For more than 30 years, Don Borte has used an old-fashioned approach to make some of the most sought-after homes in Hampton Roads.
by Katherine Hafner
Don Borte stands on the first floor of a 12,000-square-foot house at the Oceanfront, pointing out the future locations for a waterfall, a steam room and a gym – all of them part of a high-end indoor spa.
He walks up a bare, twisting staircase, emerging on the main floor. Looking out from the balcony, Borte spots a house owned by former clients. Eight years earlier, he built their third floor and added a pool to the backyard.
It’s no coincidence that Borte has worked on multiple luxury projects in the same neighborhood. For more than three decades, he’s been one of the most sought-after homebuilders in Hampton Roads.
The 74-year-old head of Borte Construction and Design – a fancy title for the one-man operation – has built or renovated about 150 large, Mediterranean-style homes in the region. It’s an impressive accomplishment, made even more so by the fact that Borte is completely self-taught.
He didn’t go to school for design. He is not a licensed architect. He’s just a man who fell in love with the craft and literally built a life for himself. “As I’ve always said, if we had the money, I would build them and give them away. I like doing it that much.”
Borte grew up in Norfolk and attended Norview High School. Soon afterward he met his wife, Susan, and the two married shortly before he was drafted into the Army. The couple was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, where Borte worked mainly as a jeep driver for the commanding officer. Oldest son Derrick, now a film director, was born there.
After the Army, Borte attended Old Dominion University for a few years, studying to be an accountant. When he realized that he couldn’t imagine a life trapped behind a desk, he gave that up. What he wanted to do was build homes.
It wasn’t as farfetched an idea as you might think. Borte’s father and uncle had built their homes when he was young, and later in life he worked on some additions. He won a few awards for a house that he designed and built for a Homearama contest
After that, he built a few houses on spec, a process in which the homebuilder puts up the money for construction, with the hopes of selling it when done. Gradually, he earned a reputation for building beautiful, luxury homes.
“I kind of just picked it up. I had a flair for the design part and went into the business with the idea that I was going to design and build one-of-a-kind houses,” he says.
His homes typically range from about 2,500 square feet to upwards of 14,000, featuring amenities such as indoor tennis courts and religious altars. Most of his projects are designed in the Mediterranean or Florida style, though he branches out occasionally into Colonial, Georgian styles or houses inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s avant-garde approach.
Each massive home can take a couple years to complete, and Borte works on only one or two at a time. Since he is not an architect, he collaborates with structural engineers to get the necessary approvals.
“It’s rare when you find a designer and a builder combination,” says Fred Michael, owner of Petersburg-based Colonial Iron Works. Michael has worked with Borte since the mid-1990s, designing and installing metal pieces such as grand staircases. “Normally the builders take [the] designers’ influence and try to implement the design on the job site. Don designs it and builds it so there’s one channel to go through.”
Borte does not advertise, relying instead on word of mouth. “People know what I do,” he says. He also avoids some modern technology. While most builders use a computer-aided design system, Borte prefers to remain old-school, letting his creativity flow through a pencil onto detailed blueprints. The computerized system, he felt, stifled his creativity. “It just didn’t seem to work for me, mechanically,” he says.
Flipping through a photobook of his completed houses, he remembers the details and challenges from each – down to the year and comments made by clients. “This house has the biggest master closet I’ve ever done,” he says. “That guy had been to a cathedral in Europe and seen that type of ceiling and brought it to us. … He’s got a portico; porticos were big at that point in time.”
Dani Hosek and her husband hired Borte in 2005 to overhaul their fixer-upper in Virginia Beach’s Alanton neighborhood. “It went from the ugly duckling to the pretty swan on the cul-de-sac,” Hosek says. The couple has hired him for additional work in the house and to redo their dentistry office on Great Neck Road.
As for Borte, his favorite part about building a home has always been “watching it materialize off that sheet of paper.” It never ceases to draw out an almost childlike wonder. But how does it feel when he finishes?
“Good,” he says, shrugging. “And then I move onto the next one.”