State House

Natural Design

A country boy builds a home that celebrates his family’s land

The most fundamental point of building a home is to separate oneself from the outdoors; to provide privacy and isolation from the elements, opening up to the outside world only slightly in the form of windows, porches, skylights, and doors. When Wally Heirs began planning his dream home many years ago, he took a slightly different approach—he wanted to bring the outdoors in.
A country boy at heart and contractor by trade, Heirs owns nearly 150 acres in Varnville, South Carolina—family land with a rich history and natural beauty. For decades, he made mental plans for the home he would one day build, filing away design elements, material types, and small details that would eventually make up his dream home.

During those same years, Heirs graduated Clemson with a building sciences degree, ran the local hardware store, and opened his own contracting business, which eventually led him to meet Atlanta architect, Robert M. Cain, while they worked on a farmhouse renovation together. Cain’s talent, work ethic, and attention to detail impressed Heirs from the start, and he knew that one day, he would call upon the architect to help him with his lifetime project.

Years later, Heirs found himself walking the grounds of his Varnville land with Cain, discussing where to build a house for his family of five. The contractor and the architect were enamored with an old borrow pit that once provided dirt for a nearby road, as well as a large, open dove hunting field bordered with live oaks to the west and a double row of slash pines to the east. Standing north of the open field at a high point to the east of the borrow pit, they imagined the home situated among the trees at the top of the land, with views including the long, seemingly endless dove field and a lake to the west, transformed from the former borrow pit. Here, they proposed their building site, and Cain began drawing up the master plan.

Cain, who specializes in modern farmhouses, based the Heirs home on Southern vernacular architecture, connecting three staggered shotgun wings with transparent dogtrot bridges. Composed of mostly steel, glass, concrete block, and wood, the 3,500 square foot home includes views of the land from nearly any spot in the house, and truly maximizes its space. By orienting the home east-west, placing windows on all sides to capture breezes, and extending the eaves and gables down to minimize solar gain, the home rarely needs air conditioning in the spring and fall—a feature important to Heirs. Additionally, Cain realized that the trees surrounding the home shelter the site from direct late-afternoon sun exposure, so the architect adjusted the plans slightly to capitalize on this discovery, reducing the daily overall sun exposure. The result was an energy-efficient home that, according to Cain, “feels like it belongs where it is on the land, and feels so much bigger than it is because you’re involved in the exterior wherever you go in the home.”

The master plan for the Heirs’ home took three years to design and another three to build, largely a result of both the contractor and the architect’s attention to detail. When construction finally began, Heirs’ crew consisted of only finish carpenters to build the home—no rough construction was necessary or desired. Details include three continuous lines that run around the interior and exterior of the home, which line up perfectly—an exercise in precision and symmetry. To Cain, the lines “create a sense of order to the house.” The architect sought to create a natural symmetry within the home, a sense of rightness that would be felt and understood by all who enter, regardless of design knowledge.

Heirs and Cain also placed a strong emphasis on using salvaged or reclaimed materials when possible. While the exterior of the home is made of western red cedar, inside, heart pine abounds—much of it reclaimed by Heirs from nearby decaying antebellum structures. Salvaged steel is used for the beams. Additionally, Heirs wanted the home to be built around certain pieces of stationary, immovable furniture. The master bedroom bed, for instance, is situated to give a forward view of the master deck and lake, and low-slung windows to the side allow for views of the land even when laying down. The large dining room table is held in place with steel tubes and stainless steel cables, and gives sweeping views of the exterior landscape. This brings back the original plan of Heirs—to bring the outside in, to become entwined with the land rather than separate from it, and it is evident throughout the entire home. With large glass windows on all sides, vaulted A-frame ceilings, four porches, and a strict “no curtains” rule, the overall feel from within the house is much like living outdoors.

For Heirs, a custom-built home on his family’s land was a lifetime goal, and one he achieved in spades with the help of an immensely talented architect. Though it may look simple, the Heirs family home is anything but, celebrating the natural beauty of the land with a quiet, intentional, and intuitive design.

By Jana Riley