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The cul-de-sac iconoclasts

  • Brad Carmody and Valerie Reiss stand in front of their Northampton home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Valerie Reiss reads to her son Hudson Carmody,4, before school at their home where they live with father and husband, Brad Carmody and their dog, Maple. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brad Carmody and Valerie Reiss with their son, Hudson Carmody, 4, and dog, Maple, at the home they designed in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brad Carmody and Valerie Reiss stand in front of their home where they live with their son, Hudson Carmody, 4, and dog, Maple. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brad Carmody and Valerie Reiss with their son, Hudson Carmody, 4, at the home they designed in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brad Carmody and Valerie Reiss stand in front of their Northampton home where they live with their son, Hudson Carmody, 4, and dog, Maple. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Valerie Reiss made the wall hanging in the master bedroom using a piece of driftwood and scraps of fabric and yarn. “I feel like it helps soften the room with its texture,” she says. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Valerie Reiss and her son, Hudson Carmody, 4, hang out in the basement play space of their home. Eventually, this area will include a finished guest room. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Valerie Reiss, shown with her son, Hudson Carmody, asked a hardscaper to embed a heart in the entry walk. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hudson Carmody’s room where he lives with his parents, Brad Carmody and Valerie Reiss. The floor-to-ceiling curtains pull back into a tidy pocket in the wall. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Unaccustomed to seeing such a vivid backsplash in the kitchen, a worker asked homeowner Valerie Reiss if the color of the glass tile had been an accident. (It wasn’t.) STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The living and dining room of Brad Carmody and Valerie Reiss at their Northampton home, where they live with their son, Hudson Carmody, 4, and dog, Maple. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Is this your daughter’s room?” a painter asked of Valerie Reiss’ pink and purple office. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The living room of Brad Carmody and Valerie Reiss’ Northampton home, which they share with their son, Hudson Carmody, 4, and dog, Maple. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hudson Carmody’s room features dinosaur-print bedding and an accent wall with blue and white stripes. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The kitchen of Brad Carmody and Valerie Reiss at their Northampton home where they live with their son, Hudson Carmody, 4, and dog, Maple. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The outside deck of Brad Carmody and Valerie Reiss at their Northampton home where they live with their son, Hudson Carmody, 4. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



For the Recorder
Friday, October 12, 2018

My husband and I did not think we were cul-de-sac people when we set out to find our expanding family a home.

I’m a born and bred New Yorker — a Brooklynite who spent a childhood in ’70s and ’80s Manhattan. My husband grew up in rural southern Vermont and later moved to New York. We wanted to relocate to the Pioneer Valley for the usual reasons:

A) It is bursting with awesome farms, arts, culture, food and schools

B) Money. With a growing baby, we wanted to move from our one-bedroom to somewhere affordable in a neighborhood we liked — which turned out to be an oxymoron

C) Space. See item B. Even if we had been able to shell out for a two-bedroom somewhere in the New York metro area, it would have likely been tiny and lacked access to non-park nature.

D) Lifestyle. Schlepping a heavy stroller up and down subway stairs was, well, enough said.

After months of scheming and dreaming, we found a job for my husband Brad Carmody (mine was portable) selling residential solar, a sweet rental near downtown Northampton with a backyard and lovely neighbors (at half our New York rent), and settled in. I took driver’s ed — see “native New Yorker” above. We clicked right into the area’s annual rhythms with a hibernating winter, a spring full of rejoicing over green, a summer of fairs, and a fall full of harvest festivals, with bountiful farmers’ markets in between. Though making friends was slow going and my remote job in Manhattan was wavering, we loved it here. A year or so in, we started looking at places to build a house.

It was a dream we’d been sketching on paper scraps and actual napkins for a while. We wanted modern but warm, organic. One-story. Scandinavia via California with a touch of Martha’s Vineyard, a twist of new Brooklyn, built for New England. An angled shed roof that would allow for high ceilings in the main, open-plan living space, plus as much glass and windows as we could afford. We wanted a home where we’d feel connected to each other and our community, but also with eddies of privacy.

I’d been watching too much HGTV for years and also had worked for a magazine with Dwell-like aspirations, steeping myself in the beauty of indoor-outdoor living and clean lines. Before Brad and I met, I’d been inhabiting studio apartments and gotten obsessed with making the most of my 300 square feet by going vertical, being minimal, and choosing color to create calm and the illusion of space. I thought a lot about scale and texture and whether it was OK to mix stainless and brass (answer: yes). The idea of unleashing my Pinterest fantasies on an actual house that I would live in was beyond thrilling. And Brad is great with space. He can walk into a house and reconfigure it in his mind to create more flow and happier living.

Also, in the midst of seeming frippery, I need to add: I’m a cancer survivor. When I was 31, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. It was aggressive. I was sick and thought I might die. I had chemo. I went into remission and survived. Nine years later, against quite a few odds, I had a baby. This is to say that I know that life is precarious and thus precious. I know that, for me, home creates a sense of belonging and safety that fends off the uncertainty of annual medical exams and creeping worries. Also, that a dream deferred is possibly a dream damned. I believe one of the reasons we are here is to create joy for ourselves and others. And if one of your joys is putting up three kinds of wallpaper, well, carpe diem.

So, we looked at lots. Lots of lots. None of them made any sense financially or geographically. One was part swamp. Most didn’t have electric or sewer connections, meaning that the site work could cost nearly as much as the house. One was in a neighborhood that would only let you build a Craftsman.

We became dismayed. We switched realtors and decided we could remodel an existing house if only the bones were there. But, after searching for months in Northampton’s tight housing market, we saw so many houses, so few good bones. Finally, though, we saw a place. The place! On four acres in Florence. Modernish. Imperfect, but with an open plan. Beautiful. Expensive.

With queasy stomachs, we made an offer just over the asking price and added what I hoped would be a touching letter about how we would steward the land (we would have!). But the property got 10 offers. Most of them all cash. Gulp. It went for many, many thousands above the asking price. Our realtor was agog. We wondered if we might still be in Brooklyn.

We rallied, open to building or bones. Our realtor brought us back to a cul-de-sac of 30 or so lots we’d seen before and dismissed. It was in Leeds, a hamlet that’s quiet yet has a great school and is near enough to groceries — or as I like to think of it, 15 minutes from excellent coffee. It turned out the development — the building of which created much neighborhood controversy — was owned by our friend’s father-in-law. That friend drove me to what she called “the last good lot.” It faced trees, on the edge of a conservation area on a calm, gravel road on a loop just off the main cul-de-sac. The architect in Tracy Kidder’s best-selling book “House,” about a couple building a home in Amherst in the 1980s, says: “Where meadow meets woods, that’s where you want to put a house.” It was a man-made meadow, but still — check.

We liked it for the reasons so many people like a sleepy street. It provides a little more safety from cars. It often offers a sense of community. It evokes images of children roaming free. It was also steps from a bike path and a swimming hole.

Most of the homes in the development were traditional, but this time I noticed one that was strikingly modern — tall, with a simple gray wood cladding, not an extra line in sight.

When I told people that we had bought land, my friend Jon asked how much. Half an acre, I said. “That’s not land,” he said. “That’s a lot.” Fair enough. But since you could fit about 60 of my old studio apartments in it, it certainly seemed like a land unto itself.

We hunted for a builder — some didn’t return calls, others were booked, more were extra pricey — and landed with Florence-based Keiter Builders. Though at the time they didn’t have much experience building non-traditional, modernist-inspired residences, we knew they’d done work for Smith College — and possibly more important, our child had been in daycare with the owners’ children, and even more essential, we liked them. Scott Keiter was straightforward. Richard Lloyd, our project manager, was kind and experienced, and I caught a whiff of the artsy about him, which I appreciated. It turns out that in his pre-builder life, he designed and built theater sets and custom lighting fixtures.

Though initially we had thought (hoped) we could skip using an architect — What? Our sketches were totally precise! — it was clear we needed help realizing our napkins. Richard suggested local architect Nelson Geis, who was in fact a neighbor in our development, no less than the designer of that tall, gray, beautiful house I had so admired. We were in.

Then came sorting the rest of our money — more than we had spent on anything in our lives, of course, times a zillion. Our banker was warm and good, but applying for a building loan is like getting a colonoscopy of the soul. My therapist knows less about me than our banker. Some questions were about the design of the house, an anomaly in farmhouse-rich New England.

Meanwhile, the plans were shaping up. Nelson, an architect who grew up in Kansas in a valley below a modern prairie house built by his great-grandfather, introduced us to clerestory windows. They’re those rectangular, horizontal ones just below the ceiling that were a favorite of the pioneer of mid-century modern design, Frank Lloyd Wright. We added many.

For sound purposes, we made sure that none of the bedrooms shared a wall (or at least had a closet as buffer). Nelson prefers small bedrooms to encourage gathering in the main space; we agreed. With health in mind, we nudged the building toward the non-toxic, choosing wool instead of spray foam insulation; making sure any composite boards and cabinets were formaldehyde-free; selecting no-VOC paint; and installing a whole-house water filter. Plus, Brad still sells solar, so we paneled to the max.

There were bumps small and large, of course, as we navigated precisely 10 trillion decisions as a team — fireplace issues, extended conversations about trim size, a drainage ditch we didn’t know we had to keep, etc. But when friends asked if I was totally stressed, the answer was usually: not any more than usual. The whole thing was an enormous privilege for which I was and am hugely grateful.

Much to the joy of our truck-loving toddler, we broke ground in August 2016. Cue what we called “Digger TV” wherein we watched diggers dig and dig and dig. Though this area is packed with granite and other rocks, we thankfully did not hit “ledge,” or, in other words, rocks too enormous to scoop up and out. Soon we had a hole! Then came the foundation. Cue “Cement Truck TV.” And then the framing, or as we called it, “Watching Men Hammer Things TV.” It was all, as we said, “Looking very house-y.”

Meanwhile, I was living my interior designer dreams — some days realized, some days dashed. You mean that Ingo Maurer chandelier I’ve been in love with for a decade that’s basically just light bulbs with wings is $5,000?

I loved the trades parts of the process too, like picking out tile in West Springfield (Fiorella at Cortina Tile is a tile genius) and selecting flooring from the storybook-named Ponders Hollow in Westfield, a place that smells deeply of good, freshly cut wood (we went with brown maple).

Like watching the credits roll at the end of a movie, I was amazed at how many people it took to pull it all together. We got our son a book about building a house that went over everyone involved — the diggers, cementers, framers, tilers, electricians, plumbers, dry wallers, window installers, roofers, siding-attachers, floor-ers, inspectors and painters.

Finally, in about nine months, we had an actual house. On moving day, I discovered that Richard had left a vase of purple flowers on our kitchen island. In “House,” Tracy Kidder describes the new homeowner settling in: “Judith’s face is bright. She’s like a tourist in some long-imagined country. Everywhere she looks she sees something that delights her.” That was us.

Brad was thrilled that our north-facing wall of windows brought in plenty of light, and with how evening sun filtered in through side windows. I swooned at my tea drawer, and a bathroom just for adults. Plus wallpaper — oh, the wallpaper. Three kinds. I also have an office, a room of my own.

And now, about a year later, we are really living here. It’s spacious but cozy. The north wall of the living room is a frame for the trees — green in summer, rust in fall, white in winter, bare in spring. We use all the rooms. We’re still tweaking things — painting accent walls, making wall hangings from driftwood and ribbons, hatching plans to finish the guest room in the basement, willing our patchy “lawn” to grow anything but crab grass. And even as we’re finishing, the house is already subtly aging: hand smudges along the Chantilly Lace-colored white walls; scratches in the maple floors from our new dog, Maple; the clutter that we aimed to not have accumulate has, indeed, accumulated. As Kidder says in “House,” the home is becoming “a lived-in thing” where we have birthday parties, barbecues, tantrums, kisses, arguments, repairs and spontaneous family dance parties. Our neighborhood is thrumming with children and adults we’re starting to befriend. We live here.

And, truth: it’s basically on a cul-de-sac. Turns out we are those people, and that, for now, for us, at least, is a pretty great thing to be.


​​Valerie Reiss has written for The New York Times, The Week, Newsweek, Yoga Journal, Women’s Health and more. She also offers interior design consultations. Visit valeriereiss.com for more information..