It started with a fireplace. Stephen and Ann Aylward were living in a traditional house with a gas fireplace, and building codes wouldn’t allow the addition of a wood-burning one. Luckily, Ann’s role as a local real estate investor tipped her off to a swath of land on Old Greensboro Road for sale by the Orange Water and Sewer Authority.
“We’d been looking at getting a vacation home in the mountains, or something like that,” Stephen says. “Then we decided to just build our vacation home here.”
The Aylwards ended up with a real fireplace, alright – a 12-foot-wide one made of stone. It anchors an expansive living room, the heart of an open floor plan that emphasizes high ceilings – 37 feet, to be exact – and wide hallways. “We know what we like and what we don’t like,” Ann says. She manages dozens of properties, which means “fixing everything that goes wrong after a house is built. We wanted to learn from all of the mistakes we’ve seen before.” Stephen is a former radiology professor who now works as a medical imaging software entrepreneur, so problem-solving comes naturally to him. While the house is airy, “there’s not a lot of wasted space,” he says. “We really live in every part of the house.”
They had exact ideas on the layout and then looked around for inspiration. “We’re good at stealing,” Stephen says. “We just kept adding on to a book of photos of elements we wanted. While we know what we like and what we don’t like, we were open-minded at the same time.” It was hard to find a builder to handle the scope of work, and the couple listened to the ideas all subcontractors brought to the table. “What we got was wonderful input from a variety of people,” Ann says. “We would always ask them what they would do in their own house.”
Ultimately, the insight of David Fitch of Fitch Lumber & Hardware, John Hart of Hart Construction and a timber expert named Brett Schwebke from Banner Elk won out. The finished product is mix-and-match, a buffet of aesthetics that work thanks to good design. “There are different woods everywhere,” Ann explains. “We didn’t want to be stuck with just one kind, so we made sure to use all kinds. On the outside, we wanted it to look like a timber home. But on the inside, we wanted it to be modern.”
COOPERATION AND COMPROMISE
Picking each and every element of their home was no small feat, but it was a team effort the couple willingly tackled. When they first started dating more than a decade ago, they renovated the basement of Stephen’s town home together. “It went smoothly,” he remembers, laughing, “which was one of our early signs of relationship success.” They say compromise is the key to success. “Choose your battles,” Stephen says, and divide and conquer. He’s good at logistics and specifics; she’s good at interiors and practicalities.
“It’s easy to get excited about all of these amenities in a custom home,” Ann says. “But I always think about how often we’ll actually use them.” So they eschewed a formal greeting foyer in favor of an open front door area complete with a coatrack and installed recessed sliding doors rather than ornate hardware-laden ones.
And when they realized there was leftover storage space at both ends of the second floor, “we had fun,” Stephen says. Thus: A bookcase is actually a hidden door into the walk-in closet of every woman’s dreams; down the hall, Stephen has a workshop outfitted with as many tools and sportsman’s toys as a hardware store. Mission to efficiently use space accomplished.
ROOM TO BREATHE
Because every inch has a purpose and they chose exactly what they wanted, the Aylwards are pleasantly surprised by how livable their dream home is. “You wouldn’t think two people could use this much space,” Ann says, “but it’s amazing, you can.”
They share it every chance they get. Ann’s mother is Thai and frequently spends weeks in the mother-in-law suite attached to the main house. Cooking a feast for up to a hundred people is a typical weekend activity. “At Thanksgiving, we had 27 people in the house for a week,” Ann says. “To have that many friends and family members in the kitchen cooking, but not on top of each other, is really fun.”
They relish their outdoor space, too. “It’s three-quarters of a mile around the land, and you’ll see everything,” Stephen says. His daily walks with the dogs may include a fox or bald eagle sighting, the perfect refresh before returning to an already-refreshing roost. “Money can’t make you happy,” he muses. “But I think space can.”
FOR THE DOGS
The Aylwards are passionate members of the Great Dane Rescue of the Carolinas. Along with their adopted Great Danes, Bella and Dante, the couple often foster dogs. They built their house according to their own preferences, but also with their favorite breed in mind. Throughout the house, floors are scratch-proof (which also means they are easy to clean!), and trash cans built in to bathroom cabinets are secure from tall canines.
“Great Danes are hard to rescue because they have a shorter life span and they’re so big,” Ann says. “But we’ve always taken to them.” While the Aylwards love having huge windows, they also allow the dogs to get a good view of outside. Their dogs are truly part of the family: When Ann couldn’t find a couch that was big enough for both the couple and the dogs, she opted to buy an L-shaped couch – sans corner pieces – instead. “That’s a 13-foot couch,” Stephen says proudly. “But we got a great deal since it was designed as a sectional,” Ann adds. All the more room for snuggling, although Stephen points out that “[getting settled] tends to be more like gymnastics.”
Photography by Briana Brough