On Siesta Key, a house built by the Internet



Vivien Kalvaria has built and renovated more than a dozen homes on three continents, mostly because she loves the challenge, has a great deal of purposeful energy and believes she can do it better than most professionals.

So when she and her physician husband, Isaac, bought a tired 3,800-square-foot home on a nicely treed lot on Siesta Key, Vivien wasn't one bit concerned about the odd flow of the house, the outdated style or the lack of amenities that she and her husband wanted. They liked the location and left the rest to Vivien.

AHInternethouseIn no time, she and contractor Barry Barbas took the house down to the studs and completely reconfigured and modernized it while the homeowners lived in a guest house on the property.

The house now offers 4,200 square feet of living space and is characterized by beautiful and exotic wood and stone. (FOR A PHOTO GALLERY TO GO WITH THIS STORY, CLICK ON THIS LINK.)

But here's where Vivien's project gets interesting. She decided to access global sources and construct her new home with materials, products and decor objects that she would research and order from companies she found on the Internet.

"I saved at least 30 percent of what I would have otherwise spent on this house," she said, "and I was able to source custom products that are simply not available locally in stores. I ended up with unique rooms."

About 90 percent of what's in the Kalavaria home — including the kitchen sink — was purchased from Vivien's cozy home office. She found the process so convenient, easy, time-saving and aesthetically rewarding that she began to keep a log of her experiences and purchases.

The diary evolved into a manual called iBuilt.

The 210-page paperback tome ($13.95, Outskirts Press) has 45 short and practical chapters devoted to topics such as fireplaces, range hoods, floors, staircases, specialty hardware, silk drapes, ceilings, lighting, closet systems, doors — even switch plates and outlet covers, which have chapter 15 all to themselves.

The author sourced and researched more than 2,000 online companies for her home renovation and said

that armchair shopping is the only way she will ever build or remodel again.

"My most recent project was for my daughter, who was trying to sell her apartment in a big city," related Vivien.

"I saw her place and realized the kitchen was keeping buyers away. So I ordered everything new online and had it shipped to her. She had the new kitchen installed and her apartment sold a few weeks later. She saved money, time and the whole experience was quick and easy."

For her Siesta Key abode, Vivien wanted a tropical-lodge look with lots of natural light, wood and stone that would reference the kind of airy place Vivien and her husband had built in South Africa. She is originally from Zimbabwe.

"I wanted thick beams for the ceiling, which is 25 feet high in the main living areas, hardwood floors and a huge stone fireplace that is the focal point of the home," she said. "I got a local quote of $18,000 for the fireplace. Then I went online. I found the materials I wanted for $4,500, ordered everything and my contractor had the thing installed in two days. He said it was like putting a giant Lego thing together."

The "stone" is actually a manufactured stone veneer product that is lighter in weight than natural stone. Generally, these veneers are made of Portland cement and other aggregate materials that are cast in flexible molds.

After her research, Vivien ended up making about 70 major online purchases that included crown molding, tile, stone, fans, bar stools, toilets, light fixtures, doors, the soapstone kitchen and the natural stone basins for the bathrooms.

The sinks came from China, but most of her selections were from U.S. companies. One of the buys she is most proud of is a high-quality, 12-piece patio set of furniture for $1,500.

"That's about one-fifth of what it would have cost me in a local store," she said.

Vivien revealed that only two items arrived damaged — a ceiling fan and a hanging light fixture — and that they were replaced without a hassle.

"One of the things that surprised me about these online companies is the degree of customer service they provide. I could email with a company representative in real time and have online conferences with them," she said.

"They sent me samples and I could talk to them on the phone if I needed to. No frustration, just convenience — and I saved a lot of money."

The homeowner said the two things she bought locally were all the kitchen appliances and glass.

"Another practical thing about buying online is that I could track everything," said the homeowner. "I kept the emails in a folder on the computer and I also printed everything and kept the paperwork in a file."

The renovation and additions to the Kalvaria home took nine months. Some of the furniture and almost all of the African art is from their previous home on the east coast of Florida.

Encouraged by the success of her own house, Vivien Kalvaria recently bought a collection of distressed homes that she is going to update and renovate for rental property.

Of course, she is going to buy online.

"The Internet has transformed the construction industry on a global scale," she asserted, "and the United States is the world's epicenter for online improvement companies. No other country comes close.

"These companies are making armchair shopping anytime of the day or night so attractive in terms of cost-savings and convenience that I know more and more homeowners are going to become part of this new way to build or renovate a house. Why wouldn't we want the world's inventory at our fingertips?"

Marsha Fottler

Marsha Fottler has been a newspaper and magazine lifestyle, food and design writer since 1968 first in Boston and in Florida since 1970. She contributes to regional and national publications and she is co-publisher and editor of a monthly online magazine that celebrates the pleasures of the table called Flavors & More. (941) 371-8593.
Last modified: March 15, 2013
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published without permissions. Links are encouraged.