Carol Lipson was in no hurry to move, until the perfect house became available.
“It’s unusual for where it is,” Lipson says of the West Amwell Township, N.J., home, which resembles a Japanese pagoda. “I would drive by it and say, ‘Oh my, what an amazing house.’ One day I drove by and saw the ‘for sale’ sign, and I called about it the next day. … I can’t live in a traditional house; if I had a normal house, I would have to do something to make it unusual, because I have to be stimulated by where I live.”
She adored the pagoda house, from its distinctive architecture and peaceful vibe complete with an elaborate koi pond, to its idyllic location on five pristine acres. Before making an offer, however, she had to make sure it would suit her lifestyle. She had one expert in mind to help her determine whether she could transform the property into the home of her dreams: Thomas K. Fischer, a restorer and renovator of historic Bucks County homes. She asked Fischer to meet her at the house to evaluate the property and discuss her vision for it.
“I asked Tom, ‘Before I go doing this, can I do what I want to do with the property?’” she says. “Tom came up with a brilliant idea; the garage has a tall ceiling, and he said, ‘Carol, we could put a loft in here and it could be your art studio.’ After that, I made an offer.”
For now, Lipson remains in her existing home, a 7,000-square-foot renovated hay barn in Hopewell Township, N.J., dating back to the 1700s. Although the hay barn has tremendous upside—plenty of room to entertain and work on her mixed-media art projects; ample outdoor space for her award-winning gardens, which were recently accepted into the Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens; her sister as a next-door neighbor, etc.—Lipson relishes the idea of living in a home requiring far less upkeep so she can devote more of her time to the things she truly loves.
Of course, the home will require significant work to tailor the property to her lifestyle. Fischer and his longtime colleague, architect Daniel Lloyd, presented Lipson with three design options—small, medium and large—to re-imagine the home. Lipson selected the middle option, with pieces plucked from the other two. The project is now in the design-refinement stage, and construction is set to begin on May 1.
“When Dan first opened the drawings, I almost gasped with delight,” Lipson says. “Tom is really creative, and ever since I’ve known him he has always talked about his willingness to collaborate and his willingness to go the extra mile. His energy level was high, and he made me feel energetic. It’s going to be a joint creative process.”
At age 58, Lipson is one of the millions of Americans who are nearing retirement age and having to make tough decisions about how and where to spend the rest of their lives. In fact, people age 65 and older will grow to represent almost 20 percent of the U.S. population by 2030, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Rather than move into a 55-and-over community, many are choosing to downsize their lives by opting for smaller, distinctive and more sustainable homes tailored to their specific tastes, with help from craftsmen such as Fischer.
“With a home like Carol’s, which is probably close to 7,000 square feet, the maintenance, taxes, insurance and utilities will run her $100,000 a year, and that’s not a sustainable living equation,” he says. “With the existing space of 4,000 square feet and the improvements we are going to make to it, she will cut her living expenses by more than half.”
Fischer intends to upgrade and zone the heating and cooling systems, as well as the existing windows, to boost energy efficiency. Like all homes he works on, the pagoda home will meet his rule of thumb for “form, function and finance”: Form refers to the design and appearance; function refers to the home’s layout, livability and ability to adapt with the homeowner’s needs over time; and finance means the homeowner must be able to afford it in terms of annual costs today and tomorrow.
“When you pull up to a home, you want to feel warm and fuzzy,” he says. “In creating spaces for people, there’s smart money in making it sustainable. Whether it’s a $100,000 condo or a $10 million estate, there are ways to tailor and make it efficient and still make it so you get that warm and fuzzy feeling. It’s a neat challenge.”
‘A Kid in a Candy Store’
Most of the homes on which Fischer works are not quite as unique as Lipson’s pagoda. He specializes in architecturally designed reproductions and renovations of historic homes—namely, carriage houses, converted barns and other signature Bucks County structures—such as the 6,000-square-foot farmhouse in Richboro owned by Dan and Carolyn Shaw.
The Shaws had long considered an addition to their home, and they considered Fischer the area’s foremost expert in renovating traditional farmhouses. Considering Fischer’s reputation and personality, not to mention the beauty and quality of the homes throughout Bucks County with his sign on their front lawn, they thought only of Fischer when they finally decided to move forward with the project.
The Shaws live on a spacious wooded property, with a view of the nearby Neshaminy Creek, though they felt they were not taking full advantage of the property’s aesthetic value. Fischer proposed interior renovations to maximize their view of the outdoors from several vantage points throughout the home, as well as a full renovation and expansion of the kitchen and family room, among other changes. Construction is expected to begin in early May.
“We can’t say enough about how Tom walks you through the process, which can be so overwhelming,” Carolyn says. “He puts your mind at ease, knowing he’s going to find a way to do it right.” Dan adds, “What I love about Tom is his enthusiasm. We’re so excited to be working with him, but when he calls, he’s more like a kid in a candy story than I am.”
Clients also see tremendous value in Fischer’s ability to provide overall property management. In other words, he oversees the whole process, from meeting the client on Day One to handing them the occupancy permit at the end of a job. He strives to complete every project on time and on budget, with expertise from a network of other professionals to tackle specific aspects of the project. More often than not, this includes Lloyd, the architect with whom Fischer has been working for nearly 20 years.
“I love the challenge of the kinds of projects Tom comes to find,” says Lloyd, owner/operator of Daniel E. Lloyd/Architect P.C. in Glenside. “We kind of feed off one another; I know that as I’m doing the design, he has a sharp enough eye to make them better. He’s not just building for the sake of building; he’s building something beautiful he’s proud to have done that the homeowner can actually live in.”
Licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, Fischer is devoted to preservation and sustainability in everything he touches. For example, he sits on the board of directors for the Heritage Conservancy and the Washington Crossing Historic State Park 2026. He also supports other likeminded organizations in the Bucks County area, including the Audubon Society, the New Hope Historical Society, the Newtown Historical Association, the Upper Makefield Business Association, the Newtown Business Association and the James A. Michener Art Museum.
Fischer considers it an honor to preserve and restore homes throughout Bucks County. Although he considers the boroughs of Newtown, Doylestown and Yardley particularly desirable among property owners, Fischer can add value and comfort to their equation no matter where they call home.
“There’s a lot of work involved with a renovation, and that work is not worth doing unless you create value, not just in dollars but also in terms of emotional value,” he says. “If it’s a townhome in Lambertville or pagoda in West Amwell or a farmhouse in Upper Makefield, there’s real value in this area; it’s like no other place in the world. I see my job as creating, maintaining and expanding that value.”
Thomas K. Fischer
Phone: 215-860-8053 | Website: www.tkfischerbuilder.com
Pagoda photograph by Jessica Blackwell/Callaway Henderson
Carol Lipson was in no hurry to move, until the perfect house became available.