In a thick British accent, the caller asked, “You’re Alan Wheeler?”
“Descendant of the ship’s carpenter and builder, Francis Eaton?”
“At this point,” recalls Wheeler, “I realized he knew something about my family that I wanted to know.”
The caller, who represented a production company working for The Travel Channel, was looking for six descendants employed in the same fields as their Mayflower ancestors. At the time, Wheeler’s company, Coastal Design Builders, was framing a luxurious master suite for a home in Georgetown, S.C. The production crew accompanied him from there to Charles Towne Landing, where he pointed out differences between construction methods of the 1600s and those of today. The documentary aired on The Travel Channel in 2008.
Today, Wheeler continues to talk to the cameras. Beginning last October, he was the featured guest on the weekly segment Ask Alan Anything, airing on ABC News 4’s Lowcountry Live. He’s also a frequent speaker at Charleston’s Custom Homes & Remodeling Show.
His philosophy can be summed up in a word: turnkey.
“I’m a design/builder,” he says. “It’s not necessary to bring me blueprints or architectural drawings. Clients can come to me with just an idea, and I’ll help them get the blueprints and layouts necessary to begin work. My approach involves taking the project from beginning to end by working closely with the clients to develop their vision for the home.”
That turnkey approach includes joint shopping trips. “I, or a designer I bring in, will actually go to the stores with the clients and help them pull together all the elements of the house. We work with a decision date list—a calendar that I provide, marked with the dates when each decision should be made.”
After years of building custom homes in Greensboro, N.C., Wheeler was lured to the Lowcountry in 2006, working first in Georgetown, and then throughout the greater Charleston area. He fell hard for Lowcountry architecture, adding clapboard siding and deep, shady porches to his repertoire of design elements developed in Greensboro, where brick construction reigns supreme for custom homes.
For example, he is a fan of using splitfaced block on foundations to make them look like old stone. He also favors rounded rather than flat-faced brick, and likes architraves to add relief and detail to windows.
Wheeler also likes to design high-ceilinged, glass-filled sunrooms and warm luxurious bathrooms, many with hardwood flooring, furniture-style vanities and rich but subtle textures and colors. Kitchens are a special interest. As a cook, (Wheeler has a prize-winning pecan pie recipe) he knows the importance of well-placed spice racks, pantries and islands.
In the Lowcountry, he’s found, some clients request regional architecture and others want something different. The fact that he was born in New England and migrated farther and farther South has given him an appreciation for a range of architectural styles.
Wheeler grew up in Ithaca, N.Y. Despite numerous signs that his true gifts lay in the world of business and architecture, he followed in the steps of his father and grandfather and majored in history at Norwich University, the country’s oldest private military college. But the signs were definitely there: Wheeler started a painting company while in college, enlisting fellow students as co-workers. He knew that he could visualize things in three dimensions and, as a college senior, won an instructor’s highest grade for an illustrated, end-of-term project in a class on medieval art and architecture.
He returned to Ithaca for 11 years after college graduation, where he ran his own business selling what was then a new system of business checks. But after building one spec house—solving issues that foiled two seasoned professionals—he had found his profession.
Throughout his construction career, Wheeler bucked a trend. Most builders had chosen to do either custom building or remodeling, but not both. When the recession hit the homebuilding industry full force, he says, most custom builders had to learn the business of remodeling. “But I had been doing both all along,” Wheeler says. “I could rely on my 20-plus years of remodeling experience [now 26 years] to keep my company moving.”
Coastal Design Builders’ website clearly reflects Wheeler’s desire to educate those interested in building, adding on or remodeling. From this year’s paint colors and fabric recommendations to price trends and market analyses, the site’s blog serves up a menu of trends on home-related topics.
In a rebounding economy, Wheeler is looking for clients who want to build custom homes of all sizes, starting at 1,500 square feet. To date, his largest custom project was about 6,000 square feet.
Wheeler is happy to say that most of his clients wind up as his friends. “I want a good experience as much as they do. It’s important to get to know your builder. You need to pay attention to how you communicate. Your builder should be ready to mentor you through the process of finding the right components for your house and keep that project on budget.”
A member of the Charleston Homebuilders’ Association, Wheeler has looked for volunteer opportunities that draw on his expertise. For two years, he mentored at-risk high school students from the Greg Mathis Charter School and Stall High School, acquainting them with construction careers. He has also volunteered in Honduras with Habitat for Humanity, and with the Greenville Flood Recovery Program.
Ever since The Travel Channel came to call, Wheeler has been marveling at how his interests and skills mirror those of ships carpenter Francis Eaton. There’s not only a connection with construction (Eaton built homes, too) but also with the sea (Wheeler has been sailing and boating since his early teens). Wouldn’t it be great, he muses, if he could sit down with his famous ancestor and compare notes? Perhaps over a piece of his homemade pecan pie.
Margaret Locklair writes and edits from her home in Berkeley County. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org