Building the Dream

Barbara Ocain holds architect Gordon Hall's rendering of her future dream home.

Still chasing dreams at 71 years young, Cary resident Barbara Ocain has been through more than most. After surviving two lightning strikes, a breast cancer diagnosis, and an ill-timed hip replacement, Ocain was encouraged to enjoy a simpler, slower life surrounded by her children and grandchildren. Clearly, they didn’t know who they were dealing with.

“Don’t let your age or your career choices get in the way. If you want something, go for it,” said Ocain. “Here I am at this point in my life when people say I should be slowing down, but I feel like I’m just getting revved up!”

Originally from Montgomery, AL, Ocain attended undergraduate school at Emory University and graduate school at Georgia State University. After receiving degrees in school psychology, Ocain attended law school at the University of Denver and spent a summer taking specialized law courses at the invitation of Harvard Law School. Following marriage and kids, Ocain and her family moved back to Alabama before transferring to the Raleigh area in 1998.

Ocain’s original home in Pine Knoll Shores was a somewhat dated ranch clad in reverse board and batten siding, typical to the area. Contributed photo.

“We knew about Cary. We’d done the research and we knew how great it was,” said Ocain. “That was the only place that we wanted to live. The kids went to high school and local colleges, and they’re still here, married with kids of their own.”

Ocain planned on retiring 10 years ago, but was offered a dream job as an attorney for SAP, a huge global software company. The change in pace, which included international travel, inspired her to take out a new lease on life.

“It’s been an interesting career, kind of a patchwork. I get to travel globally, and it’s influenced my style of home. I love the Scandinavian homes, their simplicity, their clean lines.”

Ocain stumbled upon this Toronto home on Pinterest — the perfect example of an IKEA-inspired dream home that sent her imagination soaring! Contributed photo.

Ocain, who already owned a small place in Pine Knoll shores, NC, found the perfect example of her IKEA-inspired dream home while browsing Pinterest. Funnily enough, the house (located in Toronto) actually belonged to the neighbor of her manager at the time. Despite a recent battle with breast cancer, Ocain — who had zero experience building and designing a home — decided to make her dream a reality.

“We needed more room for kids and grandkids, and the lot next to me was a vacant lot. I wanted it all on one level, and we wanted the space to store a boat — I don’t have one, but my kids do. I found the developer who owned the lot next to me and made him a cash offer, and he agreed. The next step was finding an architect.”

As it turns out, modern-style homes around Pine Knoll Shores are not easy to come by. Ocain eventually found a house she liked in Wilmington and tracked down the architect: Gordon Hall.

Courtesy of Gordon Hall

“Barbara contacted me by phone in 2019,” said Hall. “We had a great conversation. The more Barbara and I talked, the more closely aligned our design values seemed to be.”

Upon settling on Hall, Ocain’s next challenge was finding a builder. After months of interviews, she eventually hired Jeremy Bishop, the owner of Sterling Custom Construction. Despite being based out of Wilmington, Bishop grew up near Pine Knoll Shores and his father, who still lives in the area, now serves as the project manager.

“This is our first project with Gordon,” said Bishop. “We primarily work with architects and designers. This house is unique because it’s got a little bit of a mid-century modern feel to it; it’s not just a typical beach house. That’s the kind of architecture we like to focus on. Barbara’s is the second modern home we’ve worked on in that area.”

Ocain’s new build is set to be finished by the end of 2022. Courtesy of Gordon Hall.

Once the dream team was assembled, the hard work began. The initial plan involved altering and adding onto the existing home, which was a somewhat dated ranch clad in reverse board and batten siding.

“Though not immediately in a flood hazard, a key attribute of the new design would include consideration for a potential future flood risk,” said Hall. “As such, Barbara proposed a bi-level design strategy. The idea was that the new added living space would be elevated above any potential future flood risk. After review by a handful of contractors, it became clear that the proposed design was out of scale in relation to cost.”

“In the follow-up design, the original house would be removed altogether (with the exception of the kitchen range). However, the bi-level design continued to resonate, as did a number of the original design gestures. Rather than starting over, the design that we decided to build is in many ways a scaled-down version of where we started.”

With final plans in place, things were looking up — until Covid hit and everything went to “heck in a handbasket,” said Ocain.

Barbara’s Building Tips

  • Patience & pleasantness. Always.
  • Select a team of professionals and conduct reference checks. As you interview them, pay attention to their willingness to work with others.
  • Maintain flexibility in your choices. Have a plan B.
  • Think long term. There will be delays and disappointments, but remember what a wonderful place you are building for the future.
  • Keep a sense of humor. You will need it.

Advice from the Builder

  • Find a builder who likes working with architects and understands the design process.
  • Put your team together early, so the builder and designer work together and not against each other.

“Prices skyrocketed and supply chain issues happened. You couldn’t get workers. My friends and neighbors were like, why are you trying to build a house during a pandemic at an age when you should be retired? We had to sit and wait. Things would progress, but slowly. We’re still only about halfway completed. We broke ground about a year and a half ago. I should be completed by the fall of this year, fingers crossed.”

Since 2000, Pine Knoll Shores has been designated as a Tree City USA (an Arbor Day Foundation program). As such, elements of sustainability are literally built into the landscape, and trees are closely monitored and protected by local ordinances. Additional canopy trees will be planted on Ocain’s property to make up for the ones removed during construction.

“Kids want more modern, contemporary kinds of places to live, and they want openness and sustainability, and that’s what this home is all about,” said Ocain. “It’s sustainable in that it’s made out of a lot of renewable, recycled materials. All the appliances are sustainability rated. The drainage system and the yard will be all natural. We try to recapture everything, including the rainwater. The recycled materials, appliances, the openness, the way that the air circulates through the building — all of that is a clean design.”

Despite all of the challenges, Ocain is a big believer in teamwork, collaboration, and communication. Now that I-42 is being developed and will create a straight shot to the beach, she suspects that it will create a huge boom and a great opportunity for interested buyers.

“Ultimately, this is a story of determination, vision, no age barrier, and a lot of humor. There have been so many odd challenges, from pine beetles, neighbors’ reactions, a hip replacement, getting licenses when no one is working at the town office, the dreaded supply chain issues, and patience ad nauseam.”

“In the end, if you want something, go for it. You can do it, just get the right team around you. There’s been everything in the world thrown at us, minus a hurricane. It’s not been easy, but you have to keep the long-term goal in mind.”


  • Katie Robertson says:

    I have been friends with Barbara since we were 5 years old. I am not surprised that she would attempt AND COMPLETE a project like this one. Can’t is not in her thinking realm. I am glad she will get to enjoy this wonderful home with her grandchildren and others!! Way to live Barbara Congratulations!!!!

  • Diane wallace says:

    Love this innovative and flexible plan. Of course Barbara found it and innovated a wonderful solution for a terrific area! Lovely home and owner who is an inspiration to us all!

  • Bob says:

    Babs was Sweetheart of Sigma Chi at Emory while I was there. She still is to those of us who knew her then. Not perfect, put close enough! A good old (not elderly) friend who has, thankfully, changed little.

  • GREG SELKE says:

    Barbara is a true inspiration for me in many ways. Her zest for life. Her positive attitude always. Her brilliance in her field. Her balancing of all the different facets life throws at us. You are so very very special and I am honored to have met you some 10 years ago and thrilled you are part of my life! Keep inspiring others and the world my friend.

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