For years, custom home builder Bill Cotton, owner of Cotton Custom Homes, admired the old Seagroves family farmhouse in Apex, N.C., as he drove by it on his way to work or to take his children to school. At the time, the thought never occurred to him that one day, years later, it would gain a new life housing his business.
“It was a neat old house,” Cotton remembers thinking when he passed the failing structure, which was built as a simple, one-story “Triple A” house popular in western Wake County at the turn of the last century. A lot of other Apex residents must have thought so too, because when the house and the former 92-acre tobacco farm that surrounded it were scheduled to become a new housing development in 2005 residents protested and picketed City Hall against the land’s rezoning.
“I wasn’t part of the picketing” that was focused on stopping development of all the land, recalls Cotton, but he did regret the idea of the home being razed. Eventually, the land’s owner, Standard Pacific Homes, agreed to donate the house, its barns, and its other out buildings, as well as about an acre of land they sat on, to the Capital Area Preservation organization and get on with developing the rest of the property into a new subdivision.
In late 2007, Bill Cotton went looking for a new headquarters and his real estate agent, knowing his love of old homes, suggested the farmhouse land. Immediately Cotton put the land under contract, but it was a year before it could be rezoned to allow for office use and another year, between permitting and working within the city’s historic rehabilitation code, before he was able to get the home moved 40 feet from a busy street onto a new foundation, renovated, and the business moved in.
Then, just recently, the last piece of the renovation was put in place when the house was designated a historic landmark, qualifying Cotton for a 50% property tax break.
As part of the renovation of the house, Cotton put it on a new foundation; replaced all the plumbing, wiring, and HVAC systems; and removed some awkward later additions to the home, adding a new one onto the back of the house for a restroom and more office space. In the end, the shot-gun layout functions better as office space than it would have as a home today, Cotton said.
“It’s ready to go another 100 years,” he said. “It’s a great place to go to work and kind of a show place to bring my clients. Having the character of the home [as office space] is so much better than being in an office building.”
Cotton also moved the home’s barn and other out-buildings to the same relative positions around the house that they were in before, renovating them as well. “It’s nice to have that storage as a builder,” Cotton said. “Now we don’t throw anything away.”
The house’s renovation came at a good time for Cotton’s carpenter employees because, at the time, the local home building market had slowed and he would have had to lay them off if he hadn’t had the barn rebuilds for them to work on.
“The barns were a godsend for our carpenters,” he said.
Cotton started as a carpenter himself in Virginia, working on historic buildings in the Alexandria area before moving to the Raleigh area, where he met and married his wife in 1993.
“A carpenter could afford to buy a house here,” he said.
Cotton, who builds eight custom homes in a good year and one in a bad one, also does trim carpentry work for other builders in the area. In the past he hasn’t had much call for renovation work, but he hopes his new headquarters will eventually spark some desire from clients to renovate historic structures.
“I really enjoy restoration work, even though I don’t do a tremendous amount of it,” he said.
Teresa Burney is a senior editor for Builder magazine.