Designer Ally Banks and developer Michael Banks on designing your own home | Home Front

Ally Banks and Michael Banks
Dec 08, 2016

Ally and Michael Banks designed and built a three-story, six-bedroom home in Northwest Washington for their family of six. They each brought their own talents to the project: Ally owns Ally Banks Interiors and Michael is president of custom-home builder Banks Development Co. The couple joined forces with architect Ankie Barnes of Barnes Vanze to take the familiar brick Colonial style to the next level. Their home is featured in the luxury issue of The Washington Post Magazine, check it out here.

Ally and Michael are here to take questions on the challenges and joys of designing your own house.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating and design questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and decluttering. For more than 10 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

Ally and Michael Banks designed and built a three-story, six-bedroom home in Northwest Washington for their family of six. They each brought their own talents to the project: Ally owns Ally Banks Interiors and Michael is president of custom-home builder Banks Development Co. The couple joined forces with architect Ankie Barnes of Barnes Vanze to take the familiar brick Colonial style to the next level. Their home is featured in this Sunday's issue of  The Washington Post Magazine but you can read it here now.

Jura, I got a kick out of your article on getting a fake tree. I have done it all...had real trees when my kids were in the house, graduated to fake trees after they left and now I have a live tree in a pot that lives on our screened porch and I decorate it with white lights every year. I stopped getting real trees because as a gardener it made me so sad to throw them out after Christmas, and I gave away the fake tree because it just didn't seem worth the effort. I can see the real tree on the porch from the comfort of our living room, it's easy, and best of all I'm not throwing out a tree every year.

Thanks! I love the idea of having a real tree outdoors with lights that are twinkling for you and all your neighbors to see. My dear husband surprised me last weekend while I was in New York. He bought pine roping and covered our front doorway and front walk railings with it and then wound lights all over. Now, the front of our house is twinkling in the dark evenings when we come home after a long day. I love this and I plan to keep it up all through January!

I'm going to remodel both bathrooms in my 1950's house (one at a time). Any new trends in fixtures, lighting, and vanities that I should consider?

I buy many of my bath lighting fixtures from Circa Lighting. They are great quality and have a steady stream of new designs constantly. For bath fixtures, I tend to go with a more modern style. I think that design is moving from more traditional to more contemporary so a more clean lined fixture will look updated and fresh. Polished Nickel is always a classic. Brass is very on trend right now. You can't go wrong with either. For vanities, we tend to custom design them and use our great carpenters to build exactly what we like. I am a really big fan of Restoration Hardware right now. I think they are doing great things and love their new look... especially their new modern catalog. I always use their simple metal mirrors in secondary baths because they are relatively inexpensive and they come in many sizes so I can always find something that will work. 

the exterior of your home is very unique. what is the material or process that you used to accomplish that?

The exterior of the house has a 4” rigid insulation board applied to the 2x6 framing and sheathing. The insulating boards serves two purposes. It provides additional insulation from the elements (in addition to the brick and the foam insulation in the interior walls) and it adds depth at each window and door opening, giving the impression that the structural/exterior walls are built almost 12” wide. It helps give the house a nice balance and proportion as well…. It provides depth rather than a flat appearance.

When the brick was laid, rather than striking the mortar joints between each brick, I asked the masons  to be very messy in application and to not use a strike. This went against their DNA sloppy work is a sign of unskilled and/or thoughtless masons). I asked to have the mortar joints protrude out from the face of the brick. This would later give the desired look of an undulating surface.


We then applied a chalky, white lime wash. The ratio is 1 part cement and 4 parts lime. The front of the house has 3 coats applied, the back of the house has 2 coats. I love the result. The house has many different looks throughout the day due to the shadow lines created by the layering process and the uneven surfaces.


I'm looking at a house where the current owners seemed to like screwing things into tile - shelves in the kitchen and bath, glass doors on the bath that need to come out. I'd like to take a lot of the stuff out, but that will leave holes in the tile. Is there any way to fix this without making it look completely roughshod? Thanks

no. you need to rip out and start fresh! sorry

I like the look of subway tile, and am considering it for a kitchen backsplash, but my whole main floor will be painted a very light beige color and I do not want grey grout. Black or dark grey grout will clash with the rest of the color scheme, but white seems to make the tile almost invisible. Any advice on grout color for subway tile?

Hi, well, I would typically say choose an off white, almost grey sanded grout for white ceramic subway tile. It gives the subway tile some style and definition. Second to grey grout  (which doesnt work for your kitchen), play it safe with a white grout. This will be a clean, cohesive backdrop to your kitchen. Make sure your kitchen cabinet paint color works with the white tile. Often the stark white color of the ceramic subway tile will make an off white cabinet color look dirty, dated, old. The whites need to be close in color/brightness. You do not want your cabinets appearing yellow.

I agree with Michael. The tile does not need to be the focal point of the room. Let it be the backdrop and chose another place to make your big statement. 

i'm obsessed with the stools in your kitchen! can you share buying info please?

The kitchen stools, steel island and interior steel kitchen doors were fabricated by a talented artisan in Austin, TX. Cole Thompson: The inspiration of the stools came from a stylish restaurant in Nantucket called Cru.


It took 8 people to carry in the massive steel island. Cole welded it entirely together back in Austin and shipped it in one piece. We were lucky to have built a sunroom in which the wall of windows/doors open up entirely. Otherwise, we would have had to dismantle an entire masonry wall of the house to get the island inside.

It seems as though you like to buy art when you travel. How do you decide on something - do you think of where you will hang it or do you just buy what speaks to you and figure out where to put it later?

I am an impulsive buyer. When I see something I really like, i get it. I know we will find a place for it or ... 

Buying art is very personal. I think you need to buy what you like. Buy what speaks to you or provokes some meaning for you. It is important to consider the space it is going in, what else is going on in the room and getting a piece that is the right size. 


Good morning! We are planning for our daughter's Christmas present to be a simple, low-budget redesign of her room to take it from baby to tween (she's ten). Our biggest challenges are small size, lack of storage, and too much furniture already. She has a twin bed, a dresser, a desk, a bedside table, a set of shelves, a large rocking chair, and a large hamper. The surfaces of the dresser, desk, and table are always covered in piles of stuff and the shelves are a messy disaster. We plan to weed out stuff (I'd like to get rid of the rocking chair at least), paint, and give her new bedding. Any suggestions for storage options and cute sources for bedding? Thanks!

I understand your issues because I have 4 children and their rooms are rarely looking organized and perfect. I would start by getting rid of the rocking chair. Does your daughter use the desk? I have desks in my children's rooms but I find that they are not using their desks. Instead they are doing homework at the kitchen table or studying up in their rooms on their beds. Purge as much as you can. Buy a smaller hamper. Open bookshelves often look messy. Maybe consider trying to find some shelves with doors on them. Some of my favorite resources for bedding are Serena and Lily, Dwell Studio, Land of Nod, Restoration Hardware Kids, Teen .... For furniture I love RH Teen and kids, Ikea, Blue Dot, Design Within Reach and West Elm. I tend to use these resources for kids rooms because they are great style for a less expensive price.  Kids rooms get wear and tear.  A new paint color will liven up the space. I tend to go with a softer color in a kids room. Good Luck!

Your gallery of artworks in the dining room is very cool. Can you tell us about what you hung there and how you put the arrangement together?

We have been collecting art work since right after we graduated from college.... we have picked pieces up in various places - flea markets, antique stores, art galleries, pieces given to us by family. I was going to do wallpaper in our dining room but I wanted to do something a little different. I love the look of the art collage so I decided to arrange them in a thoughtful way and put them all in one space. It was somewhat of a experiment for me because it was the first time I had done something like this but I loved the end result. I chose to have my artwork all line up at the top and the bottom. I also made sure that there was approx the same distance between the pieces to make it look thought through. 

What if one of you is traveling and wants to buy something without the other around? Do you have the same taste? How do you negotiate decorating and designing together?

We do tend to have the same taste but we still check in with one another. When collecting pieces and art, we only buy something that we think we will love forever. Michael is the expert on the buildling of the house so I usually defer to him when questions arise with the bones of the house such as trim, windows and doors etc. When it comes to the finishes... Michael is great with lighting.  I love the Paints, Furniture, Fabrics, Art, Rugs and Wallpaper.... 

I love the pictures in the article! Do you each have a favorite space in the house?

Our number 1 criteria for the house was natural sunlight. If you sit at our kitchen table you realize you are in the dead center of the house and you can also see windows and sunlight in all directions. That is what makes the house unique and happy and successful for us. So.. I dont really have a favorite space but i do have favorite things. I love that I know all the people who participated in the build of the house. every piece of the house has meaning to me bc of the people, the carftsmen. I love the imperfections of the house. I love seeing the thumb print in the caulk of the kitchen steel door. I love that each plaster, limewashed wall in the house is entirely different. The applicator was given free reign. I love our chipped, stained marble counters. I love that the house is raw. it feels like a living house to me. Nothing is perfect. It is more art to me than anything else.

the windows in your home are gorgeous! they are not the typical windows you see in kitchens. who makes them?

The custom windows and doors were the biggest splurge of the house. They are made by MQ Windows in Montreal. MQ originally manufactured 19th century style furniture until they were asked to do custom windows for a client. We chose MQ because they offered the narrowest frames (stiles) of all the manufacturers we researched (aside from steel doors). Several doors measure 10’ tall. They are made of mahogany and were bleached on site to give a worn, weathered look. They are considered “tilt, turn” windows in that they can both turn open into the room or tilt open into the room.

After trial and error with different concoctions, to achieve the sun-worn look, we mixed 2 parts wood bleach with 1 coat white pigment. We then layered 2 coats of dead flat varnish for protection 

Was this the first project you worked together on? What do you recommend for couples thinking of building their own custom house together?

We have done many projects together but our first spec house was a house in Bethesda that Michael designed with GTM architects. Michael spent hours and hours making sure that every detail was perfect. I got to be a part of picking the finishes in the kitchen, baths, floor, paints etc. We ended up falling in love with the Spec house, got a full price offer but turned it down and moved in instead. It was perfect timing for us because the home we were living in was getting tight with 3 children. If you are going to build yourself a custom home, find a great builder. You need to find someone you can trust. Make sure you take the time to look at projects they have done. Collect images of homes you love to show the architect. 

I love the sunroom in your house. How did you think of that? Is it one of your most-used rooms?

I fell in love with a image of a kitchen bump out with gorgeous floor to ceiling metal doors. It was stunning. Back when we were designing our house, the Steel door look was just becoming very popular so they were hard to find, very expensive and often posed issues with keeping in heating and cooling... We decided to keep the look but use the wood instead. I really wanted our kitchen to be sunny and happy. In our first house we owned, we had a sitting area in our kitchen with a sofa and chairs. It became the hub of our house for coffee drinking and great conversation so we wanted to create this again. 

What advice would you give a couple thinking of building their own home without any developer or design background? It would be great to get what I want by designing/building my own home, but I'm afraid it will be too much of a challenge with little experience.

Hire me to do it for you. We will make it fun and easy. It starts with finding the neighborhood, street and lot and price point. We can help with all of this. We enjoy the search. Seriously, you want to hire someone with experience. Even better, hire someone you can get along with and trust. Having a similar design aesthetic to your architect, designer, builder is also helpful. We  (banks) study good design and architecture. we understand proportion. we can help you (and the design team) create an amazing space/building.

Ally, what advise do you have for designing a home with a growing family? do you ever let your kids pick out stuff for their bedrooms?

For kids rooms, I would keep the bones of the room something that you can live with at different ages and stages. Buying furniture pieces that can be grow with your child is key. Bedding, Rugs, Lamps are things that you can easily change out as your child reaches a new stage and wants a new look. I like to let the kids choose the color scheme... it's fun to let them weigh in on wall color and fabrics. 

what kind floors do you have in your house? did you design with family and pets in mind?

As we realized the house was taking on a more serious, museum like tone (not like us), we needed to reel it in a bit and give it a a more casual feel and look. Rather than going with a clean rift white oak floor, we decided to go with a more casual looking floor. So we chose a random width white oak floor boards with knots. We then used a commercial grad, extra matte floor finish from Germany which gives the appearance of an unfinished, unsealed floor.

 That all said, in hindsight, I wish we would have chosen a rift, white oak floor in the same widths. I now very much appreciate a quiet floor and ceiling. I don’t care for my eyes to go in either direction.

I love how you chose a singular fixture above the island. It's the perfect balance of simple yet detailed. Would you be willing to share the source?

Thank you! The light fixture is the Cosmopolitan from Urban Archeology in Polished Brass. 

As parents/designers, how do you incorporate your kids' real-world preferences -- the pink plastic Barbie Dreamhouse and the Justin Bieber posters -- into their private spaces?

I like to use bulletin boards or metal magnetic boards in kids rooms to express themselves. 

Is it good to have a TV in the living room. We do not have one at this time and we are not sure if it distracts conversations with friends when visiting? Thanks.

We do not have a TV in our living room but I think you should do what works for you. We find that a TV in our family room and one in our kitchen is enough for our first floor. Our living room is small with book cases on 2 walls and not a lot of wall space. We preferred to have artwork hanging vs. another TV. 

Okay I need to build a 4000 sq ft modern ranch with a basement that includes a Home theater and a safe room. One level we are getting to old for steps. Style contemporary to mid century. Home needs to blend into its environment which is 500 acre working sheep ranch in Madison County, VA. Also need a barn, modern detached 6 car garage with two lifts and master bedroom must have a closet for my girlfriend's La Perla and Laboutins

Wow!! Sounds fabulous!

Thanks to all that participated in this chat. Very fun. Thank you to Jura for including us. We love Jura! We are passionate about building great houses and design. Please call us if you have a project you are considering. We would be more than happy to meet and listen and offer our thoughts.

Great chat. And don't miss the story on their beautiful house in this Sunday's Washington Post Magazine and you can read it here. Join me next Thursday with my spirited and festive chat guest Ken Fulk who will share with you his secrets for marvelous parties and warm and wonderful interiors. Until then: party on.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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Ally Banks
Designer Ally Banks is owner of Ally Banks Interiors in the District.
Michael Banks
Michael Banks is president of custom-home builder Banks Development Co., in the District.
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