written by Lisa Simek
Next to finding that perfect piece of property, building the home of your dreams can be one of the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences. When preexisting home designs don’t quite measure up to your lifestyle expectations, the reputation of building a custom home certainly precedes itself with promises of prestige, quality, craftsmanship, and that extra little bit of attention to detail. Many imagine that custom homebuilding is synonymous with astronomical budgets and mega-mansions, when that just isn’t the case. True custom building is defined by local building contractor Thomas J. Keller as simply “building what the customer wants,” and one’s budget does not necessarily dictate the ability to customize a home. While financial resources certainly are a factor in the types of features and structural design available, the choices suited for any given budget can still be nearly unlimited.
A true custom home may vary from a simple and classic Cape Cod to a majestic beach front estate— as long as it is built from the ground up with a customer’s unique and specific functional needs, budget preference, and personal style in mind. In fact—no matter the size or complexity—the home is conceived most importantly by the collaborative efforts between the homeowners, skilled designers, and talented craftsmen. To Keller, the custom homebuilding process itself is more of a partnership: a partnership that is fueled by honesty, integrity, and dedication from both the home builder and the homeowner.
“We’ve built homes in which homeowners opted to showcase their personalities with demure and understated elements such as elevated hearths, handcrafted mantles, a window seat, or a built-in reading nook, while others expressed their individuality in more pronounced ways via statement staircases or sky high, exposed-beam ceilings,” Keller notes. To him, delivering a client’s needs and desires seems much akin to an artist translating his imagination onto a piece of canvas. The key to a fluid working relationship is connecting with your builder. It is important to hire someone who listens and understands exactly what homeowners envision and has the artisanal and experiential wherewithal to figure out how to bring that dream to fruition. Often homeowners are told that something they want just isn’t possible to build, yet Keller seems to operate more like the old proverb, “where there is a will, there is a way.” He shares, “At times the imaginative requests of clients can be challenging, but it’s enjoyable for me to have to think outside of the box in order to execute them. Some custom jobs may be complicated, but they are always doable.”
The options for custom building are truly unlimited. Whether structural, functional, or aesthetic choices, selections exist such as design and layout of personalized floor plans, the size/shape/color and placement of windows, dramatic ceiling pitches, finishes, built-ins, and crafted staircases. A wide range of eye-appealing customizations such as trim details, tiling, wall coverings, door styles, flooring, lighting, and hardware—from clean and classic, to detailed—also exist. Functional attributes tend to be more in line with a homeowner’s lifestyle requirements. Whereas one family might prefer to have a wet bar, laundry chute, or a sauna spa room, Keller has also fabricated exterior cedar railings with glass panels and caps with built in lighting and installed floating mono staircases and completely curved walls of windows. He has even redesigned plans on-site to make specific rooms and the general operation of a home (think cooking, sleeping, bathroom use) handicap-friendly for one client’s family member. Another of Keller’s clients, a surfer with a beachfront home, was delighted to learn during the electrical walkthrough that he could have specialty lighting installed on his rooftop deck so that he could literally light up the ocean at night to surf. Now that’s custom.
Make no mistake, even the most high-end of homes require a timeline, structure, and stringent framework. Without limitations, such as a budget, there would be no way for builders to curb expectations when it came to time management and resource investment. Technically, in custom building, homeowners are free to change their minds and tear down a bathroom wall as many times as they please—but can’t happen when budgets and time constraints are set. This is why custom homebuilding should always be met with the assurances of quality and expertise to guide homeowners along the way, keeping everyone on track. And while it is always ideal to think through any customizations upfront while in the planning and design stage of your home, in a true custom environment any knowledgeable and experienced builder (with experience that is based on years of “seeing and doing”) will listen and be able to offer and incorporate ideas and suggestions on site, tweaking the original plan if needed to enhance the living experience for the client. The key is to find someone that will work with you through the entire process; after all, the process is a part of the experience—regardless of whether the customizations are modest or extravagant. Keller insists, “Everyone can realistically have a piece of custom. Custom can be affordable. It is not out of reach for anyone.”
Thomas J. Keller Building Contractor LLC is a family-owned homebuilding company that has been in business on Long Beach Island for almost 40 years. Having built more than 600 homes to date, Thomas J. Keller specializes in custom coastal homes on the barrier island and has long been recognized as one of LBI’s most well-respected and leading builders. For more information visit www.thomasjkeller.com.