Connecticut Builder & Remodeler Wins National Home Builders Award

Sun, Sep 6th, 2009 12:00:00 am

When asked her opinion on the remodeling job that New Milford builder Don Federle performed on her Sherman home Cindie Steel responded, “Can't you tell by my smile?”

Well, yes, but Mrs. Steel elaborated on it anyway, effusively praising Mr. Federle’s handiwork, which turned a 900-square-foot former schoolhouse into a wondrous 1300-square-foot living space. The National Home Builders Association, which presented Mr. Federle with an award late last year for the best remodeling work costing less than $150,000, obviously saw something special as well.

“It was very nice to receive the award,” Mr. Federle said. “We took about 10 or 12 people down to the Aqua Turf in Southington to receive the award and everyone had a good time. It's nice to get recognition for your work. It was a tough job, one that we enjoyed.” Reshaping a building constructed more than a century and a half ago is not Mr. Federle’s usual cup of coffee. He is primarily a builder of new homes who currently has a dozen under construction in the New Milford area.

His homes, which carry a strong traditional New England flavor with a few twists thrown in, have won positive reviews for their appearance and construction quality. The homes range in size from 3,000 to 5,000 square feet and cost between $350,000 and $600,000. Most are built to order, although Mr. Federle has also undertaken a significant number of projects on speculation. “Reputation is so important to a homebuilder,” he said as he sat in his modest office on Aspetuck Ridge Road. “There are a lot of people out there building who aren't real builders. I've been hands-on and I know what's involved not only in the design but also in the construction phase.”

The 36-year-old became interested in the art of home building from his father, Don Federle, Sr., a former contractor who moved on to sales and is now semi-retired. “Dad always had me around with him on job sites when I was a kid, and I was interested in construction for as long as I can remember,” the younger man said. “I was interested in designing homes. That's what really intrigues me.”

So, Mr. Federle studied building construction for two years at Dean Junior College in Franklin, Massachusetts, and for two years at the Boston Architectural Center. In his early 20s, he was offered a job with the developer Vic Nelson to build homes in the New Milford area. The two men worked closely for 10 years until Mr. Federle started his own firm, American Dimensions, three years ago. He and Mr. Nelson still collaborate on projects. “What I learned from my dad was a good work ethic,” said Mr. Federle, thinking back on the formative years of his professional life, “and that your work should be something you are proud of.”

His architectural and design training, and his time spent in the trenches as a carpenter and hands-on builder, make him keenly aware of the demands and subtleties of all phases of home construction. “I think I know what it takes to get the job done right, because I have an understanding of the whole process, even though I don't do the actual construction work anymore,” he said. “I feel I have the people working for me who have the same pride in what they do that I have. I have been very lucky that way.”

Mr. Federle, whose firm has built around 20 homes in the Milford area, became involved with the addition onto the Steel's historic schoolhouse because of his craftsmanship. He had done some work for the Steels previously and they admired his work. Although he was busy with other jobs, Mr. Federle was intrigued by the project. Maybe it was his love of design and the history of home building, or perhaps it was merely the challenge. But the opportunity to enhance a beloved historic structure was too good to pass up.

“It's not something I do a lot of,” he explained while driving to the site to show off the project “We needed to get variances from local zoning. We got held up along the way. Some twenty people worked on it and it took over a year to complete. Because the job was so challenging, seeing it come together was tremendously satisfying.”

The work was exacting and time consuming. The former schoolhouse, which echoed with the sound of laughing children and rulers slapping on desktops in the late 1930s, is one of the town’s most treasured buildings, and is guarded closely by zoning regulations. The structure is located very close to Route 39 and Edmonds Road. The owners of the house, Mrs. Steel, a nurse at Danbury hospital, and her husband Kurt, a businessman, wanted an addition that flowed seamlessly from the original structure into the new area, which houses a guestroom aloft a handicapped-accessible bathroom and a foyer. Goal accomplished.

At first glance and even after closer study, the Steels’ remodeled home doesn't betray that it has been tinkered with. Cedar shingles on the side of the house and wooden roof shingles match those on the original structure. A cultured stone fireplace chimney was built on one side of the addition to match the one on the original building.

The house has been decorated carefully in early American motif by the Steels, including many schoolhouse artifacts and pieces created by Mr. Steel from wood he found on his property when the couple purchased the site several years ago. It is nearly impossible to distinguish between old and new, beyond the scroll markings from school kids on the walls of the original building. There are few indications that the structure has not always looked this way.

Mr. Federle flawlessly matched wainscoting found in the original structure and design paneled windows. The foyer, which opens both onto Route 39 and onto the backyard, empties into the original schoolhouse. An airy guest bedroom, complete with a big daybed placed into a large window to create a stunning sunny effect, is the centerpiece of the addition. A stairway leads to an intriguing loft above.

“The addition is a saltbox design, which is in keeping with what you would have found being built in those days,” said Mr. Federle “We matched the roof corners on the outside to make the addition look like it had always been there. The wainscoting and the windows make the addition work inside blending seamlessly with the original structure.”

The homeowners were thrilled with the final product, although it has placed a new demand on their spare time.

“I give tours all the time,” said Mrs. Steel. “People will come by and love the house, or they have heard that we live in a schoolhouse and will want to see inside. I have had people just come up and knock on my door asking if they could see the house.”


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