Custom builder David L. Prutting is giving a tour of his own house, located just steps from downtown New Canaan.
“Pocket doors are hard to get right,” he says. Almost on cue, the door recedes into the adjacent wall and then glides back with silky precision, like the sliding door of a new Mercedes. Prutting knows quality when he sees it—he’s the owner of one of Connecticut’s most renowned residential building companies. He has worked with some of the top architects in the country to craft modernist abodes from the Hudson Valley to throughout Connecticut to the Berkshires of Massachusetts.
“If you’re a major architect designing a modernist house anywhere in the northeast, you’re talking to Prutting & Company,” says Joeb Moore, a Greenwich-based architect who designed Prutting’s New Canaan home. “They are people who care about details and are sensitive to the architect’s design. Dave’s office doesn’t fight you. They solve constructability issues and they solve problems.”
Prutting likens custom modernist building to making a movie. “It’s like a movie in that the architect is the director and the construction company is the producer. It’s all to please the owner. They want comfort and a feeling of accomplishment. I call them patrons, and they’re living in works of art.”
He has worked with some of the most renowned modernist architects currently practicing in the United States—Steven Holl, Toshiko Mori and Annabelle Seldorf of New York, Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake of Philadelphia, Tom Kundig and Jim Cutler of Seattle and numerous others. “We’re challenged by good design” Prutting says. “We love both the opportunity to build from the ground up as well as doing careful additions to landmark mid-century houses.”
New Canaan, of course, is the location of the legendary Harvard Five—Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John Johansen, Philip Johnson and Elliot Noyes. These modernist architects, all having studied or taught at Harvard, put conservative New Canaan on the world architectural map between 1947 and 1966. The work of Noyes, especially, is close to Prutting’s heart.
“In the 1990s my wife and I bought a Noyes house, which was run down but on a beautiful lot. My initial temptation was to raze the Noyes house and build a McMansion,” Prutting says. “The house was all about bringing the outside in with huge expanses of glass. I hired Joeb Moore and he saw the opportunity to marry the old with the new, to build a second floor on the existing base and to completely rebuild the base.”
“We asked ourselves, ‘How can we keep this house?’” Moore says. “You couldn’t build outward because you were restricted to keeping to the existing footprint. So we decided to do an additional floor that would ‘float’ above the original. Dave and his wife Deborah were blown away, and they lived in the house for years.” Prutting credits his wife for not only encouraging the renovation of the Noyes house, but for establishing the can-do culture of the company. “She helped create not just the culture, but the moral compass we have in this firm. For example, we’ve established great working relationships with the local powers that be,” he adds, allowing often contentious zoning and approval processes to go legally and smoothly.
Dave Prutting is an unlikely master builder. He studied English at Syracuse University before dropping out and going to Cape Cod to study woodworking and carpentry. There he met his wife and in 1975, with New England building stagnant but the Sunbelt booming, they moved to Houston where there was ample construction work. They moved back to New Canaan in 1979 and Dave formed his company shortly thereafter.
“We’ve evolved into a construction management firm,” Prutting continues. “There are five architecture school graduates who work here out of a total staff of about 26. These in-house architects know what they’re dealing with and want to please client architects. People here are attuned to what’s happening in materials and construction methods. We also work in the latest architectural computer software, including Revit and AutoCAD.”
Trying to pick favorites from the Prutting portfolio is a daunting task because so many of them are spectacular works of architecture and construction. Toshiko Mori, who divides her time between teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and running her firm in New York, crafted an exquisite house in the Hudson Valley on a rocky promontory that appears to hover weightless above its site. It’s a building that at once recalls Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House outside of Chicago as well as the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan. Another Mori project is an addition to a Marcel Breuer house that features a boldly cantilevered glass addition.
A Kieran Timberlake House in Pound Ridge is a series of pavilions joined together on a rocky wooded setting. Reflective glass mirrors the sylvan surroundings, reminding us that one of the great insights of modernist architecture was that it contrasts with nature, making nature all the more glorious in comparison. “Crafted Sanctuary” by Cutler Anderson Architects has the deep eaves, masterful massing and effusive use of materials of a Frank Lloyd Wright house, down to the intricate stone walls.
Prutting is aware of the modernist builder’s responsibility to the environment. “Green construction is not the future,” he says. “It’s now. It’s especially for people who can afford to extra cost of solar arrays and other green features, in hope of getting a financial payback several years down the road.”
With mid-century modern design all the rage in both architecture and home furnishings, Prutting is proud that he and his collaborative architects were among the first to see the style’s potential. “When we began working with mid-century modern houses, they were pariahs,” says architect Moore. “Now everybody wants them.”
For his part, Prutting revisits his cinematic metaphor. “We look at movies and ask ourselves, ‘How did they do that?’ I want people to ask the same thing about our houses, ‘How did they do that?’” He concludes by emphasizing it’s all about the details: “Details are the real sign of an artist.”