May ABODE: Mike Ball takes a house to a higher plane

(Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

When you walk into Mike Ball’s stunning, open-floor home located in the heart of Downtown Charlottesville, you immediately see the lush green of the backyard. The self-taught contractor, who started Element Construction after years of working for Artisan Construction, bought the space in 2008.

But he and his wife Karen, a local realtor, didn’t immediately move in. Instead, they stayed with Ball’s parents and slept on pushed-together twin beds for a year, in order to renovate their new house. Ball completely transformed the house—and he did so after hours and on the weekends, nearly singlehandedly.

In terms of design choices, the couple is quite the team. “Karen has a lot of great, grand vision but not a detail vision. I’m the detail-oriented person. She’ll say ‘we need something here’ and I’ll be able to actually conceptualize the details of it. It’s not any one person’s vision. I actually think we make a great team in that way.”

The Balls added a second floor with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, put in beautiful hardwood floors made of Australian wormy chestnut, created a brand-new kitchen that features industrial pendant lights and a matte granite countertop, and installed chunky-yet-shallow built-ins to house the TV and family photographs. “So many of the details in the house were a result of being at the house late at night and on a whim deciding to put in an archway here, or tongue and groove there. It was an organic process in that way,” said Ball.
Originally, the house was a one-floor ranch, with the living space divided into small rooms, including a tiny dated kitchen strangely located near the front door. It was the expansive back yard that was the selling point for the couple, who now have a 22-month-old son. “There was no access to the back yard. You literally had to go around the entire house to get to the back. So building the screened in porch that leads to the yard was essential.”

And it’s this breezy porch—casually appointed with contemporary wicker furniture, and made even more fun by a toddler’s swing dangling right in the middle of it—that is Ball’s favorite space. “We spend so much time out there. It’s really peaceful.” —Cate West Zahl

“I basically learn what looks good, rather than create what looks good. I’m not a very creative designer, there’s a distinction! I think that works well with clients; I don’t have demanding design, I don’t go into a project and say ‘This is how you need to do it.’ Rather, I go in and get to know them, and then I can come up with something that I think they will appreciate.

“I’ve always enjoyed building things, tinkering with things, building tree houses, digging holes like in Red Dawn. Through college I would fix things, rebuild things; I built a motorcycle once. I think I just fell in love with exploring the mechanical process.

“It’s always been a hobby that morphed into a full-time career. I’m self-taught via spending hours of time reading Fine Homebuilding magazine, Journal of Light Construction, and through various apprenticeships. Back in the day, I would say to myself ‘I need to put a sink in,’ and then I would read a book about it and do it.

“I think that we tore down every single wall on the first floor except for the one in the bathroom…[I wanted to get] all the living towards the back of the house near the yard.
“We were mostly going for traditional in this house, but [with] the open floor plan. I like contemporary design in many cases, but I also think that it can end up feeling how we currently view ’70s houses. It will feel dated in five to 10 years. I go for timeless design that will always feel fresh.”

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