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Published: Sunday, 11/15/2009

Women builders pack house with detail, lots of storage


NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Custom home builder Mary-Dolph Simpson surrounds herself with subcontractors who think the way she does:

Make every inch count. Design with everyday living in mind. Use inexpensive techniques to create expensive-looking details.

Many of those subcontractors are women.

"These women have been in the construction field for years and have been working with me and our clients since we started Simpson Builders 15 years ago," said Ms. Simpson, 52, and president of Simpson Builders in Norfolk, Va.

Ms. Simpson and her crew are the brains behind the Bright Idea House at this fall's Homearama showcase of 12 custom-built, decorated, and landscaped homes in Chesapeake, Va.

She described the $425,000, 2,500-square-foot house as "farmhouse chic," a 1910s look with all the conveniences of modern construction.

It has four bedrooms, two full baths, a half bath, spacious laundry-mud room, breakfast nook, and family room that opens to the kitchen. Front and back porches provide outdoor sitting; a patio and covered outdoor entertaining/dining/TV area connect the house to a detached, rear-entry garage.

Bedroom closets are equipped with extra shelves and racks. Bathroom vanities incorporate drawers along the bottom, not just the center. The laundry-mud room is outfitted with cubbies and lockers for shoes and outerwear.

Among the details are a wider-than-normal clearance for better traffic movement between the kitchen sink and island, simple baseboard that's easier to clean, and a half lazy Susan that conveniently swings out.

In the dining room, inexpensive 1-by-6-lumber creates the look of a classic coffered ceiling. In an office, $70 in materials created a generous built-in work space. In the half-bath, a cabinet over the commode makes up for storage space lost because of use of a pedestal sink.

During the 1980s economic downturn, banks had asked Ms. Simpson to finish houses abandoned by builders who went broke.

She started Simpson Builders in 1993.

What makes a builder and client click "is not all about price," Ms. Simpson said.

"It's about who you trust and who you can talk to. Interview several builders and get several bids before you select a contractor, she recommends.

"When you sign a contract to build or renovate, you automatically develop a short-term family relationship with your builder. Select a builder that you feel most comfortable with."

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