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Old World Savvy and Elegance Enhance Alabama Hideaway

Sea Escape

Cover (front and back) of the Living Section--full color article--photos reduced here.

By Christine Arpe Gang
June 29, 2006

GULF SHORES, ALA. - Lundy and Harry Wilder fell in love with Italian architecture when they bicycled from Venice to Pisa a few years ago on a vacation.

So when the Memphis couple built their vacation home at Gulf Shores, they wanted to incorporate Italian design elements into the avant-garde hurricane-resistant construction.

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The Wilders’ Italianate home, which uses a building block construction system called DAC-ART, sits on Little Lagoon, a salt water inlet accessible to the Gulf by boat. Sometimes boaters stop to get a better look at the house.

The 600-square-foot house is built from large concrete blocks that are stacked "dry," with no mortar between them. The blocks are finished so there is no drywall or siding, no interior or exterior finishes to be ruined by a surge of water brought by a hurricane.

They will not corrode in the salty conditions and never need painting.

Lundy had read about the benefits of such construction but had difficulty locating builders and architects in the South who were using the technique.

Then about three years ago, she was driving down Ala. 59 on her way to Gulf Shores when she spotted some huge concrete blocks being used in the construction of a building supply store near Foley.

She made a gigantic U-turn and learned the blocks came from Mobile builder-designer Ted Dial.

At their initial meeting, Dial sketched a rough drawing of a structure with Italianate elements.

"It was exactly what I wanted," Lundy said. The builder and couple were simpatico from the start.

Dial, who specialized in restoring historic homes in Mobile and New Orleans, calls his building system DAC-ART.

It features 400-pound concrete blocks that are custom tinted and finished for the exterior and interior walls. Architectural details, such as the supports for the planter boxes on the Wilder home, as well as openings for wiring and heating and air-conditioning vents, are cast in the blocks.

Dial designs the blocks to resemble the European stone work he so admires.

The blocks, which have optional foam liners for added insulation, are stacked without mortar. At intervals of three or so courses (layers), concrete is poured into the cavities inside the blocks and reinforced with iron rods to hold everything in place.

With no mortar, there is no need to hire a skilled mason. Lundy learned how to apply waterproof grout into the beveled edges of the blocks.

DAC-ART eliminates the need for several skilled tradesmen at the sites: exterior wall finishers such as brick masons, interior drywall installers, interior and exterior painters, installers of wall insulation and builders of exterior cornices and eaves.

Until recently, DAC-ART construction cost about 5 to 10 percent more than conventional construction of the same quality. But with some new molds and techniques for making the blocks, Dial said costs are now comparable.


The Wilder home is as much Lundy's project as it was Dial's. Her hand was in everything from the physically demanding finishing work to designing furnishings and light fixtures. However, her most ambitious project was designing and installing mosaic walls in the shower.

The entirely mosaic shower stall has a mirrored ceiling that intensifies its oceanic effect. She worked on the mosaic sporadically for six months, doing much of the work on netting at home in Memphis. Details of how it's done are available at one of Lundy's Web sites: http://www.Mosaic-Tile-Design .com.
It's typical for Lundy to plunge into projects with zeal and skill and then share what she has learned with others.

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After Lundy Wilder tackles a challenging project, she likes to share with the public what she has learned. Details of how the shower-stall mosaic was done are available at one of her Web sites: http://www.Mosaic-Tile-Design .com.

About three years ago, she completely replaced the soil in her extensive perennial garden and then shared her methods with other gardeners at a presentation at the Memphis Botanic Garden. The garden was also featured in The Commercial Appeal.

When she got into creative scrapbooking four years ago, she developed a Web site - http://www.ScrapbookScrap book.com - where she shares her ideas with others. Many decorative designs are available free at the site, but she also sells some.

That site has many pictures and more information about the construction of the house.

"It's really mind-boggling what we've accomplished," said Harry, owner of Harry Wilder's Complete Moving Service. "Lundy spent hours and hours on the shower project and single-handedly white-washed the ceiling beams and decorated them. She really got in gear with her projects to be production oriented."

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This mosaic fish resides in the shower stall, which is decorated with an under-the-sea motif. A mirror on the ceiling increases its oceanic effect. Lundy Wilder worked on much of the mosaic in Memphis.

Harry supervised a lot of the concrete and other heavy work.

Although the house is small - just one main room with an open kitchen and a bathroom - its 13 1/2-foot ceilings give it a feeling of spaciousness.

"We had 30 people inside at a party, and it didn't feel claustrophobic," Lundy said, adding the couple has plans for expanding the house in the future.


The French doors are 10 feet tall with upgraded hardware for seacoast conditions. The windows have true divided light, and the metal roof is secured with hurricane straps on the trusses for high-wind conditions.

For design inspiration, Lundy often referred to a coffee table book, Palaces of Venice.

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The living room of Lundy and Harry Wilder's Gulf Shores home is small but full of elegant and unusual details: The couch and most of the furniture is on casters.

Though their home is not palatial in scale, it has elements found in Italian palaces such as narrowly placed ceiling beams.

After whitewashing each beam in the living area, Lundy hand-painted baroque flourishes with shadows on them.

"That was too slow, so in the kitchen I painted the designs on poster board strips, had them color-copied and pasted them up," she said.

Her goal was to cover up some of the 8,000 nail holes in the beams.

"I wanted it to look like an itinerant Italian decorative painter had passed through here," she said. She listened to music by the Gipsy Kings as she worked on the ceiling.

Before she could do the shower stall mosaic, she had to find a tradesman who could install cement backer board on the walls and old-fashioned mortar beds on the floors, techniques seldom used today.

When the person who was supposed to finish the floors failed to show up on time, Lundy learned how to apply an acid stain and score the concrete. She sprinkled Miracle-Gro garden fertilizer on top of the acid to get aqua speckles and stenciled a shell design around the edges of the porch.

Every piece of furniture was carefully chosen. All are on legs with casters, making them easy to move and less likely to be ruined should hurricane water enter the house.

"In Memphis our house is furnished in garage sale and family hand-me-downs," she said. In the new house she combines contemporary pieces with traditional items.

Using her drawings, a carpenter built the two-piece sectional sofa that pulls apart to serve as beds. Because storage space is limited, Lundy sewed up sleep bags using velour-like blankets so no extra linens are necessary. When not being used, the bags are rolled into tight cylinders, secured with Velcro fasteners and used as bolster pillows.

She looked long and hard for a sideboard that was large enough to anchor a wall, had legs and looked Italian.

She finally found a real Italian piece on e-Bay and had it shipped from Italy. The total cost was about $1,000.

A hand-blown glass chandelier was custom-made in Italy from her design.

"There's a combination of fine things in here like the chandelier, and wall sconces that I bought at ICB for $5.99," she said.

The Wilders have been vacationing in Gulf Shores since their sons, now out of college, were young.

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The dream-home team: Lundy and Harry Wilder

They invested in two ocean-front condominiums that are rented most of the season but dreamed of building a single-family home.

Ocean-front property was too expensive so they bought a deep, narrow lot on Little Lagoon, a salt water inlet that is accessible to the Gulf by boat.

"We wanted a southern exposure so we could get the breeze off the Gulf," she said.

Several boaters have spied the unusual house and stopped to get a better look. Southern Living has also expressed interest in featuring it.

The Wilders and Dial aren't exactly looking forward to a hurricane, but they are curious about how the house will withstand forceful winds and water.

"The weight and solidity of DAC-ART buildings produce a psychological feeling of strength," Dial said. "When I go into houses framed with wood, they almost seem like matchsticks."

- Christine Arpe Gang: 901/529-2368

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