Houses by hand: Noah Bradley looks to the past to build unique homes from the outside in

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Turkey Cove, a small log home near Free Union, is a classic example of Noah Bradley’s work. “When we go to the cabin,” says homeowner Jack Marshall, “it’s easy to imagine stepping back in history 150 years.” Photo: JoS. T. Samuels Turkey Cove, a small log home near Free Union, is a classic example of Noah Bradley’s work. “When we go to the cabin,” says homeowner Jack Marshall, “it’s easy to imagine stepping back in history 150 years.” Photo: JoS. T. Samuels

When Noah Bradley was 15, his insurance agent father announced that the two of them would spend their summer building a house by hand, from the ground up. “I believe I swore at that particular stage of my life,” Bradley says, “that I would do anything I could to avoid building houses ever again.”

His plan failed. More than 40 years later, Bradley runs Blue Mountain Builders, where he and his crews specialize in “handmade houses” constructed with time-tested techniques.

As a 20-year-old VCU undergrad, Bradley decided that if he’d built one house, he could build another: “All I would have to do was get started on it and never quit.” He found a piece of land and, denied a bank loan, maxed out his father’s credit cards to dig the foundation and build the frame. That got him the loan—and, a year’s work and $20,000 later, his house.

At 25, after one engineering class and zero architecture classes, Bradley looked at his fellow information-systems students and decided that a lifetime in corporate America didn’t sound appealing. Instead, he and his wife, Lynne, moved to rural Tennessee, where they spent three years building another home with material salvaged from nearby ruins. Alas, beautiful components didn’t make a beautiful house. “It was mighty ugly,” Bradley says.

The arrival of their child in 1985 ended the Bradleys’ homesteading experiment and brought them to Albemarle County. After working for other builders, Bradley started his own firm in 1988, drawing inspiration from historic houses. On a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, “I saw a variety of homes that were 200 to 300 years old that were attractive when they were designed and built, and here they were so many years later, and were still gorgeous,” he says.

Enduring buildings like these have fueled Bradley’s belief that the homes best adapted to a given place will still be standing after decades or centuries. He approaches architecture from the outside in, examining exterior elements of houses he admires to reverse-engineer what makes them beautiful.

Most architects start with a floor plan, and build the outside of the house to fit it, Bradley says. “When you design a home, you want the outside aesthetics of it to be attractive from all four sides.” Only then, he believes, should you concern yourself with what’s inside.

“Noah’s understanding of Appalachian log buildings—his obvious respect for them and the people who constructed them over the past centuries—is expressed in the cabin he built us,” says Jack Marshall, owner of the Bradley-built Turkey Cove, a small log home near Free Union. “When we go to the cabin, it’s easy to imagine stepping back in history 150 years.”

Bradley has built or restored roughly 100 houses, by his estimate: log cabins, farmhouses and stone and timber-frame buildings. To pass on what he’s learned from that long career, he’s written a how-to book, currently in editing at the publisher; amassed thousands of followers for his Facebook page and YouTube videos; and launched an online learning program, the Handmade House Academy, through his website (handmadehouses.com).

“If I could go back to that young man in Tennessee who was about ready to build an ugly home,” Bradley says, “and I could share with him what I know now that would bring him to where I’m at now…that was the driving force behind Handmade Houses.”

As he nears 60, Bradley says he plans to slow down. But he also wants to build a few more homes for clients. And a new dream home of his own. And homes for his three grown children. Once, he swore he’d never build houses. Now he can’t seem to stop.

“When you hand-build a home, when you drive that last nail in, it’s a melancholy moment,” Bradley says. “That’s what led me to a career of building houses, because I found that every time I finished one, I had to build another.”

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