How to Create Privacy for Your Most High-Profile Clients

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It’s a delicate conundrum for designers, the question of privacy. How do you give a client, especially a high-profile one, the seclusion or solitude they need in a residence without creating a fortress or a bunker cut off from natural light and the wider world? In our age of prying eyes and drones and newfangled surveillance, the challenge has only grown more pressing. “It’s always been a balance between light and participation in street life, on one hand, and the idea of sheltering or protection or privacy for the life unfolding inside the house,” says Sasa Radulovic, the founding principal of Winnipeg-based 5468796 Architecture.

For the Veil House, completed in 2022 and located in the prewar Winnipeg suburb of Old Tuxedo, Radulovic and his firm struck upon an innovative solution. Their client was a prominent member of the community who wanted to be able to work outside on a laptop, have a phone conversation, or take a smoke break without being on display. In response, 5468796 developed the concept of a veil: sections of steel cladding—cut by a CNC machine and welded into place—that wrap around the house itself and also enclose outdoor spaces, including the front deck. From the street, the veil provides almost total privacy, but, thanks to strategically located perforations in the steel and sections where the panels peel away from the house, light still streams in and the owners maintain largely unobstructed views of the outside. Inside, the veil enabled the architects to situate a second-story bathtub so that it faces the family room and kitchen on the other side of an interior courtyard, maintaining a sense of connection with the rest of the house but also preserving privacy inside the bathroom. “One of the main requirements for the house was for it to be livable and warm and well-lit, using natural light,” Radulovic says. “So reconciling that through the device of the veil was the challenge—but also the joy—of the project.”

During the pandemic, when we all hunkered down at home, devising zones of privacy within the house took on heightened importance. Christopher Pollack, founder of Pollack + Partners, a combination builder-project-management team based in Greenwich, Connecticut, has long catered to clients whom want an elevator or a second staircase for household staff members or whom might ask for a garage to be converted into a chef’s kitchen to create a zone of separation during a dinner party, a project he oversaw during the overhaul of a 1929 Greenwich mansion built by James Stillman Rockefeller. But COVID brought new challenges, especially when it comes to home offices. The first trick: situating an office that either has a private entrance or easy access within the house, so a business associate stopping by for a meeting won’t intrude on the homeowner’s family life. And the second one, collaborating with an acoustical expert to ensure there is sufficient soundproofing, so the noise of children playing in the family room or someone pacing upstairs won’t disrupt a Zoom meeting. The most frequent strategies were hanging ceilings on clip systems and floating floors on rubber membranes without any connection to the walls, essentially creating an entire room that’s floating in space. “We’ll walk into the house when we’re building it,” Pollack says, “and two rooms over guys are hammering, and you can hardly hear them.”

Pollack’s first client was an international businessman who wanted to stay inconspicuous, and from that initial experience his firm has developed a kind of privacy playbook. The firm makes sure the project itself remains on a need-to-know basis. Each commission gets a code name, and neither the address, nor the client’s name, appears on any drawings or plans. Consultants on the project team typically sign confidentiality agreements, and the clients themselves usually form an LLC to ensure their names aren’t linked to the property.

Pollack also frequently advises his clients on some of the more high-tech means of keeping their property safe—both digitally and IRL. To that end, his firm sometimes works with IT consultants to ensure that internet usage is monitored inside a client’s house in real time, to prevent children from getting catfished or exploited by scammers. And for some especially high-profile clients, he’ll tap an ex–Secret Service agent to create a security plan, which usually involves cameras and armed guards, or, in the case of one oceanfront house in Anguilla, a point-to-point infrared beam that sounds an alarm if anyone enters the property from the water. AD100 designer Nicole Hollis says that some commissions have required ballistic glass windows. During one project, the design team even needed to contact the Federal Aviation Administration, she says, to ban camera-equipped drones from flying over the site.

But, for the most part, creating a zone of privacy around a house or estate is a question of trees. For the New York–based landscape architect Quincy Hammond, evergreen and deciduous are the go-to. Or in the case of a client in Southampton, who wanted the whimsical feeling of being alone in a woodland garden, the solution was a mixture of evergreen trees, Norway spruce, green giant arborvitae, cryptomeria, and, as an ornamental punctuation mark, deodar cedar. Hammond dislikes hard elements like traditional fencing and instead prefers softer ones that blend in: wattle fences, for instance, which are made of woven willows and are popular in England. To create privacy within the property itself, she relies on hedges (sometimes adding perforations to keep certain sight lines) or ivy-covered stucco walls. “Your eye starts to develop,” Hammond says. “You become more sensitive to layering and plant material choices in terms of species, and sizes, and understanding scale relative to whatever you’re trying to screen.”

The challenge is how to achieve a feeling of privacy and security with the least number of plants, all while maintaining desirable views—or, as a few of her New York clients have requested, a connection to the sky. It’s easy to make a project feel claustrophobic, hemmed in. Achieving a sense of openness and freedom and seclusion: Now, that’s the trick.

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