Family's house was custom-made for historic neighborhood

Andrea Karnes and her husband, Quincy Holloway, wanted the perfect house -- one in an old neighborhood with new plumbing and large closets. They wanted charm and large trees but none of the constant fixes needed for old construction.

They'd lived in the Fairmount neighborhood of Fort Worth, a charming area with a great variety of architecturally interesting old homes, but their house constantly needed repairs, Holloway says.

They bought a new house in Benbrook, but that wasn't right either. Perfection would have to be built.

It is easy to imagine Karnes, who is a curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and Holloway, who owns 3 Billion Renewable Energy, a consulting service for solar-energy needs, in a house torn straight from the pages of Dwell magazine -- a gallerylike white box that is so self-sustaining it is off the grid. But that is not what they built.

What they have is a modernist-historical hybrid, a house that on the exterior looks as if it has been rooted in place for decades but on the inside boasts contemporary amenities, an open floor plan, stainless-steel appliances, not-so-obvious but extensive amounts of insulation and a charging unit for an electric car.

Karnes and Holloway built a house for their future and that of their children, Elliot, 7, and Ivy, 5.

To help with their project, they enlisted Karnes' father, Kenneth Karnes, 73, and her great uncle Ralph Karnes, 81, who both have extensive building experience but had never worked on the kind of house Andrea and Quincy had in mind.

The Karnes-Holloway clan wanted to live in an old neighborhood, so they searched for lots and found one in Mistletoe Heights, a neighborhood built in the early 1900s off Forest Park Boulevard in Fort Worth. They found a small house in great disrepair on the back edge of a lot. It had been built as quarters for a larger home that was never built, but now the small place was falling to ruin. Karnes and Holloway swooped in and bought the property. But before they could begin building, their intentions had to be approved; Mistletoe Heights is one of Fort Worth's historic districts.

The couple's first set of plans did not get the stamp of approval from the neighborhood committee, Karnes says.

"The house design had a balcony in front. It looked a little more New Orleans-style, which is not prevalent in this neighborhood," Karnes said. "They said, 'This is a front-porch community. We'd rather you try to work from another plan that includes a porch.'"

Karnes and Holloway reconsidered. They studied plans for traditional craftsman houses typical to the area and became enamored of the period's design elements. By the time they presented their second set of plans, the house had a large front porch, a porte-cochere on the side, and a screened-in porch on the back.

"A sleeping porch makes sense for the neighborhood," Karnes says. "We felt happy with the exterior. Especially because we found the Gustav Stickley design elements. We started liking the idea of mixing old with new throughout the house, not just the front elevation. Originally we thought the inside would be completely modern. But the more we researched, the more we figured out we wanted to bring that aspect of design into the home."

Family project

The two front rooms, a formal living area and a dining room are very similar in scale and design to those in the four-square homes in the neighborhood. The rooms are separated by a large wood staircase with distinctive newel posts. Even though the historic committees didn't care what the inside of the house looked like, Karnes and Holloway even incorporated a butler's pantry between the kitchen and dining room.

The new plans were approved by the neighborhood committee and by the city's historic and landmark committees in February 2010. In March, Karnes' team -- the "old guys," she calls them -- began work in earnest. Kenneth Karnes, who for years built assisted-living centers in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Arizona, worked with the couple on the plans. Ralph Karnes, owner of R-K Building Co. and a custom-home builder for more than 55 years, would act as general contractor.

They worked for family rates -- her father for free, Ralph for a pittance, Karnes says. "That saved us at least $200,000."

Andrea and Quincy's home became a family project, as some of the subcontractors were cousins and nephews who work for Ralph Karnes.

The house is just shy of 3,000 square feet, with five bedrooms, three full baths and one half-bath, and was finished in six months.

Special features

Many of the features Quincy wanted incorporated were new to Kenneth and Ralph. "Andrea and Quincy had a lot of good ideas, and they did a lot of research. Some of it didn't quite make sense, but a lot of it did," Kenneth Karnes says.

The closed-cell foam insulation that was blown into the walls and attic was new to the builders, as was installing the electrical work needed for a solar array and the charging station in the garage for the electric car. The electrician, who is also in his 80s, was bewildered by some of the requirements as well.

"Some of it's 50-year-old technology," Holloway says. "It just hasn't been widely implemented in residential building in Texas because power was always so cheap. But not anymore. Once they were able to talk to competent engineers who explained why certain things had to be built a certain way, it made a lot of sense to them."

Some construction was for future needs. Even though the family doesn't own an electric car, Holloway says, "I wanted to future-proof this house. I didn't want it to be an added expense later." So there is a 220-volt charging station on the wall of the garage.

Holloway, who works with U.S.A. Eagle Carports on this sort of planning all the time, says, "We are taking what amounts to $100 of preparation on the wiring side, so that later there will be no need for retrofitting and minimal interruption to our daily lives. It's something electricians have been doing for years, like leaving extra breaker space on the electrical panel for future use."

What's ahead

The solar panels aren't installed yet. Those will come after a year of living in the house, Holloway says, and they determine what their energy needs are. Already they have seen the positive effect of the additional insulation and a hybrid water heater that uses a heat pump and the ambient temperature of the air to heat or cool the unit, as well as the neighboring heating-air conditioning unit.

In the few months they've been in the house, their monthly electric bills have been less than $150. Once the solar array is installed Quincy estimates they'll be closer to a zero net energy use.

The extra wiring, insulation and historic touches all added to the construction costs. The wood casement that surrounds the heavily insulated windows and 8-foot doors was an extra expense.

"We had to spend a little extra money on wood throughout the house. Any place we could have saved went out with those windows," Ralph Karnes says.

He says he enjoyed building a house with Kenneth; they had never worked together on a project before. The result surprised and pleased him.

"It's a little bit gingerbread, and a little contemporary, but it works."

Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113