Crafting homes down to the details
Planner Thomas Lamb's creations - typically with $1.5-million price tags - are spreading through the Tampa area.
By JANET ZINK
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 28, 2002
When Thomas Lamb was a kid, he passed up coloring books on grocery store shelves.
He went straight for the house plan books.
Carefully, with liquid eraser and pens, he altered floor plans, laying the foundation for his future vocation.
"I've always loved drawing," he says.
Now 37 and the founder of Thomas Everett Lamb Design and Development, he's one of South Tampa's hottest home designers. He has a client roster thick with Tampa's rich and famous -- former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Brad Culpepper, baseball great Tito Martinez, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
But it was Paul Newman, playing an architect in The Towering Inferno, who sparked Lamb's interest in studying architecture.
"That feeling he had of being so proud of being in the building when they did the unveiling. I just thought, 'That is so fascinating,'" he says.
His Mediterranean designs and restorations have become as much a fixture in South Tampa as the Bayshore Boulevard balustrade.
Lamb grew up in Tampa, the son of educators. His father, Jack, was assistant superintendent of schools in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and now serves on the Hillsborough County School Board. His mother, Nora, taught elementary school for 35 years.
Lamb attended St. Lawrence Catholic School and Jesuit High School, then earned his bachelor's degree in architecture from Notre Dame University and a master's degree in urban planning from the School of Architecture at the City College of New York.
After graduation, he worked for a developer in New York City, then returned to Tampa in 1990 and took a position with the Florida Center for Urban Design and Research at the University of South Florida.
He calls himself a custom home planner, not an architect, because he has not sought Florida licensing.
The big break came when Maryanne Lifsey, the mother of a close friend, hired him to remodel the study in her Culbreath Isles home. She was so pleased with Lamb's work that she asked him to renovate a larger portion of her home that included the family room, kitchen, service area and guest rooms. The $500,000 project was completed the day that Lifsey hosted a party for supporters of the Children's Home.
"It put my name on the map locally," Lamb says of the project.
In 1991, he founded Thomas Everett Lamb Design and Development, working from his house. In the first year, he handled about four projects. Through word of mouth, his reputation spread.
Now, he oversees up to 40 projects at a time, has six employees and works out of a renovated bungalow off MacDill Avenue.
He picks and chooses his projects.
"I want to create things that are unique and lasting," he says.
He juggles all aspects, assisting clients with lot choice, home design, builder selection and even picture hanging.
One client asked Lamb to select his toothbrush.
"All he brought was his clothes," Lamb says.
Lamb homes typically cost about $1.5 million to build, excluding lot price. Some resemble the so-called McMansions that have raised hackles in old neighborhoods.
"I urge clients to emphasize quality of space over quantity of space," Lamb says.
When coming up with a design, he asks clients what style they want and has them produce a wish list of features for the home.
Then he works his magic, usually at home, with pencil and paper, late at night, the time of day when his creative juices really flow. It's not unusual for him to sketch until 2 a.m. Days often begin at 7:30 a.m. He visits construction sites, puts finishing touches on interiors and meets with clients.
Although he creates homes that reflect the tastes of his clients, most of his designs are Mediterranean.
"Because its roots are in classical architecture and my background emphasized classical architecture, it works well for me," he says. He also has produced a handful of homes that feature French architectural styles.
Lamb likes using columns inside the homes because they define space while leaving an open floor plan.
Nearly every home he designs has some type of octagonal space.
"It started out because I liked the shape but then I found out the octagon is a Far Eastern symbol of good luck," he says.
Although he works mostly in South Tampa, in the past three years many of his clients have returned to request second homes in other places, including Colorado, California, North Carolina and Brazil.
In the last year, he started building his own designs, modeling himself after John Portman, a prominent Atlanta architect.
"He's one of the few architects who actually develops his own designs," Lamb says.
Lamb has nearly completed the first home he built on speculation on a waterfront lot in Beach Park, which he sold last fall to Outback Steakhouse founder Tim Gannon for $2.6 million. Two other waterfront projects under construction should sell for nearly $2 million.
Lamb himself, however, lives simply. He bought a condominium that was under construction but sold it before moving in. These days, he's "camping out" in an old house he originally bought to convert into office space.
"The hardest thing in the world I will have to do is design my own home," he says, noting that he gets bored when he spends too long in one place.
Rather than setting financial goals, he merely strives to give his all to something he loves to do.
"A number of projects, especially of late, I've been able to capture what the client wants in the first or second iteration," he says.
"Sometimes I get a little nervous," he says. "I'll tell them, don't you want to spend a little more time thinking about it? You really ought to look at it, study it, make sure it's exactly what you want. And a lot of times they'll say, 'No, this is exactly what I want. You got it."'
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