House on a lake Living Room View

This house, completed in 2012, combines the owners’ love of the adjacent lake and the surrounding Berkshire countryside with their love for cool jazz records. Their collection of the recorded work of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Bill Evans and most of the other jazz musicians of that era are presented throughout the house, both as the actual LPs and as photographs of the artists themselves. More importantly, the freedom and lyrical beauty of that music informed the design, combining structure and function with playfulness and serendipity. (Courtesy Stephen Gerard Dietemann)

When Architect Stephen Dietemann, in Great Barrington, MA sets out to bring another of his custom home designs into the third dimension he has some particular qualities he looks for in a general contractor. Topping the list is pretty much a no brainer — the ability to do the job. But there are some nuances to that aspect.

As he considers a GC’s qualifications he looks closely as to whether they’ve ever completed a similar project properly, and he emphasizes, a ‘similar’ project. It’s not about having completed just any project, but rather a similar one of custom design, and one that has unique details that set it apart from conventional design. It’s also important to him that the GC has homebuilding experience because as he says: “Having built twenty banks may not mean they are qualified to build a custom house.”

Next most important to Dietemann is the ability to work as part of a team. He emphasizes that all of his houses are done by a team that includes the owner, architect and GC. The team is in place right from the beginning of the project, he says, so each team member can contribute their own unique skills at the outset. The team concept means there is no room for finger pointing or ‘prima donnas,’ in the process.

Finally, the architect says the GC has to be open to new ideas:

“The last thing you need is a GC who is threatened by something they haven’t seen or built before,” Dietemann says. “Again, any questions are worked out by the team and that discussion may affect the detail in question. The architect cannot be a ‘prima donna’ either. Any architect not open to helpful suggestions from experienced contractors is wasting a truly valuable resource. Most importantly, it is the building — built to the owner’s program, budget and schedule — that ultimately matters.”

Dietemann describes himself as “creating at the intersection of art and architecture” as he has traveled both worlds. After graduating from Cornell University’s College of Art, Architecture and Planning in 1976 he worked with renowned Connecticut architects Victor Christ-Janer and Robert Furno for five years and got licensed to practice architecture in Connecticut.

But then he decided to pursue art and returned to The School of Visual Arts to study painting, drawings, photography and sculpture. During the next twenty five years he focused on the visual arts with his work represented in galleries on 57th Street, the East Village and in Soho in New York, and elsewhere throughout the country. His work today is in public and private collections around the world, including the Yale Museum of Fine Art in New Haven Ct.

In 1995 he returned to residential design, bringing all he had learned on his artistic journeys to bear on developing playful, contemporary, low maintenance and energy conscious design. Now, as a licensed architect also in Massachusetts and New York, he is a member of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards and an elected member of the Town of Great Barrington’s Planning Board. Now he says, he has completed a process of finally bringing art, architecture and planning together.

Today, when he talks about planning, and the whole process of bringing homes into reality on the often challenging terrain of New England, he remembers Frank Lloyd Wright.

“Terrain is everything!” he says. “Wright said something to the effect that ‘difficult sites make for good architecture.’ He was right — but only if the site is well understood and respected.”

In describing a home in Housatonic that was featured in Berkshire Magazine, Dietemann explains that it demanded the driveway come up exactly as designed, and the home’s footprint being exactly where it currently is, given town and state regulations. From an aesthetic point of view, he says, the house reflected the client’s desire for a house in the woods that remained somewhat apart.

“To resolve the apparent contradiction we designed a ‘classical’ structure that was able to fit in the woods while not being overwhelmed by them,” he explains. “Of course, the views of the river were everywhere encouraged. Why be next to a river and ignore its beauty?”

Integral to challenging terrain are the right foundations, but while Dietemann offers a usual example, he was cautious about implying there’s anything typical about them.

“There are no typical foundations, but usually we use a reinforced 10″ concrete wall with 2-4″ of rigid insulation outside, itself covered by a water resistant barrier,” he explains. “We make sure the outside edge of the foundation insulation aligns with the foam, sometimes batt, insulation of the walls above to keep a continuous insulation barrier without any more breaks in that insulation, as possible.  Any exposed foundation insulation is covered with a cement parge for aesthetics and protection of the insulation.”

In looking back over his home design work, Dietemann recognizes the influence that change has in informing the future, both in terms of informing designs to follow, and in terms of the lives of the owners.

Stephen Gerard Dietemann

Stephen Gerard Dietemann

“Every house affects those that follow,” he says. “Hopefully we all learn as we proceed. However, if the house was designed correctly, it was exactly the right house for the particular client on a specific site at a specific moment in the cleint’s life. Most important, a custom house is a custom house; one size doesn’t fit all! And while you design the house to allow for anticipated change, you cannot design for all change. That said, if the client’s program is properly developed, the house should accommodate the owner’s life for as long as the owner can see. After that, as the old saying goes: ‘The only constant is change.'”

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