RIGHT ABOUT NOW, Valesha Kirksey is probably pickling a peck of homegrown garlic. She’s likely mixing it with some local honey and a bit of vinegar, pouring batches into Mason jars that she’ll soon arrange on tidy shelves in her weather-tight storm shelter. Should anyone catch a cold this season, she’ll dole out the pickling liquid as a cough suppressant. Once summer rolls around, she’ll use it as “a lovely salad dressing.”
While Valesha’s pickling garlic, her husband, Charles, is most likely tending to the dozens of young fruit and nut trees—pecan, hazelnut, peach, plum, pear, apple and fig, to name a few—surrounding the couple’s 10 acres of fertile terrain just south of Little Rock. Or maybe he’s knee-deep in his bed of winter greens, gently flicking soil from the tender roots of young chard, baby kale or the feathery, piquant arugula he and Valesha have come to love. Maybe afterward, he’ll help with his brother and sister-in-law’s horses, who stop by daily to graze in his fields. Maybe Valesha will pick up the tatting she’s left by the fireplace or finish the quilt she’s been after.
In short: Maybe it’s 2019, or maybe it’s 1919. Heck, maybe even 1819?
Told as such, the Kirkseys do seem a relic of a simpler time, and from afar, the house they call home is about as “classic farmhouse” as they come, a structure that feels part and parcel of eras bygone: white exterior, gabled roof, big porches, spartan simplicity. Look closer, though, and you’ll see that the 2,000-square-foot home is thoroughly 21st century, clad as it is in metal and cinder block and cable and walls of glass. Look even more closely—deep down into the bones of the house, say, or at its blueprinted beginnings—and you’ll discover a house that’s boldly modern while still remaining true to its austere agrarian roots.
But all you’d really care to look at would be everything surrounding the house—the hills, the trees, the green, green grass.
Which was, after all, precisely the point.
“If I’m standing in the kitchen, I can look out through the pergolas where I’ll soon have my hanging herb gardens, and I can see the shop from there,” Valesha says on the phone, giving a very 2019 tour of the place she’s called home since last August. “The front windows—I can look out there through the covered porch and see the pasture where the horses come to hang out every day. And if I’m in the dining section, I can look out through the windows and see the fruit trees and the long gravel drive; looking out the other way, I can see the other pasture where the horses hang out, and the row of pecan trees—just little now—that Charles planted.”
She says all of this from where she stands in the middle of the house, where there are no fewer than 10 windows bouncing light across oak floors and up whitewashed walls, refracting limb-spindled shadows around the heart of the home. It’s a clear day, quiet and calm—though every day seems to be calm out here.
“Out here” is a place that’s long been a respite for Charles and Valesha. They purchased the plot of land more than a decade ago, first coming just to daydream—“what could this be?”—then later to garden and tinker when they weren’t playing catch-up on the 1950s ranch they’d owned for decades in Little Rock’s Oak Forest.
They’d started with a workshop, which was promptly destroyed in a tornado. Then came another workshop, and finally, the plans for what they hoped would become their forever home. Only those plans wouldn’t work. The 2,400-square-foot house they saw on paper—all brick veneer and buttoned-up traditional—didn’t exactly feel like home. And the projected budget? Blown.
It’d be years before they found their way to Jennifer Herron and Jeff Horton of Herron-Horton Architects, but once they did, it all fell into place. Looking at the original plans, the architects had questions: Do you really need a separate room for a mudroom, a separate room for the laundry, a separate room for a half bath, a separate room for a guest bath? It wasn’t long before those questions gave way to bigger-picture queries: Do you really need that craft room? That extra extra bedroom? How do you live—and what can’t you live without?
They were thought-provoking questions, but they took on a different tenor for the Kirkseys, who are minimalists to the max. They’re the kind who see treasure where you see trash, who relish having their hands in the dirt and putting earthworms in the dirt and seeing if they can’t “plant rocks and grow some watermelon.” This land—these 10 humble acres—is their playground. Charles will never be inside when he can be outside and has even taken to tinkering with hydroponic gardening for those times when the weather isn’t cooperating. And Valesha, for her part, isn’t one to shy away from getting her hands dirty—she’s currently after her brother-in-law to teach her how to weld.
They’re modern farmers, to be sure, but in many ways, there’s nothing “modern farmhouse” about their aesthetic, at least in the way the term has been HGTV-ified. “Modern farmhouse” now means shiplap and chalk paint and twee sayings on faux-wooden signs. But should it? Shouldn’t a “modern farmhouse” be a manifestation of the philosophies that have forever governed farm life?
At 60 years young, Valesha knew what she wanted: “I wanted to be able to clean the house with a blower. You know, just open the doors and vrrrrrroooooom!”
OK, so she was kidding. Kind of. But there was a nugget of wisdom therein: She wanted ease. A self-proclaimed “non-girly-girl” married to a “country boy” of a husband, she was ready for her home to mirror what she felt when she rounded the gravel drive, taking a deep sigh of relief to be there among the trees, the horses, the tidy rows of fruit bushes and vegetable vines. Where she thought she needed more, she’d realized she needed less. After all, it was just her and Charles at home—the girls had grown, moved away. What she needed was just as much outdoors as it was in.
“Jeff designed these beautiful porches,” she says, carrying her phone over a threshold and out into the crisp early-spring air. “And as he started to put it together, I realized, hey, that’s my studio, that’s my craft room, my extra living space—it’s on that front porch, that back porch. Everywhere you look you’re just surrounded by beauty.”
And it was that natural beauty—and the philosophies aimed at preserving it—that guided the architects toward the finished product. To keep the focus on the outdoors and to imbue the space with sunlight, the architects positioned the home on an energy-friendly north-south axis and strategized window positions that would let in the most natural light.
Since the Kirkseys had saved money by scaling back on living space—the house is essentially one big common space, as well as a master suite and a guest-friendly extra bedroom—they were able to splurge a bit on things that were important to them, like a super-efficient HVAC system (the home received the highest rating possible on the HERS scale, which indexes energy performance) and a water-tight, rebar-reinforced storm cellar, which adds 100 square feet of subterranean storage. Jeff even created a vertical lift that leads from the kitchen to the basement so Valesha can easily lower her crates of pickled garlic below for storing.
“I’ve got so much garlic, I can’t even give it away,” Valesha laughs.
But while she’s got an excess of elephant garlic and plenty of arugula—“I’d just go over and pick some, put it in my mouth while I was on the job site and keep on going!” Jennifer says—that’s about it. Everything has a purpose now. Every inch of the place is used.
“I’m getting ready to have a huge yard sale with all of the stuff I thought I needed from 44 years of married life,” Valesha says. She’ll sort it all out soon, she reckons, but it can wait.
After all, there’s garlic that needs pickling.
Architect: Herron Horton Architects
Contractor: Herron Horton Construction
Home Energy Rating: HERS, INC.
Plumber: Westlake Plumbing
Electrician: Gary Houston Electric
Septic System: Meinco Wastewater Systems
Mechanical: Stedfast Heat and Air
Tile: Kaufman by Design West
Prefinished Hardwood Flooring: Lumber Liquidators
Countertops: Triton Stone
Appliances: Metro Appliances and More
Glass Shower wall: West Little Rock Glass
Fireplace: Royal Overhead Door, Inc.
Paint: Sherwin Williams
Exterior railing: Stainless Cable & Railing, Inc.