OC Article – July 21, 2005

OCNews Staff
© Catherine Stutt

Len Kuipers Homes – Where bright ideas become brilliant traditions

There exists, in the world of Len and Cathy Kuipers, a peaceful balance. It radiates through their own home, a majestic timber frame overlooking Presqu’ile Bay; it shines in the homes they design and build for their customers; and it blooms in their three daughters.

Len at first glance looks like a man who spends his days hoisting large timbers high onto beams, yet he has a soft voice and an elegant touch with his drawings and throughout his personal interactions. His structure is that of a lifelong athlete who has embraced physical labour. His demeanour is confident, commanding and serene.

Cathy is delicate, a gifted pianist, yet fortified with an internal strength that serves her well as a nurse, mother and partner in the family business. Their three daughters, graceful young ladies all, are also fiercely competitive hockey players who recently represented their high school at international competitive games in Britain and France.

Blending family, faith, strengths and talents has placed Len Kuipers Homes squarely in the forefront of the Canadian building industry, yet Len and Cathy offset national recognition with a commitment to local clientele. This past spring in St. John’s, Nfld, the Canadian Home Builders Association presented Len with an award for the Best New Custom Home over 3,500 sq. ft. at its 62nd annual conference. The award-winning house, thrust on the national stage, was also shrouded in anonymity, per an agreement with the owner.

It was given a pseudonym, Tall Grasse Pointe, for the competition. At 10,000 sq. ft. of old European opulence mixed with Canadian charm, the home sits lakeside in eastern Ontario. It took more than two years to build and, while it is the culmination of a life’s work, it does not define Len Kuipers, homebuilder.

“It was a great experience personally and professionally,” said Len, who guaranteed the owner that he would divulge neither his identity nor the location when submitting the home for judging or in subsequent discussions. “We worked with top architects, suppliers, new materials and techniques, and built the home with a great deal of creativity. That was the essence of the project. Those are all lessons and abilities that we continue to incorporate in our homes.”

Len and Cathy are almost reluctant to discuss the project. It is so breathtakingly gorgeous, so lavish and unique they quickly stress that while the chateau shows what they can achieve, it is not the type of home that they typically design and build. The showplace has led to several other opportunities on that scale, including a home in Ottawa’s exclusive Rockcliffe neighbourhood. Honoured though they were, Len and Cathy declined. “We’re local builders. We want to be in the area.”

The Kuipers are understandably proud of their success and know that it stems from building homes for families just like theirs, for people who started out with a modest home and over the years, through hard work, personal sacrifice and good management were able to build the home of their dreams. At the core of their business philosophy, they know that a home doesn’t have to be extravagant to be well done. Balance and proportion are equally important in a 1,200 sq. ft. home. If there were a trademark throughout the myriad homes Len has designed, it would be the character. Not only charm, it is old world elegance - a sense of class that evokes a sense of time beyond the immediate. It is a blend of old European style with a North American perspective.

Len and Cathy’s roots are equally international. Now in their 20th year of marriage, they are both local to the Brighton area. Cathy grew up in the town and Len was raised in nearby Carrying Place, both coming from solid Dutch families.

His father owned a concrete construction business and Len worked for him summers during school and then for a few years after graduating. In the winter, when concrete work was scarce, Len’s father built houses with Len at his side. “I’m 44 years old, with 30 years experience,” he smiles.

By 1987, Len and Cathy were starting their own life together and felt that it was time to grow a business along with the family. The first years focused on framing and taking on smaller additions and decks. Cathy kept her nursing job while the company transitioned from smaller jobs to complete houses. “About four years into it, we built some spec homes,” recalls Len. “That led to other contracts from people who had been through the homes, or heard about them, and then we were homebuilders.”

Early on in their business, Len and Cathy developed a methodology when working with prospective homeowners. They employ a steadfast rule to identify and respect each client’s individual comfort zone, which includes budget and knowledge, and recognizes that most people aren’t familiar with the process, terms and regulations of designing and building a home.

“This is a tough time in people’s lives, even when there aren’t any issues. It takes a lot of energy. We give them a lot of time, a lot of help and try very hard to develop a personal relationship with people,” says Cathy. “We help them choose colours and textures and that’s where we set aside our personal likes and dislikes. We have a lot of experience with this and it’s available, but only if we’re asked. We want people to have the home they want.”

“Part of the reason that we work so well together is that we both listen. We gather the information, arrive at a variety of options and then narrow it down so our customers can make excellent choices within their budget. We are a constant resource for our people.”

There is no doubt that Len and Cathy have their areas of expertise, and throughout the project handle separate responsibilities, but most times, including those very important first steps, they act in concert. “Len focuses on the details of the structure, the layout, the site situation and asks technical questions that help him refine the eventual drawings,” explains Cathy. “That lets me listen to other details that may come up in conversation but were not specific to any one point. We both want to understand our customers and gain insight into what they expect from the house. It’s important to know something about their lifestyle so we can accommodate them.”

Often during the first meeting, the discussion will centre on pre-existing designs or drawings. Clients may have retained the services of a professional, as was the case with Tall Grasse Pointe, or may have developed their own drawings, sometimes very detailed and sophisticated renderings. Mostly though, Len maintains a very low-tech approach to drawing in the first instance. “I love starting with just a concept. One of my favourite times during the entire building process is when I’m with the owners on a vacant piece of property. I’m standing in the grass visualizing what we are going to build, how we will inhabit the site.”

Typically, while the clients describe their lifestyle and design preferences, pad and pen in hand, Len begins to draw. Nothing fancy, nothing detailed, simply a circle diagram of what rooms belong where. It seems remedial but Len has already scoped the property, envisioned in his mind where the views are, where the driveway and garage will work, where the morning sun will warm a breakfast nook or a sunset will radiate the last ounce of colour into a family room. “It helps me visualize the home as I sketch.”

As he describes the activity, he uses the home that he and Cathy built seven years ago as an example. It is nestled into a meadow that overlooks Presqu’ile Bay, with commanding views to the south, and the famed Presqu’ile lighthouse in the southeast. Len built the home with timber frames supplied by Markdale-based Thistlewood Timber Frame Homes. “We did it because we loved the structure,” recalls Cathy. “Even when we were first starting out, we were always drawn to timber frame homes.”So perfect was the experience with Thistlewood that Len became its first dealer, staking claim to a large territory that includes Prince Edward County to Bancroft  and Peterborough and Kingston to Port Hope.

As a Thistlewood dealer, Len retains design independence, deciding with the customer where the timber frame will be incorporated. Hybrid homes are very popular where only specific areas of the home or decorative features are Timberframe. At other times, complete Timberframe homes are built using high performance structural insulated panels (SIPs), enclosing the structure in an extremely energy efficient technique. This combines the best of both worlds’ time proven strength of the frame and modern technology allowing the home to perform exceptionally in our climate. Once the design is past concept and dimensions have been included, Thistlewood then fine tunes the timber frame design, engineers the structure and cuts the frame.

Timber frame homes emanate strength and warmth, so they’re a perfect fit for the Kuipers. A technology that has been around for more than two millennia, it is infinitely adaptable to any home design, employs traditional joinery techniques and incorporates solid wood - often reclaimed from historic structures. Timber frame homes allow soaring ceilings, unencumbered interior spaces and deliver an ambiance that is virtually unattainable in modern stud homes.

The frame is assembled onsite from timbers cut, numbered and clearly marked on highly technical drawings. Each bent – the structural network of timbers that makes up one cross-section of the frame - is first fitted and pegged together on the subfloor using a variety of mortise and tenon joinery, dovetails and knee braces. Once erected, it forms both the wall and roof support. Bents vary from structure to structure, designer to designer.

Traditional timber frames are assembled using old-world methods, including hardwood pegs, to secure the mortise and tenons on each bent, and then pegging the knee braces that connect cross beams and knee walls. The timbers are green when cut and there is inevitable shrinking and twisting as the wood dries. Joinery crafted with chisels and mallets and secured with hardwood pegs is a time-tested method that retains strength, without sacrificing character.

The entire timber frame can be erected without the use of one nail or bolt. Uncompromising strength results from specific joinery perfected over 2000 years for different areas of load and stress. The Kuipers home is only seven years old, but it joins timber frame castles in Europe and timber temples in Japan that are more than 700 years old.

Following historic European tradition, the frames are raised in a day, and at the end, the homeowner takes part in the topping out ceremony where a pine bough is secured to the highest point as a gesture of respect for the wood that has given life to the new home and celebrate good wishes for the family that will occupy the home. Tall Grasse Pointe is a timber frame home, and is a magnificent although extreme, example of how the technique fits on a grand scale. Timber frame homes can be designed to suit any site from small urban lots to country estates, from modest homes to grand mansions.

“Timber frame homes are perfectly suited for smaller applications,” explains Len. “We built a house that had two white oak trusses across the living room and it was lovely. We have included a few ceiling beams in several houses in the kitchen and dining area and are currently building a 1,400 sq. ft. home in Bloomfield with a 24 by 30 foot frame. It’s a beautiful home. It’s hard to hide that we’re passionate about timber frame homes but they represent only about 10 per cent of our work.”

Unabashed enthusiasts, the Kuipers have embraced timber frame homes as a part of their overall portfolio because they feel that it represents a trend in homebuilding. Timber frame homes can cost considerably more than a conventional home but combine traditional charm, historic elegance and fine craftsmanship.

“We think that the trend in future home design will include smaller homes with higher quality features than in the past,” predicts Len. “I have noticed this developing strongly over the past five years or so.” A student of the science of homebuilding, Len is most passionate about the metaphysical disciplines that contribute to the design of a structure. “I do a lot of reading on design theory. I find that good architectural material opens up new concepts.” Far from dry technical manuals, Len delves into books on the philosophy of architecture, on patterns of human behaviour that he feels drives good designs that enhance the owners’ lifestyle and needs.

He studies the visual science of parts in proportion, of light and interaction of structure and surroundings. Each home is designed with a lot of depth, history, and philosophy. “Proportion is vital in a design,” Len states. “When you look at a house or a room, you know it feels right, but might not know why. Conversely, you might look at it and feel that something is wrong, but can’t pinpoint it. That’s parts in proportion. It provides continuity through different aspects of the design and architectural elements. I like to use light on two sides because a room with windows opens up and connects you to your surroundings.”

Interaction and attachment are the hallmarks of Len Kuipers Homes. Cathy smiles as she says we have enjoyed many good friendships over the years and at times their three daughters, Kaitlyn, Tyley and Jordan, have developed relationships with clients that closely resemble that of grandparents and friends.

The Kuipers realize that homes are as unique as each individual client and, from the first step, Len and Cathy ensure that their customers are as involved in the process as they want to be. “People like being part of the design stage,” says Len. “They get excited about their new home and that reflects our approach. We still get excited about every home we have built and every new project.”

When Len started the business, he did all of his drawings by hand and Cathy shares that he is still a very talented artist. While Len recognizes that switching to a computer-aided architectural program has allowed him to hasten the process, he laments that designers are losing their ability to draw freehand. He likes the creativity of pen on paper, of connecting through his art with the home. “I use special software for residential design and it dramatically increases speed and options,” he says. “Design work is a large component of our business and we only design what we build.” Building an average of six to eight homes a year, time is a commodity in short Len and Cathy make the homebuilding undertaking, which can be daunting to many, a pleasure. Construction on each home starts with a groundbreaking ceremony for the homeowner. It becomes part of an extensive photographic record of the build. “It’s nice to present the homeowner with a history of the construction, but it is also practical. During every stage, from footings to the final coat of paint, we photograph everything. That way, the homeowner knows where all the buried drains are, where the hidden supply lines come in, where conduit and electrical and mechanic run, where plumbing can be accessed. It’s a valuable resource down the road.”

It’s a Len Kuipers touch and it’s another component, along with quality and commitment that goes into every single project whether it’s a multi-storey, multi-million dollar home or a modest bungalow. To Len and Kathy, every house is someone’s home.

About 95 per cent of the company’s work is residential but Len has strayed, on occasion, constructing some very high-end cattle and chicken barns and smaller specialty commercial buildings. Nine years ago, during a downturn in residential industry an opportunity for Len to diversify presented itself. A friend’s parents needed a barn to be built that would house 12,000 broiler chickens and building it allowed the company to keep their core tradespeople working. It was unfamiliar territory though, and Len immersed himself in it.

“He researched it to death,” Cathy clarifies.

Subsequent projects included a 110-cow free-stall, naturally ventilated dairy barn and milking parlour. A million dollar barn, road trips viewing new high tech barns using state of the art design and components became part of the research. “We went on farm tours and asked every question we could think of. Took notes, looked around and came up with a design. It was an interesting process and a nice interlude to our home-building schedule.”

Shortly thereafter, a residential construction boom was looming and the Kuipers were entirely committed to new home prospects. The homes they have built are secondary to the people in them. Len says that his second favourite time is to visit a few years later. “We see all the furniture in the place and see how it is a real home for real people. It isn’t a concept or a project anymore. Cathy and I both feel that the older our homes get, the better they look. We did some conventional homes on Westview in Brighton and I think they are some of the nicest homes in town. Each has its unique personality, the landscaping is mature, and the entire street is attractive.”

Len is confident, competent, yet humble. Speaking of Westview is one of the few times when joyous pride comes across, but even then, it’s about the people, not just the houses. He tells of starting a home for a couple who returned to Scotland for most of the process and left many of the details in his hands. “They’re an extra set of grandparents now to the girls,” says Cathy.

Len just finished a magnificent home for a local entrepreneur. This home exceeded the homeowners’ expectations culminating excellent design, innovative techniques, products and creativity, along with local talented tradespeople to produce an exceptional Len and Cathy have experienced great relationships with their clients that resemble a larger family of friends and the feelings are mutual. The Kuipers are deeply committed to the community as well. Currently Len is acting chairperson in a church expansion project in Brighton Fellowship Christian Reformed Church. In addition to declining attractive offers that would find Len and his crews far from home, he and Cathy are active proponents of local school programs, providing co-op education opportunities for students. There is the Kuipers-sponsored minor soccer team in Brighton, coached this year by two of their previous clients, and the company’s membership in both the Brighton Homebuilders Association and the Quinte Homebuilders Association.

More importantly, there is a look when Len and Cathy’s names are mentioned in this tight-knit community. They value word-of-mouth advertising on a professional scale but have also earned a great deal of affection from the community at large. Pockets of homeowners know what a Len Kuipers’ home means and they are the best salespeople. Hundreds of kids who have benefited from their generousity know the name. Communities are richer, not because of the new homes, but because of the example that Len and Cathy set in their business, in their lives.

The homes are magnificent, regardless of size, because the heart and soul that go into them are larger than life.