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Into the Woods

September 1, 2003 By Jean Penn



Only a tiny portion of the 17,000-square-foot Sampson home is visible from the rustic country road in Franklin Lakes, N.J. Anyone taking a leisurely Sunday afternoon stroll through the woodsy area has barely a hint of the high-tech, integrated pleasure dome nestled just beyond a thick blanket of oak, elm and pine trees.

Down in the basement, it’s a balmy 73 degrees and the setting is tropical. Today, the thermometer hit 25 degrees and the great outdoors is frosted with snow. Graham Sampson—a frustrated 48-year-old architect who owns ECI, a communications company that provides audio conferencing and web collaboration services—is floating on a raft in his indoor swimming pool, heated to a cozy 87 degrees, and is enjoying a Sunday football game on his 90-inch motorized video projection screen.

Upstairs, in the gleaming gourmet kitchen, Linda, 43, is feeding their three dogs and cat, and is planning dinner. She clicks on the all-in-one remote (just like the one Ozzy Osbourne can’t operate on MTV’s The Osbournes), sees her husband in the pool and giggles. Every Sunday afternoon, like clockwork, he jumps in for a swim and to watch a little football. Tonight, the two of them will take a dip and take in another episode of one of their favorite shows, The Sopranos.

Linda checks in on some of the other newly added rooms in the lower level of their resort-like home, again, with a click of the remote. Their three daughters are playing in the plush eight-seat theater, the scene of a recent sleepover party. In the back is a bar designed by Graham that allows him to watch an NBA basketball game, enjoy a sandwich and read his e-mail or surf the Internet, at the same time (Graham oftentimes hosts his ex-ecutive team meetings in this flexible meeting center, where he can conduct Web tours and make PowerPoint presentations from his laptop). Early on, the karaoke system was christened by the kids and some neighborhood moms.

Their son, 25, who has brought home some of his buds on this visit, hangs out in the billiard room. Here, Graham also designed the cabinetry and hardware reminiscent of Scotland’s St. Andrew’s Golf Club. The furniture consists of expert reproductions of that in the St. Andrew’s clubhouse.

Linda clicks the remote of the intercom system, which is woven throughout every room in the house, and asks: “How does Chinese sound for tonight?” Everyone confers and agrees, so she quickly orders takeout.

Like many who have the wherewithal to do so, Linda and Graham enjoy altering reality. While their outside world may be at the mercy of Old Man Winter at times, indoors they check into an entertainment-filled resort world of swimming pools and palm trees, theaters, billiard rooms and workout rooms—all dependent on technology that is cleverly concealed, but works like magic.

To achieve that world they called on John Bleeker, a well-known local architect, and Joe McNeill and his team of high-end residential system integrators from Electronics Design Group Inc. (EDG), based in Piscataway, N.J. Interior designer Sydney Roberts, of Covington Designs in Franklin Lakes, was also called upon, as well as a small battalion of craftsmen and building trade workers, led by a general contractor. Graham, not surprisingly, orchestrated the entire show, down to selecting the fabric for the sofa, the decorative items in the house, as well as the finish on the floors.

It took several years to achieve Graham’s vision, a $2-million basement renovation that included the indoor pool, theater, billiard room, gym and a 6-by-8-foot steam room. He also planned two downstairs bathrooms, one for each sex, so visitors, who often arrive in parkas and snowshoes, can quickly change into swimsuits. During the renovation, he refurbished the master bedroom on the main floor, added a library and a separate carriage house (his “cave,” he says) that stores his motorcycle collection and a guest apartment—all which boast the same technologies. In a project of this size, frustrations and unanticipated costs are routine. However, Graham relished every minute of the journey and today the Sampson family knows that their renovated “playground” is worth more to them than any amusement park.

It all began in February 1997 when the Sampsons, both longtime New Jersey residents, bought a Sholz Homes spec house in Franklin Lakes, an affluent residential community 22 miles west of Manhattan that ranks high on annual per-capita income lists. Each capacious home centers around its own private, substantially wooded lot of at least one acre. Their property, says Graham, covers three acres and is backed by another 1,000 acres of government-protected woods. Before sketching any blueprint redesigns, they lived in the house for a year and took lots of notes.

Prior to venturing into his current profession of high-tech communications, Graham did interior commercial design installations and construction for retail stores, thanks to four years of architectural drafting he has beneath his belt. In their 23 years together, Linda has seen her husband through many home projects, including their summer home in Mantoloking Shores. “This house is large,” she said of her Franklin Lakes home when they first moved in, “but there is not much real living space.”

Graham, not surprisingly, was eager at the time to jump-start the renovation, and those words were all he needed to get going. “I’m fanatical about designing houses for the way people live,” he says. “Everything here is done 100 percent, and it’s based upon how my life functions in business as well as in our personal lives. My whole thing about technology and living space is that it has to be user-friendly.” He spent the next year working on architectural plans with Bleeker and obtaining building approval.

“The planning board had field trips to the property,” recalls Graham, who bought a quarter-acre from his neighbor in order to gain final planning commission approval. Construction finally began in July 1999. The family lived in the house through winter and retreated to their summerhouse, as always. The renovation took more than two years.

Pool Room


A screen rolls down from the ceiling, allowing the owner to watch his Sony LCD video projector from the comfort of the swimming pool. (Click image to enlarge)


A big challenge was the indoor pool, says Bleeker, who has been involved in many municipal pool projects. In a private home, however, preventing the chemical smell and humidity from sneaking into the rest of the house is tricky, he explains. With the help of consultants, they designed an addition of doors to seal off the pool area. So that the pool chemicals and humidity don’t infringe on the home’s interiors, the addition was added to the outer structure, even though the pool and surrounding area look as if they are part of the inside of the home. They also added independent heating and air-conditioning to the space.

Theatre


Behind the screen in the home theater, Genelec powered speakers provide the sound. (Click image to enlarge)


The home theater, which centers around a Sony video projector and Stewart 110-inch diagonal screen, reclining theater seats, and lighting and curtain controls, won a 2002 “best home theater” award at last year’s Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) annual industry conference.

Theatre


A CRT video projector—still the choice of many videophiles—fills the Stewart screen with impressive images. (Click image to enlarge)


The 8-foot ceilings were raised to nine-and-a-half feet to enlarge the space. To do so, they blasted out the entire floor below; the bottom of the proscenium now sits 24 inches below the main floor.

Graham says he spent upwards of $225,000 for the theater, once all the technicalities were ironed out. Acoustic panels from Acoustic Smart of Merrick, N.Y., were installed to ensure that the Genelec active speakers, which have built-in amplifiers, would deliver stellar sound.

Theatre


A marble bar at the back of the theater, near the equipment rack, lets the owner set up his laptop to browse the Internet or make presentations. (Click image to enlarge)


McNeill oversaw the audio and video installation, lighting and home automation on the lower and main floors. Graham’s corporate computer consultant set up the local network, complete with user terminals in every bedroom, the home office and the kitchen—all of which are networked to a single server.

Not surprisingly, the Sampson family made a big splash to show off their long-awaited home renovations with a pool party, says Linda, for their middle daughter’s birthday and about a dozen of her friends, plus all of their parents. A few months later when Super Bowl Sunday arrived on the calendar, they hosted a get-together for about 80 people—a festive event that spilled over into the home theater and outdoors to the climate-controlled pool area.

These days, Graham is taking it easy, but his work on the family “resort” isn’t finished. “It’s definitely on our mind to redo the kitchen … make it 5 feet wider and 7 feet longer. And the master bedroom still needs finishing details.” For a preferred list of architects and interior designers, please visit our website at www.hedmag.com.

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