For $1.5 million, Alex and Michelle Pinchev expected their new McLean home to be special.
They loved their architect's one-of-a-kind design: a five-bedroom, five-bath brick manse with touches such as Mount Vernon-style windows, customized moldings, a medallion over the front door and a three-car garage to boot.
Then one day, Alex Pinchev, a computer software executive, and his wife heard about a house on the other side of town. It sounded familiar, distressingly so. Michelle drove over to take a look.
"I pulled up," she later told a Fairfax County jury, "and my kids went, 'Mom, our house!' Same brick, same mortar, just a flip-flop," with the garage on the right instead of the left.
When the couple later got a look inside, the layout was "a mirror image" of their own home, Michelle Pinchev testified. "The fixtures, the tile on the floor, the same design pattern . . . the same colors."
If the Pinchevs were unhappy, their architect, Charlyn Dalebout, was beside herself.
She had designed, built and sold the house on Waverly Way--the house the Pinchevs bought--as a once-only project with her husband, closing the deal for $1,575,000 and relocating to California.
Dalebout was outraged that her pride-and-joy design had been cloned over on Towlston Road by the same builder, and sold four months ago for $24,000 more. The buyer was an even more prominent member of Northern Virginia's high-tech elite: Marc Andreessen, a founder of Netscape Communications, currently with America Online.
Dalebout sued builder Henry Ahari in Fairfax County Circuit Court. Last week, jurors rejected his argument that he had a right to Dalebout's designs and nailed him with a $140,000 penalty.
Dalebout's contract with Ahari contained a standard clause that her plans could be used only for the original house on Waverly Way.
Reusing an architect's drawings, "that's just a blatant example of intellectual property theft," said Mike Medick, head of the American Institute of Architects' housing committee. Medick and others said that it's not unusual for builders to reuse plans without permission but that architects rarely have the wherewithal to fight back in court.
None of the parties in the McLean dispute would comment publicly; Ahari said he is considering an appeal and Dalebout said she didn't want to jeopardize the jury award.
The house bought by Michelle and Alex Pinchev, who is chief executive of MainControl of Vienna, was built in 1996. When the second house went up a year later, Dalebout's friends had a deja vu moment.
Knowing that the first house was a special project, they initially thought Dalebout had simply decided to do it again. But when they told her and she went and saw the new place, she hit the roof. "She had designed and sold a one-of-a-kind house. The Pinchevs thought that's what they were getting . . . . It was like she had been robbed," said Charles M. Radigan, her attorney.
Ahari maintained in court that Dalebout owed him money and that when she didn't pay, he felt entitled to rebuild her design.
The amount in dispute was about $2,500, according to Ahari's attorney, Jerome P. Friedlander. After Ahari's company, National Development Corp., built the Pinchev house, the architect presented Ahari with a list of things that needed to be completed. When he was done, Ahari billed Dalebout $2,500, Friedlander said.
Whether the tasks were properly performed and whether the bill was appropriate are still in dispute. But after Ahari couldn't locate Dalebout on the West Coast and didn't get paid, he decided to keep the designs, Friedlander said.
"He had a right to take the plans," Friedlander said, "because she didn't pay him."
Ahari, who runs his business out of his home on Georgetown Pike, has been building houses since 1980. Some of his homes have been honored by the local contractors association. He served six years on the Fairfax County Board of Equalization and has been on various McLean citizens groups.
Friedlander said Ahari typically pays $3,000 to $5,000 for a set of architectural drawings. But the American Institute of Architects said architects normally receive 5 to 15 percent of the cost of building a house. Ahari paid Dalebout nothing for the Pinchevs' plan because it was her project.
When she sued him a year ago, she claimed her fee would have been $125,000, and that Ahari probably saved an additional 10 percent in costs, and 20 percent in time, by building the same house a second time.
Friedlander maintained that Ahari had notified Dalebout that he intended to keep her designs if she didn't pay his $2,500 bill and that Dalebout never responded. "That silence speaks volumes," Friedlander said. "She knew he'd taken the plans, and [she] hadn't done anything."
After a two-day trial, jurors deliberated about 2 1/2 hours before finding Ahari liable for breach of contract. Although Michelle Pinchev agreed to testify on the architect's behalf, she and her husband declined to comment for this article. Andreessen did not return telephone messages, and his spokesmen would not say whether he was aware of the dispute.