult because of the many roles this room needed to fill,” Liz explains. Another challenge was making the out-of-the-way third floor enough of a destination to justify a renovation of this size. “The last thing you want is to invest in a space and then have it never be used,” Liz adds.
The project enabled the family to utilize the former first-floor guest room more effectively, too. “It has really opened up so many options for us,” Cheng says. “Now the old guest room is my workspace, and the former office is the kids’ playroom.”
“We give so much credit to Liz,” Ben says. He and Cheng say that they felt they could trust Liz right away. “She has great project management abilities and was also great at helping us whittle down our choices, even on things we wouldn’t think about, like where to place electrical outlets and Ethernet cables.”
Liz first proposed several layouts, allowing Ben and Cheng to select the one that best suited their needs. Knowing that the family would lose some storage in converting the attic, Liz suggested built-in drawers under the window seat (now a favorite lounge spot for cats Simon and Eloise) and shelving in the new furnace closet. The custom Murphy bed hides behind the sofa, which is flanked by even more storage spaces.
“We’re pleasantly surprised at how much it does for us,” Ben adds. “We really appreciated Liz’s thoughtfulness, responsiveness and personalized touches; it was clear this was not just a job to her. And because of that, the attic turned out exactly how we didn’t know it needed to.”
In 2014, Morgan Lamont and Bruce Lamont were living in a 1920s home in Duke Park. “At that time, the whole neighborhood was going under this big wave of renovations,” Morgan says. “Among its many past renovations, our house had been turned into a triplex and then back into a single family home,” Morgan explains. Though the house suited their needs, it was just far enough from the growing family’s many activities that Bruce and Morgan felt they were spending more time in their cars than at home.
Busy is an understatement for the Lamonts, which includes daughters Izzie, 13, and Finley, 7, and son Cullen, 3, as well as dogs Lula and Malcolm. On one typically hectic day, between driving to school and dance rehearsals, doctors’ appointments and Grandma’s house, they stumbled upon some empty lots for sale tucked between Tuscaloosa-Lakewood and Forest Hills.
“We were new to the design and build process, so took note of the house next door, which was already built,” Bruce explains. “That’s how we found Ellen Cassilly Architects and BuildSense custom home builders.”
With their team and lot secured, the Lamonts next spent plenty of time on Pinterest and Houzz, looking for the ideal blend of farmhouse aesthetics and modern functionality that would suit their family’s needs. “The whole process is a lot more involved than we realized,” Morgan says. “We were lucky to have [Ellen Cassilly architect] Meredith Pittman’s eye when we were making design decisions. She was a great sounding board.”
“Definitely,” Bruce adds with a laugh. “We would have ended up taking it a bit too far on the farmhouse theme. We were looking at trendy options, like chicken wire cabinets, but now we’re grateful Meredith talked us into more timeless finishes.”
“Meredith was also really helpful in bringing our overall vision to reality,” Morgan says. “I’d show her a picture of a mirror I liked, and she could track it down and help me buy it.”
“It was so delightful working with Bruce and Morgan,” says Ellen Cassilly, one of our best architects in Durham. “They were a growing family, and we were helping them create a space to raise their children. We worked closely with the folks at BuildSense, and I think they did a wonderful job with lots of fine craftsmanship.” (BuildSense was also named a best architect and best residential builder in our Best of Durham poll!)
The result of this collaboration is a home that feels both cozy and grand. With soaring ceilings, natural wood accents and soft, sinkable furniture, the house was intentionally separated into three key areas: “The kitchen, dining, living and screened porch is a large, fun communal area for the entire family, while the parents have their retreat on the main level, and the kids have the run of the upstairs,” Ellen says. The children each have their own bedroom and share a playspace as well.
Morgan’s favorite feature is the bifold door connecting the living area to the porch. “No matter where the kids are, I feel connected to them,” she says. “We can entertain, see the kids … it really opens things up. With the fireplace outside, we can watch football and enjoy the space year-round.”
“We are really happy with the lot, the layout and location, all have been fantastic for our family,” Bruce says. “We’re only a mile to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and our neighborhood and the people around us are great.”
“We really feel like we know everyone, especially through walking our dogs,” Morgan adds. The dogs have their own space inside, too, with beds built into a custom room under the staircase; it even includes access to the outdoors.
“This house feels bigger than others we’ve lived in; not so much because of the size, but because of how functional it is,” Bruce says. “We always dreamed of building our perfect house, and now we have it.”
Pat Clements, who’s lived in Durham for nearly 70 years, fell for Westwood Estates back in the 1970s. “I lived in this neighborhood while raising my family, and after being away for several years, [I] had the opportunity to purchase [our current] home,” she says. “I loved the neighborhood and wanted to be close to my family.”
The 1970 home was in need of renovations, but Pat and her husband, Ed Clements, saw great potential in it, and moved in in 2016. “Updating this home has been an ongoing project,” Pat says. “We have been working on the house for the past five years.”
Their most recent undertaking was the living and kitchen space, totaling approximately 980 square feet. “Although it was a nice room, I just felt it wasn’t finished how I would like it to be,” Pat says. “I have always wanted to have a professional design team work with me to make the room both beautiful and functional at the same time.”
Pat enlisted the help of Katherine Gianakos of Max Hugo Interior Design, to tackle the style and decor. “Katherine listened to what I wanted and gave me a plan that I loved,” Pat says. “She was very easy to work with and came up with a design that exceeded my expectations.”
“Family is very important to Pat and Ed,” Katherine says. “They’ve been married for four years now, and have a large family of children and grandchildren.” Katherine looked to Max Hugo’s brand and marketing consultant Allie Balling of Allieway Marketing Inc. to assist in art curation. Blue, a favorite color of Pat’s and also the tone of Ed’s beloved chairs, became the basis of the color scheme. The team had to work on creating zoned areas for specific functions in an open layout and swap the dining room with the living area as well.
The result is a welcoming space imbued with bright blue tones and that highlights clearly defined seating areas, all accentuated with pieces by local artist Jan Cole Francis. The updates are both classic and contemporary, with plenty of comfort, too, which is perfect for entertaining little ones. “My daughter, Brooke McCormick, son and daughter-in-law, Brian McCormick and Sarah McCormick, and their children, Harper, 9, and Beau, 6, all live in Durham and visit often,” Pat says. “They are very impressed [with] our newly decorated space.”
“We loved creating a welcoming and inviting space for Pat and Ed to host family and spend time together enjoying meals, playing games and just [going about] everyday life,” Katherine says. “We talked through what areas were important to Pat and how she would use them, then created a plan that had a cohesive look.”
Pat says if she had known about the Max Hugo team – which won a Best of Durham award for interior design this year and has been a recipient of the accolade in many years past – when she and Ed moved in, she would have had them decorate the entire house. “[They] had ideas that I would have never thought of,” she says. “I was so happy with the way everything turned out.”
MAKE IT WORK
When Natalie Gominger and Derek Gominger found their 1970s home in Hope Valley Farms, they saw the underlying opportunity – they just needed to look past the surface first.
To do that, they turned to Mollie Ackner of SoliDeo Design Studio – one of our readers’ favorite architects – for the design and Don Tupper of Tupper Custom Homes for the renovation. “It was a significant renovation, and we didn’t know what questions to ask or where to start,” Natalie explains. “Mollie really helped us see beyond the existing walls and layout to what it could be,” Derek adds.
The Gomingers decided to take on the exterior first. “It looked more like a funeral parlor than a house, with grand Greek columns and a huge overhang in front, combined with little details that didn’t really match,” Derek says. “Our team helped us think through how to make it feel cohesive and make it feel like ours.”
The result was a face-lift of the front and back facades, and a complete gut of the first floor. “The biggest concern was the kitchen,” Mollie explains. “It was dated and felt trapped in the middle of the house, which didn’t work for this vibrant, active family. It’s amazing what moving one wall can do.”
The dining room, once located at the back end of the house, became the new open kitchen, while the former kitchen and living areas were connected to make one large great room. The Gomingers also decided to vault the ceiling in the kitchen to create an extra sense of space in the newly open family zone.
“We hadn’t considered a lot of the changes Mollie suggested, like vaulting the ceiling in the kitchen,” Natalie says. “With any project, there are things that get cut, but we are so glad we decided to trust her on the ceiling. It creates this lovely feeling of expansion and compression that helps distinguish the two rooms while still feeling connected.”
“We of course ran into supply chain issues, as well as some other challenges, like a faux built-in cabinet that revealed a hidden utility function that couldn’t be moved – so it became a bookshelf,” Mollie says. “But they are dream clients, and we were able to communicate frequently to keep the momentum going.”
The interior project included moving doorways to improve the flow and usability of the whole first floor, a decision that has proved pivotal to the family’s use of the house. “The access to the screened porch has been key to our enjoyment of the space,” Derek says.
Natalie likes that the kitchen feels large but not ostentatious. “We can all be there cooking as a family with our 10-year-old and 8-year-old and feel like we have plenty of space to work without being in one another’s way.”
Mollie also helped select finishing touches that brought the open space together. “We added copper accents and dark wooden beams, and chose some deep blue paint for the island,” Mollie says. “Suddenly, we had a beautiful, functional family space.”
The aesthetic lies at the intersection of modern farmhouse and Parisian cafe, and is the perfect place for a busy family to unwind. “This type of project involves an unbelievable amount of decision making,” Natalie says. “You don’t know how it will turn out until it’s over, but we’re so glad we had this great team and feel ready for the next project.” Next up, the Gomingers plan to undertake a primary bedroom refresh, finish the home’s basement and create a family-friendly backyard oasis.