It’s A Woman’s World: Cathleen Gallagher Proves Custom Home Building Is Not Gender Neutral

PACIFIC PALISADES, CA—Cathleen Gallagher could have bulldozed the home at 750 Toyopa in the glorious Huntington Palisades and turned over the rebuild to a “different” kind of builder. She could have hired someone to plan where each room would go, how they would work together to create the home’s flow, and pick all the finishes.

After all, men dominate the home building industry, and when it comes to custom homes, women are but a speck on the builder spectrum. Which is unfortunate, given the fact that, if Gallagher’s home—a magnificent display of smart floorplan choices and exquisite finishes— is any indication (and it is), women make mighty fine custom homebuilders.

“The reality is that the larger-scale builders have invested a lot of money to get a female perspective on their product, usually through the services of an interior designer,” said Tom Weston, president/CEO of Weston/Mason Marketing, a top Los Angeles-based independent advertising agency. “Typically these builders are male, and while very talented and capable of overcoming enormous challenges, they do sometimes overlook some of the realities of building a home that works for today’s family, which means emphasizing the woman’s perspective.

“In the custom market, it’s about anticipating needs at a more personal and detailed level,” he added. “Someone who naturally comes equipped with the female perspective and who also brings the necessary building/planning/designing skills offers a tremendous advantage.”

A Home To Remember

Walk through the home Gallagher built in 2003 and you are not overwhelmed by a “woman builder” vibe. There are no obvious “female flourishes”—no florals, no pastels, no rooster collections. In fact, if it weren’t for the flawless, 5,978-square-foot, three-story floorplan, you might not even know the builder was a woman. Further, it is impossible to uncover any novice builder error, especially given the stunning design and detail; everything from the limestone floors to the distinctive shutters was picked out, negotiated, purchased, and shipped from France by Gallagher, who exhibited her builder resolve in scoring great deals from European auction sites, but spared no expense in terms of the time and effort involved in finding just the right objects to create a Provencal home that never veers into kitschy or overdone.

Reclaimed beams grace the family room ceiling. French candelabras have been electrified to use as chandeliers hanging in the formal dining and living rooms. Authentic French vanities and mirrors adorn every bathroom. Two French iron and glass streetlamps hang upstairs.

A number of innovative features continue the home’s flair. The gourmet kitchen features top-of-the-line stainless steel appliances, a large center island, and a stone stove surround cast from a mold of one of the home’s four 17th-century stone fireplaces, this one in the backyard (which also boasts an outdoor dining area with pizza kitchen and replica playhouse). A turret reveals iron-railed peek-thrus in the grand French tradition. The master bedroom suite, reached via the dramatic floating spiral staircase, was designed to maximize privacy, with a spa-like bath and a well-located outdoor sitting area that overlooks the back yard—without allowing neighbors to peer in. The home’s spacious secondary bedrooms have been planned with equal care; the upstairs bedrooms boast dual closets and built-in desks while the downstairs guest suite features a private entry.

But head down to the basement, and it’s obvious this woman builder hasn’t overlooked the boys’ toys. The home theatre with Lutron system is ready for both a big game and a big premier. The wine cellar maintains the ideal temperature without ever needing to close the door and takes advantage of every square foot of space under the stairs. And the home office’s custom built-ins make working here a pleasure.

By The Numbers

National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Women's Council statistics from 2007 show that of the 2.8 million home construction firms in the U.S., only 201,000 of them are owned by women. Yet women play the major role in up to 91 percent of home purchases. It’s not hard to figure out the cavernous void that is being left—one that talented builders like Gallagher can ably fill.

“It’s not only that women make more of the home buying decisions; it’s also that they decide differently,” said Dave Harding, CMP, an NAHB National Sales Manager of the Year and Principal, Western Market Forces. “The single-greatest identifiable group of prospects—indeed constituting a majority of the population—is women. Male builders try to design homes then merchandise them to appeal to that largest demographic. But just as women (and men for that matter) dress for other women, what is more logical than women building for women? Not to exclude men, but to supplement man-think.

“Women are more often heads of state, secretaries of state and practitioners of real estate,” he added. “But, so few are actual builders. Look at the annual reports of the biggest public builders and you’ll see few pictures of women in leadership positions. It’s a huge missed opportunity. Cathleen has a built-in constituency. Her design and execution are superb. Not superb as a woman builder. Superb for a builder.”

Eight Is Not Enough

The Toyopa property was the first that Gallagher built, with seven more to follow in the past five years, and the intensive process she endures remains the same.

“When I look at a property before I buy it, I know what it will look like finished and how it will live,” she said. “I imagine everything from the style of the home to the rooflines to how the individual rooms will look.”

Gallagher does all of the preliminary planning herself, and then turns over the plans to her architect for hand drawing. With finished plans in hand, she oversees the build every day on site to ensure that her vision is fully realized.

“It’s a very laborious process that begins with knocking down the existing home,” she said. “I don’t just renovate. It’s a complete build.”

A Model Beginning

Gallagher’s early career was characterized far more by fashion designers than floorplan designs. A former top model, Gallagher has appeared on more than 20 Vogue covers worldwide.

“I was discovered right before my 15th birthday by John Casablanca,” she said.

Gallagher ended up being represented by Wilhelmina Models, met an agent from Italy who recommended she go to Milan, and booked the cover of Italian Vogue a month later. That led to more high-profile print jobs and runway work, and Gallagher quickly found herself in modeling’s inner circle. She worked with everyone from John Galliano to Valentino and did Revlon’s “The most unforgettable women in the world wear Revlon” campaign with Linda Evangelista, and a 16-year Shiseido campaign. Then she caught the acting bug.

“At the time, it wasn’t favorable to be a model trying to break into acting,” she said. “So, I studied, and started producing independent features. I ended up getting three series, one of which was JAG.”

The Right Balance

Ultimately, family came calling, as did the opportunity to get her custom homebuilder feet wet.

“I had been doing kitchen remodels for friends, and for fun, for years,” she said. “When it came time to do our house, I had it torn down and rebuilt it. I loved the process. My mom was a developer who did apartments in New Jersey, so I learned from a young age how to develop property. Living in Europe, I was so intrigued by the architecture. I think I always knew I wanted to be involved in building homes.

“The flexibility it would give me as a mom (to two daughters with her commercial director husband) was also important,” she added. “And, I saw there was a need for a woman’s touch, especially among the Pacific Palisades spec builders. In this niche, there were a lot of the same finishes and a pretty consistent lack of individuality. I wanted to bring together a great layout, great functionality, and exceptional style. I asked myself how a house could best function for both a man and a woman to be happy, and then I started designing.”

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