Sean Ruppert, principal of OPaL LLC
Stephen Voss

Sean Ruppert, principal of OPaL LLC, makes creating and selling to-die-for dwellings in Washington, D.C.’s most desirable neighborhoods look effortless. The company’s urban infill homes are located in some of the city’s priciest areas: Palisades, Capitol Hill, Logan Circle—places where most developers only dream of doing business.

The plainspoken 44-year-old has made a name for himself in these swank neighborhoods by offering supremely crafted luxury homes with vibrant exteriors and down-to-earth, comfortable interiors. Unlike a lot of high-end homes in the area, his designs are a far cry from D.C.’s ubiquitous Colonials.

“There are a lot of great builders here who do traditional and formal, but that’s not OPaL,” he says. Instead, the company is known for clean lines and colorful elevations. The company’s architect, Greg Sparhawk, maximizes the relaxed attitude with floor plans that shun dining rooms and formal living rooms in favor of large breakfast nooks and open great rooms.

In a buttoned-up city like the nation’s capital, OPaL’s brand of laid-back elegance has caught on. “Greg has helped us provide homes that aren’t so ‘D.C.,’ and I think it has led to our success because our homes have a completely new and completely fresh point of view,” Ruppert says.

Case in point: The Naylor Court Stables townhomes in the trendy Shaw neighborhood, which recently sold for an average $1.6 million. Located on a former equestrian alley 1 mile from the White House, the project’s three units incorporate details that hew to the neighborhood’s 200-year-old history such as horse-height windows and sliding barn doors. 

Each 2,600-square-foot, three-bedroom home has a 200-square-foot terrace and a detached carriage house with storage and parking, 8½-foot windows, commercial-grade appliances, marble countertops, dark hardwoods, and skylights. All three sold out in two months.

At OPaL, the emphasis on high-quality design is so much a part of the company’s brand that employees have coined a new phrase to describe it, as in: “That home is so OPaL,” or “We OPaLed that house.”

The Downturn
Ruppert knew he was on to something eight years ago when he welcomed the first visitors to his model home at the Lombard Court development in the historic Fells Point area of Baltimore. The 36 four-level garage townhomes were designed to mimic the federal architecture of the neighborhood while offering open, contemporary interiors. Customers loved what they saw. 

“They said things like ‘I never want to leave,’” Ruppert recalls.

Despite the acclaim, Ruppert had a good share of sleepless nights while selling Lombard Court, which came online at the height of the recession—and left him on the hook for a $16 million loan. As sales dried up, he dropped prices from $619,000 to $399,000 to compete with nearby foreclosures and took over as on-site salesperson, driving from the D.C. area seven days a week until all the units were sold. 

To add insult to injury, Ruppert’s bank refused to negotiate the terms of his loan, though most lenders—including his bank—were doing so. “They said, ‘We were never your partner,’” he remembers. “Now, I deal with banks in a completely different way because I know how it can go when something goes wrong.”

More Than Location
These days, Ruppert is enjoying the name recognition of the OPaL brand, which means that investors, Realtors, and buyers seek him out. The little company he founded in 2001 and named after dogs Oliver, Parker, and Lucy has generated numerous design awards and $240 million in new-home sales. (Click here for more on Ruppert's business philosophy.)

“The obstacle now is finding the projects that are worthy of our homes,” he says. To help with that, he recently hired a land acquisition manager. 

OPaL’s offices are located on the lower level of Ruppert’s Cabin John, Md., home, which he shares with his toddler twins and a live-in nanny. The arrangement allows him to join the children for breakfast and dinner. Working out of his house and having family time each day are crucial parts of his commitment to a work/life balance, a rare feat in hard-charging D.C.

Currently, Ruppert’s biggest challenge is justifying the high price tags he must charge to mitigate the area’s elevated land costs and time-consuming regulatory processes. But despite the old adage, he believes it’s more than location that keeps OPaL’s projects in demand.

“There’s a new consciousness emerging in America. It’s a philosophy that values quality over quantity,” Ruppert says. “OPaL is re-envisioning the way homes are built to accommodate the early adopters of this new sensibility.”