Several years ago, when she found property in a sought-after neighborhood in Darien, Dalia Canora was intent on building a house there for her family. She visualized a place that would be comfortable for her children, with sufficient square footage to create an office for her growing design business. Nonetheless, knowing that she would most likely not need such a large place when her two teenage daughters graduate from high school in the not-too-distant future, she shaped the space to fill current needs, with a sensibility toward other families who would call it home in years to come.
Not every person who builds a custom residence has this kind of long-range perspective. Canora is a member of this somewhat rare group of homeowners. Not only is she a talented interior designer, she is also a general contractor, familiar with every aspect of residential construction, from blueprints to finish details. Attentive to the fine points of layout, structure and scale that make a home functional and appealing, and experienced in working with a crew to build it from scratch, Canora enjoys the hard-hat role as much as she relishes finishing the interiors. While Dalia and her family have lived in five different homes in Darien, the process of renovating and building, staying for a few years, and then creating a new home suits both her peripatetic nature and prerequisite to raise her children in the town they all love.
“All of our houses have been in the same elementary school district,” says Dalia. “So while we’ve moved more than the average household, my children have had continuity for their school experience and their friends. And all of our houses have been within walking distance of one another, making the construction process for each successive house much more manageable.”
Dalia visualized her current 6,700-square-foot residence as a home base with an on-site professional space, and it benefits from the experience she’s accumulated as a designer/builder. Although she earned her MBA early on, her interest was always drawn to design, and so she added training in the subject at Fairfield University to her resume. After supervising the modest renovation of a home in Greenwich in the 1990s, she moved to Darien in 2003. As fate would have it, she assumed the role of general contractor for her second home in town. “It happened because the person I’d hired to do the general contracting was not working out, so I let him go and stepped in,” says Dalia. After taking the plunge and completing the house, she realized that she liked the work of organizing all the steps involved, securing and scheduling the phalanx of tradespeople who transform a plan from lines on paper to living space. “Being able to do the building side of a design is quite gratifying,” says Dalia, “and building with the perspective of an interior designer helps me look at spaces and imagine them finished. I can work to arrange walls and openings intentionally for placing furniture, fixtures and art.”
Her current home is her largest, expanded from the foundation of a smaller existing house that was taken down in order to build this one. As the vagaries of New England weather would have it, Dalia and her crew broke ground in December of 2014, just as one of the worst winters in memory descended upon the Northeast. Despite snow, ice, bitter cold and all the disruptions and obstacles that attend construction in such conditions, she and her daughters moved into the finished house in August 2015.
Walking through the house, Dalia points out some of the features that make the home both personal and practical, for her own family and those who will follow. Inside and out, the flow of the house synchronizes with the way her family uses it. Although some new construction features voluminous, double-height entries, the front hall of this space fulfills its function with welcoming but less imposing proportions. “It’s important to make the space work, and not just pile on the square footage,” says Dalia.
The busier mudroom offers plentiful storage; the designer has arranged the space so that the contents—coats, bags, musical instruments, sporting equipment—can actually be corralled in the available cubbies, drawers and shelves. She has finished the living room in its traditional place off the entrance hall, with an elegant arrangement of furnishings; it is simultaneously glamorous and intimate, rather than showy and cavernous.
Dalia saves the largest volume of public space for a bright and cleanly designed open-plan gourmet kitchen, with a large island and a dining nook. She fabricated the counters with quartzite—a natural stone that has the look of marble but the maintenance-free benefits of quartz—and placed shimmering pendants above the island, a sparkling detail that adds some of her signature glamour to this home’s hub. “I like to make the kitchens and baths in my houses clean, fresh and malleable, so that they will easily accommodate whoever comes after us. I choose to leave my stamp on the details, the flow and the high-end finishes,” notes the designer.
She has structured the home’s professional space with a dedicated entrance from outside, and a self-contained flow. It works perfectly for work with storage space for Dalia, her associates, and the many files and sample books. This space can later function as a first floor master suite, an in-law apartment, or a home office for another professional. She enjoys creating spaces that have this flexibility.
Upstairs, in the private areas, she notes her daughters’ opposite design styles: one blue room, clean-lined and understated; the other, lavender and decidedly frilly. Not to be missed, however, are the architectural details that make each space special, no matter the decorating style. Pointing out the window seating and built-in areas in her daughters’ rooms and in their personal entertaining space, she comments on these features. “It’s the details that make a house unique. So when we opt to close up all those little nooks and eaves, we really should consider making them shine, whether it’s with a little access door for a kids’ hideout, or by adding shelves or creating little alcoves with a purpose. That’s preferable to just vast spaces without much personality. After all, it’s the personality and the details that we will remember.”