Home: Custom Comfort

A Montgomery County developer's home is one part contemporary cool, one part minimalist chic — and anything but cookie-cutter

WHEN YOU DEVELOP PROPERTIES FOR A LIVING, you can afford to be a little choosy about your own home. Especially when you're building it yourself. So for Bob Hankin, creating a light-filled contemporary refuge in Montgomery County was a self-imposed challenge — but one he was certainly up to.

WHEN YOU DEVELOP PROPERTIES FOR A LIVING, you can afford to be a little choosy about your own home. Especially when you're building it yourself. So for Bob Hankin, creating a light-filled contemporary refuge in Montgomery County was a self-imposed challenge — but one he was certainly up to.

Hankin, president of The Hankin Group, an Exton building and development firm his father founded in 1958, didn't plan it that way. He bought a piece of land backing a wooded nature preserve intending to modify the existing 1960s home on it. But when he discovered extensive termite damage, the renovation morphed into a completely new structure that had to be almost entirely rebuilt.

With the original home's footprint as a design map, Hankin and architect Mike Ruegamer, principal of Group 3, an architecture, interior design and planning firm in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, came up with a plan. “We would brainstorm ideas,” says Ruegamer. “He would come back to me to tweak them.” The result is a home that is singularly Hankin's own, a reflection of his interests (meditation), inspiration (Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater), travels (the Far East) and expert background in design and construction.


WITH ITS TRANQUIL SETTING the property has its own gurgling backyard stream, and foxes, deer, and many birds are frequent visitors — the property begged a house that embraced the outdoors as much as the architecture. For that part of the design, Hankin had the perfect model in mind.

“Frank Lloyd Wright has always been an inspiration to me,” he says. “I am a civil engineer, as was my father, and even as a small boy, I remember being transfixed by images of Fallingwater in my father's books. I later read that Wright's background was civil engineering as well, and I thought that I could someday build as he had.”

During the design phase, Hankin made a pilgrimage of sorts to the western Pennsylvania landmark cantilevered over a waterfall on Bear Run. The trip's influence on the final version was both general — the seamless flow of indoor and outdoor spaces and extensive use of wood, slate and stone — and specific — the horizontal mullions on the windows and precast concrete exterior elements modeled after Fallingwater.

From the design phase through completion, the project took three years, including 15 months of construction. Hankin collaborated with a team that included Ruegamer; Ruegamer's father, Gene, a semi-retired interior designer and architect; Hankin's superintendent Roger Rhoads Sr., who managed the construction; and Lisa Farina, landscape architect for The Brickman Group, a full-service design, construction and maintenance company based in Langhorne. The team worked from the ground up — even the original house's foundation needed attention. Hankin had to increase the height by almost two feet, so the front of the house, which was formerly sunken, would be at ground level. “It was a work in progress,” Hankin says. “As we were building it, the drawings were continually changing.”

Hankin was unwilling to leave any stone unturned — quite literally. He visited a number of quarries before finding the right type of rock for the house's facade at the D'Amico Quarry in Avondale, and waited three months to find a solid piece of stone to create a bridge across a pond in the front yard. He also used huge boulders from another of his construction sites, a corporate center being built in Spring Valley, to add drama to the landscape design.

“When we placed the boulders in the back, Bob came home in a panic,” Farina recalls. “'It looks like meteors fell,' he said. We told him, 'Just wait until it's done.' And once we built up the soil, they turned out fine.”

Now the property beckons with a Japanese-inspired garden and a pond stocked with koi and goldfish, complemented by mature pine and sweet bay trees and anchored by those huge boulders. A cornerstone — a remnant from a building his father built in Paoli in 1953 — sits half-buried in a small copse of trees near the front of the house. A bench and a statue sit next to it, creating what Hankin calls “a small and unexpected sanctuary.”


THE AREAS AROUND THE HOUSE are orderly and almost Japanese in style, with such plantings as an Oriental spruce and Lacebark pine, to contrast with the woods behind the property. Views of the sylvan backyard are framed in every window, and the connection to nature is complete and serene.

The landscaping's sense of Zen is but a small extension of the interior design, which plays up Hankin's appreciation for all things Asian. The house has a minimalist aesthetic, and the first floor doubles as a guest room and Hankin's meditation space. His extensive travels include an inspirational trip to Mongolia and India with noted Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. Asian-inspired design touches range from the high-tech (two bathrooms are equipped with a Japanese Toto Washlet heated toilet complete with heated seats and built-in bidets) to the traditional (a Buddha statue graces the living room). Hankin likes to have casual dinners with friends around a low, 52-inch square table in the living room whose seats are silk-covered floor cushions. “My ideal would be a loft space, so in a sense I tried to bring that quality into it,” he says.

The first floor's open plan radiates from a two-story living room furnished with contemporary pieces, including two bright red Ribbon chairs from Minima. A dramatic fireplace is faced in Volga Blue granite and stretches 16 feet high. The adjacent kitchen has custom cabinets made of anigre wood, sleek black granite counters and Miele appliances that were chosen as much for their modern good looks as for their features. A row of hidden storage nooks keeps clutter out of sight.

“I'm really fastidious about the finished product, both in regard to design and workmanship, and I'm willing to reconstruct things to get it right,” says Hankin. In the end, that dedication proved worthwhile. “I think I achieved pretty much what I wanted,” he says, ticking off the setting, the natural light and the contrast of material as favored elements. “Being a builder, I knew I would have regrets if I wasn't careful, so I really took my time.”

Comments on this story? Please send them to us.