The Kershes’ undeveloped land evolved into a safe haven at the peak of the COVID-19 lockdown, eventually becoming an open concept home to complement the natural surroundings
By Leah Josephson | Photography by John Michael Simpson
The Kersh family never expected that the wild, forested property they purchased in western Orange County would become a treasured safe haven when the world shut down just three months later. When a realtor friend posted about the available land in December 2019, the Kershes – Perri, Carter and their daughters, Phereby and Ada – jumped at the opportunity. Ada attended The Hawbridge School in Saxapahaw for middle school and the start of high school, and Perri had fond memories of the drive to school from their home in the Lake Forest neighborhood in Chapel Hill.
“I had been up and down this road a million times,” Perri says. “Driving out on 54, I just had this happy, driving-out-into-the-country kind of feeling.”
While the family hadn’t necessarily planned to build a house on the property, at least not any time soon, Perri, the owner of Neat Freak Professional Organizing since 2005, found herself with much more time on her hands during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“I think I ended up taking 10 weeks off during early COVID-19, just because no one was going to have anybody go in their house,” Perri says. “But I was kind of climbing the walls, and I just started coming out here all the time and building trails on the land.”
As she cleared hiking trails, the undeveloped land slowly evolved into a peaceful refuge for Perri and the rest of the family. They built a clearing with a raised tent platform and fire pit for camping, enabling them to spend more time on the property. As the lockdown lifted, the Kersh family started hosting outdoor gatherings, including Perri’s 50th birthday party, sharing the 7-acre retreat with friends and family even before they considered building a permanent home there.
When Perri brought Sophie Piesse to walk the property, the Carrboro-based modernist architect was inspired by the natural undulations of the land. Sophie suggested building a permanent bridge-style home that would span one of the gullies leading down to the creek below. The design of the open concept home would have cleaner lines and reflect a more industrial aesthetic than the family’s previous 1970s house, for which Sophie had designed a modern glass addition.
Always excited for a new construction project – the family made updates to their Lake Forest home nine separate times – the Kershes enlisted Sophie and Kevin Murphy of Newphire Building, who happens to live around the corner, to design and build a home that would both fit the family’s lifestyle and complement its natural surroundings.
“Once we came up with the bridge concept, I wanted it to feel like a place that the breeze could literally blow through, which it does,” Perri says. “We have these big sliders to the screened-in porch, and I can open the dining room windows, and it really feels like you’re outside all the time.”
The walkway to the front door is bordered by a striking iron installation. Co-designed by Perri, Sophie and Rick Cuarto of Storybook Farm Metal Shop, it features wavy lines that reflect the rises and falls of the land. Unsealed Thermory wood accents on the exterior contrast with dark metal siding. They will weather to a soft gray color over time as they’re exposed to the elements.
Inside, the industrial concrete floors and iron accents are balanced by warm wood tones on the walls of the screened-in sunroom as well as the floating staircase and cabinetry that was a collab among Sophie, Rick, Perri and Zach McKinley. A dramatic dark natural stone fireplace is the heart of the open living room, reaching all the way to a soaring ceiling.
But the design’s major impact comes from the dozens of floor-to-ceiling windows in the living spaces and four bedrooms, offering picture views of the untamed forest as it cycles through the seasons and hosts wildlife including wild turkeys, owls and deer.
Tile accents in varying shades of green and teal add pops of color to the 3 ½ bathrooms and laundry area. Perri’s friend Allison Sloan Polish of Sloan Polish Design helped her select some key furniture, like a pair of rust-colored chairs in the living room that integrate earth tones beyond the many greens of the tile and trees.
The renovation also served as an opportunity for Perri to start from scratch designing for the family’s lifestyle. A first-floor primary bedroom and designated office spaces for both Perri and Carter enable them to live, work and someday age in place. Organization systems include a walk-in pantry and plenty of pullout drawers in the kitchen, as well as built-in cabinets and shelves throughout the house to store the family’s many books.
Perri looks out from the lower back deck at the camping platform and picnic tables that got so much use through the pandemic. “We had no idea that we would need this space so much,” she says. “There were so many takeout food parties out here. We felt so lucky.”
She looks forward to entertaining in the new space. A party for the contractors who supported the build and the neighbors who have warmly welcomed the family as they’ve gotten settled is at the top of the list. While the large living and dining space can easily accommodate a crowd, the forest views that enchanted the Kershes and are central to the home’s design will pull guests out onto the several decks. Some will wander even farther onto the trails winding down along the creek, following the family’s first footsteps as they explored the land that has come to mean so much to them.