Michael Smith’s Atlantic Beach home may be a custom build and based on tradition, but there’s nothing customary or traditional about it. Not by American standards anyway.
Designed and built by Mike Phillips of Phillips Builders, the three-story, 3,800-square foot abode was inspired by the homeowner’s travels to Indonesia, specifically Bali. But it wasn’t just the architecture and design aesthetic that Smith wanted to replicate; he also wanted to create a sense of damai (Indonesian for “peace”) throughout the space.
Phillips immediately drew inspiration from the lot itself. Because the property is
situated at the end of the block, and abuts only one other lot, the dense cover of palm trees and shrubs make it feel even more secluded. The ocean breeze and sound of crashing waves in the distance give the spot a tropical feel.
Smith’s vision for the project wasn’t quite as obvious to Phillips.
It’s not that Smith didn’t know what he wanted. In fact, he was very clear about two things: He wanted the house to be unique in every way possible (translation: he didn’t want any materials that could be found at Lowe’s or Home Depot), and he didn’t care what other people thought about the home’s design or decor (in other words, friends and neighbors can keep their opinions to themselves). But unlike many clients who hire a custom builder, Smith didn’t show up at Phillips Builders with a stack of home magazines, paint chips, photo albums, sketches and fabric swatches to elucidate that vision. What he did give Phillips was the challenge of his career.
Before Smith even decided to create his own Balinese retreat, he was picking up artifacts and artwork whenever he traveled to Indonesia, and whatever didn’t fit in his primary residence in Canada or vacation homes, he’d put in storage. Once he made up his mind to build the house in Atlantic Beach, however, his exports increased exponentially. Smith started shipping everything he could get his hands on that he thought might be of use (and could legally be exported, of course): doors, light fixtures, benches, vases, fabrics, tiles, tables, hardware, sculptures and lots and lots of wood.
Phillips, for one, was amazed by the lengths his client would go to in order to find authentic Indonesian furniture and accessories, as well as building materials.
“He wasn’t just going to Bali and walking down the main street [to shop],” Phillips explains. “He would get a canoe and go deep into the woods to buy actual antiques, not just replicas.” On these excursions, Smith found dilapidated wooden buildings that he purchased for the purpose of dismantling and shipping the wood back to the United States.
While some builders may have been uneasy having to work with unfamiliar materials arriving sight unseen, Phillips welcomed the opportunity. “The materials are so unique you have to be creative in how to use them,” he says. “And we never knew what we were getting until we opened [the cargo container].” In addition to not knowing the quality or quantity of materials he would be working with, Phillips had to contend with a lag time of several months between the time the materials were acquired in Indonesia and when they arrived in Atlantic Beach—11,000 miles away.
Virtually every piece that Smith had shipped over was handcrafted in some way or another, from hand-carved wooden gates and objets d’art to hand-hewn wood planks collected from those ramshackle structures. The homeowner was thrilled that each piece was innately unique, so he could fulfill his vision of having a home like no other. For Phillips, however, one-of-a-kind (read: inconsistent) pieces presented a whole new set of challenges.
Take, for example, the hardwood floors. Unlike traditional wood floors, there was nothing uniform about the planks and no pattern for their installation. There were dramatic variations in length, width and color. Phillips didn’t even know what kind of wood some of the pieces were. Truth be told, he says, the process was much more like putting together a series of puzzles than installing hardwood floors.
Finished pieces, like doors, wooden arches and fences, presented their own set of challenges. The thickness of the doors imported from Bali was considerably different from standard doors in America, so the homebuilder had to reconfigure the door frames and jambs and replace the hardware to accommodate them. The heights of the doors, as well as wooden archways and fences, were significantly different than what Phillips is accustomed to working with, too (as a point of reference, the height of the average male in Bali is 5’2”, compared to 5’10” in America).
In addition, Phillips had to ensure that every element met U.S. building codes. Railings surrounding the second story deck, for example, weren’t high enough to meet code and had to be altered; ditto for the staircases, which Phillips had to disassemble, modify and put back together. Reconfiguring 100- to 200-year-old pieces to fit today’s hurricane standards proved challenging, as well.As difficult as the project was at times, especially having to wait on shipments, Phillips welcomed the opportunity to test his creativity and resourcefulness. “As a builder, this is the kind of project you want to work on,” he says. “I learned so much. It really was a dream come true.”