Great Room Company, Portsmouth, NH - Newburyport, MA
Great Room Company, Portsmouth, NH - Newburyport, MA
Great Room Company, Portsmouth, NH - Newburyport, MA

Dreams Lay Foundation for Custom Builders

Portsmouth Herald

Dreams Lay Foundation for Custom Builders



Michelle Shields, left, Olivia Sanderson
and Paul Demars of the Great Room Co.,
designers and builders of custom homes,
look at plans for a home they designed
at Tucker's Cove at Sagamore Creek.


Staff photo by Rich Beauchesne

Dreams lay foundation for custom builders

By Christine Gillette
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


PORTSMOUTH - Even if you don’t have a vision for your dream house, The Great Room Co. in Portsmouth wants to help you build it.

The firm prides itself on guiding clients through each of the many decisions that go into creating a custom home - from appliances to colors to numbers of rooms and more. Clients may know what they want from the beginning, or have general ideas, or even change their minds as they go, say the company’s principals, Olivia Sanderson and Paul Demars.

"We lead them through the process. It’s kind of like a journey. We start with what people really want in a house, or think they want in a house," Sanderson explained.

Examples around the Seacoast area show what Great Room is capable of - from custom homes in housing developments to stand-alone projects, like the "Star House" overlooking the ocean from the Maine coast.

While some design-build firms have a characteristic look to the homes they create, Great Room’s work runs the gamut, said designer Michelle Shields. She works with clients to create not only the plans from which the houses will be constructed but also three-dimensional computer models, so that people can see exactly what their home will look like, right down to the landscaping, even before the foundation is poured.

A home’s design can vary from the inside out, even room to room, said Sanderson, explaining that a house can have a traditional-looking "skin" but then an interior that’s radically different, depending on what the client wants.

Even after the walls start going up, clients can visit the construction site to see firsthand what their house looks like and make decisions, even major plan revisions, as work progresses, according to the Great Room team.

To make that flexibility possible, Great Room has two teams of framers that can rotate between projects as needed, or around portions of a project, to allow time for clients to make decisions about design, colors and other details, said Demars.

For Julie, a Portsmouth resident who has been dreaming of a home built by Great Room for almost as long as the company has been in business, that flexibility has been key.

Julie, who didn’t want her last name published, originally came to Great Room with property in Tucker’s Cove in Portsmouth. She had plans she wanted adapted. But as the process progressed, Julie and her husband decided to scrap the original designs and start from scratch.

Working with Demars, Sanderson and Shields since last fall, Julie has followed the decision-making process that Great Room lays out for its clients concerning all the details.

"We do it in stages where we know it makes sense," said Sanderson.

There are some factors that help clients rein in their ideas, said Shields, including the natural character of the lot the house will be built on, or particular restrictions on how the land can be used.

"That’s a huge piece of the design," said Demars.

Also, other aspects, like windows, can drive a lot of the design of a home. While the Great Room team favors large windows, which allow a lot of natural light into a home, clients can choose from many sizes and styles, Demars said.

"It’s one of the first major selections in the building process," he added.

For Julie, the decision-making process has at times been difficult, she said, because she wants to be sure she’s getting the best use of space within the house.

"I wanted open-concept, large rooms," she said, "and I wanted us all to have our own space," with separate bedrooms and bathrooms for each of her children. Currently she is grappling with whether to add a fourth bedroom or enlarge the master suite.

Shields says those types of considerations are easy to accommodate during construction because clients can literally stand inside the basic frame of the house and see where the rooms would be divided.

The Great Room team says much of its business comes from referrals from past customers; the company builds six to 10 homes a year.

How much does it cost? It varies from home to home because of the customization involved, said Demars, but "for people to come to us, their budget has to be of a reasonable size."

Because Great Room’s homes are all so customized - "We never build the same house twice," Demars said - and clients can make decisions at their own pace throughout the construction process, the time it takes to finish a home can vary, but is typically around a year.

That’s a few months more than the average construction on a non-custom home, according to Shields.

"When you’re going to spend the rest of your life in this house, it’s worth a few extra months," said Sanderson.

The Great Room Co., 407 The Hill, Portsmouth, (603) 431-3800.


  • The Great Room Co.’s work will be featured in upcoming editions of HGTV’s programs on kitchen design and bed, recently graced the cover of Better Homes and Gardens’ Decorating and the pages of Downeast Magazine, and will appear in two British design magazines.
  • The company’s Web site, , features time-lapse photography showing custom homes’ construction from the pouring of the foundation to completion. People all over the country planning to move to the Seacoast have used the site to help design their homes with the Great Room staff.
  • Not all of the rooms built by Great Room are indeed great when it comes to size. For clients facing waterfront regulations and other size restrictions, houses as small as 2,000 square feet have been constructed.
  • Founded in 1993, Great Room’s homes are the collaborative efforts of principals Paul Demars and Olivia Sanderson, and designer Michelle Shields.
  • Before construction starts, The Great Room Co. will find land and negotiate the price on the property.
  • During construction, the company will use homes in progress to demonstrate to potential customers how their design-build approach works, holding open houses at building sites.
  • Although their specialty is building homes, Great Room’s headquarters are in a house the company did not build, The Samuel Beck House, which dates back to 1760.