Author Archives: J. Michael Welton

A Suburban House Like You’ve Never Seen

Designing, not for a client, but for his own family, an architect follows his vision, and in the process transforms a prototypical suburban house into something entirely new.

Casa Westway - Facade View


You wouldn’t necessarily expect to find experimental architecture in McAllen, a small city on the southern tip of Texas. But if his own house provides any indication, architect Luis López Reséndez may be out to change how outsiders perceive McAllen. After purchasing a three-bedroom house here—a rectangular, pitched-roof ranch like so many others built in the postwar period—Reséndez went to work putting an exciting, utterly unique twist on its familiar design.

Related—House Tour: A Prototypical Suburban House, Reinvented

Since he was building his own house, for his own family, Reséndez got something that’s rare for a professional architect: total design freedom. Seizing the opportunity, he explored widely in terms of both materials and construction methods. “It’s not that easy to do with a client,” he says. But left to his own devices, Reséndez was able to develop creative responses to any challenges that arose. Some challenges were specific to the project—the site, the budget—while others were fairly universal. For instance, how do you bring together interior and outdoor spaces, and what makes for an ideal family living environment in today’s world?

Casa Westway - Before Shot


Though it’s no larger than it had been, the Reséndez house, dubbed Casa Westway, stands out in the neighborhood now, largely thanks to its innovative roof. Breaking from convention, Reséndez stretched the roofline out and down so that it actually curtains one full side of the house before terminating at the ground. “The roof keeps on going and going, floating out farther as it becomes a skin,” Reséndez says of the choice. In this way, the distinction blurs between roof and facade, facade and roof. The outward appearance of the home takes on a seamless quality, while the interior spaces enjoy greater articulation and better light.

Casa Westway - Interior View


Much as the Casa Westway exterior erodes the distinction between roofing and siding, the interior virtually eliminates the division between rooms. Gone are the walls that once partitioned the ranch into a series of small, separate spaces. In the remodel, only the bedrooms remain private. The central living areas, in contrast, flow into one another in a fluid relationship that even carries onto the backyard patio, which is accessed through sliding glass doors. The openness, Reséndez says, is “a reflection of how a family interacts.” He sums up the project by saying, “We wanted a space where we could be together on a daily basis—a universal space.”

Westway House - Rear View


J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes a digital design magazine at His new book, Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand, is due out from Routledge in the spring.

The Resurrection of a Gloriously Derelict Castle in France

An Australian couple has begun the long journey toward restoring Chateau de Gudanes, a centuries-old house, long-neglected in the south of France.

Chateau de Gudanes


Five years ago, Karina and Craig Waters—a tax accountant and a urologist, respectively, in Perth, Australia—began looking for a vacation home in the south of France. Karina says she envisioned “a small farmhouse,” the sort of simple, “shabby-chic” cottage so often invoked in fantasies of French countryside living. On their real estate hunt, however, the Waters couple visited a long string of homes whose rural charm had been replaced by modern luxuries. Whereas they had set out seeking worn, weathered floorboards and casually planted, wonderfully scented gardens, they found sleek, blemishless finishes and infinity pools.

Related: House Tour—A French Castle Rises from Its Ruins

That was when their son, 15 years old at the time, stumbled onto an Internet listing for what appeared to be, from the aerial views provided, a grand, albeit ramshackle, estate. Intrigued, Karina and Craig decided to check out the chateau on their next trip to France—and they did, driving 500 miles in a single day to arrive at its iron gates. What they discovered there in Chateau-Verdun, a tiny town perched high in the Pyrenees, utterly captivated the couple. ”We fell in love with this chateau and the region,” she says. After two long years of negotiations, the Waters family finally purchased the 96-room Chateau de Gudanes.

Chateau de Gudanes - Interior


Move-in condition? Not quite. During a prolonged period of neglect, several portions of the roof had collapsed into the 43,000-square-foot building. Many floors in the five-level structure had caved in too. On their first survey of the property, the couple wore hard hats, and for safety reasons could walk only into a handful of rooms. Trees were growing inside, and everywhere there was dirt, rotten wood, rust, mold and mushrooms. Still, amid the rubble, Karina and Craig saw ample evidence of the chateau’s former glory—centuries-old stained glass, painted frescoes, gilt-framed mirrors, ornamental plaster, and artisan-carved woodwork.

Chateau de Gudanes - Stained Glass


Chateau de Gudanes dates back to the mid-1700s. Its architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, was the most prominent of his time. His high-profile commissions included the Place de la Concorde, a major public square in the French capital city, as well as the Petit Trianon, built for Louix XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, on the grounds of Versailles. In its heyday, the Chateau de Gudanes hosted lavish parties frequented by the cultural elite, including Voltaire.

Chateau de Gudanes - Upper Floor


Once the Waters family took ownership and work got under way, more of the chateau’s history began to emerge. For instance, Karina and Craig had assumed that nothing remained of the medieval fort that originally stood on the site. It was believed to have been destroyed in the late 16th century, during the French Wars of Religion. As workers began digging, however, they soon uncovered two of the fort’s towers. They later discovered a 10-foot-deep hole in the floor, which lead to a previously unknown, largely inaccessible portion of the basement. Karina thinks it may have been an escape for the owners during World War II.


Chateau de Gudanes - Restorationists


So far, much of the effort has gone into removing—by hand, pulley, and cart—the mixed debris that had accumulated during the building’s abandonment. In addition, steel I-beams have been installed to replace rotted the wood joists that once ran under floors of layered lime and flagstone. It’s deliberate, slow-going work, primarily because the couple intends to restore the chateau, not completely redesign it.

On the blog that she began to chronicle the project’s progress, Karina writes, “Our aim is to tread lightly and gently, to preserve the atmosphere and authenticity of the Chateau and region as much as possible. [The Chateau] will be renovated but her rawness, wear and history will not be erased…”

Related: House Tour—A French Castle Rises from Its Ruins

With the help of an architect and the cooperation of the French architectural preservation authority, Monuments Historiques, Karina says, “We’re developing a plan to give the Chateau a sustainable future.” Opening the house to the public is definitely part of that plan, but the details are, for the moment, fuzzy.

Would there be a café, guest rooms, outdoor concerts, community events? None or all of those? The Waters family hasn’t decided. One thing is certain: “The Chateau won’t be a pretentious museum piece.”

For a bird’s-eye perspective on the Chateau de Gudanes, its grounds, and the surrounding area, don’t miss this high-definition video, captured by a camera-equipped aerial drone!


J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes an online design magazine at

In Lake Tahoe, a 1969 A-Frame Gets a Thoughtful Update

In renovating his own vacation home, architect Curtis Popp used many of his professional skills but relied most of all on his gift for restraint.

A-Frame Remodel - Homewood Exterior


Curtis Popp believes in the power of editing. As partner in Sacramento-based Popp Littrell Architects & Interiors, he knows that some projects require gut renovation and that, in some situations, new construction makes good sense. But for his own vacation house, a charming 1969 A-frame situated on Lake Tahoe, he opted for a light, thoughtful approach. He explains it this way: “We wanted to eliminate the things that weren’t working and exploit the things that were.”

Related: House Tour—An Architect Edits His Own Vintage A-Frame

When he bought it in 2011, there were many things to love about the cedar-hewn retreat, dubbed Homewood. Still, there was work to be done before his wife and two children would be comfortable in the two-story two-bedroom. The goal was to usher the place into the 21st century without sacrificing the funky modernism that’d initially attracted him. ”If it ended up feeling too slick, it would be out of place,” Popp says, acknowledging the casual rusticity of the California countryside.

Previous owners had added superfluous touches, including a decorative foam anchor on the roof. That was among the first things to go, followed soon after by the doilies that had been on the windows. The windows themselves were aluminum, and Popp swapped those out with wood-framed replacements that not only perform better in terms of efficiency, but also complement the wood paneling that covers all of the walls—and even the ceilings—of the A-frame interior.

A-Frame Remodel - Homewood Interior


While the floor plan remains true to the original program, Popp re-did the bathrooms and kitchen. In the latter space, he chose small, European-made appliances, because in such a compact home, he feared that full-size appliances would leave the kitchen out of scale with the other rooms. The “micro” refrigerator, dishwasher, and range fully integrate with the cabinetry, allowing more real estate for countertops while minimizing the visual weight of the kitchen overall.

Related: House Tour—An Architect Edits His Own Vintage A-Frame

Another of Popp’s successful editorial gestures is the color scheme, what he likes to call “chocolate and peanut butter.” It’s a combination of matte black trim and the “pecky” cedar that so defines the home, past and present. In discussing Homewood, Popp reserves a sense of humor, for as much as A-frames are practical in design, they also possess an uncommon degree of personality. As Popp quips, “They keep the snow off the roof, but they make people smile, too.”

Somehow, given all the work that’s gone on, Homewood looks like it’s barely been touched. “It’s a respectful update of a period A-frame,” according to Popp. And if that’s true, then it’s only because the home’s editor respected the original building enough to make only the most thoughtful changes.

This House in Navajo Nation Wears a Sombrero

A team of students from the University of Colorado Building Workshop use their heads to shade a desert home and open it up to monumental views.

Skow Residence

The Skow Residence stands on a parcel of land located within the Navajo Nation. Photo: Jesse Kuroiwa

Out in the blazing hot, red-tinted desert 15 miles southwest of Bluff, Utah, stands a house inspired by a wide sombrero.

Three years ago, Harold Skow, a member of the Navajo Nation, leased a parcel of land from his tribe. He planned to live there with his family, in a kit home like the others many Navajos occupy nearby. The Skows built the foundation, before deciding they didn’t like the type of house the kit was intended to build.

Related—House Tour: Skow Residence

They “were kind of stuck,” says Eric Sommerfield, director of the University of Colorado Building Workshop. At the Skows’ invitation, Sommerfield and a group of students visited the property, intent on coming up with a new design that would use only the materials meant for an entirely different house style.

On their first visit to the site, Skow showed everyone around. “He was wearing a big sombrero, trying to create as much shade as possible,” Sommerfield remembers. “He looked at a student and said, ‘You could use a sombrero.’ The student looked back at him and said that his house could use a sombrero, too.” And that conversation is how the home came to have the distinctive, sun hat-style roof that so defines, not only its look, but its climate performance.

Skow Residence - Kit Home

Kit homes of traditional style dot the desert landscape. Photo: Jesse Kuroiwa

Of course, the house would sit on a site with splendid views of the famed Monument Valley. To enjoy the panorama, the Skow family wanted a front porch where they could sit in comfort and gaze out. They also hoped the house would respond to, and not always be in contention with, the challenging weather.

Sifting through the kit and its materials, the students found a set of roof trusses and hit upon the idea of inverting them. Turned upside down, the roof structure would, like a sombrero, cool down the indoor spaces, while helping to create outdoor living areas shielded from the full force of the brutal sun.

Meanwhile, in a way that signals the extent to which the house harmonizes with nature, the students slightly tilted the trusses so that the roof would collect rainwater, directing it toward a storage barrel. As the rain barrel refills with each storm, the Skows now have a supply of fresh water always at the ready.

Related—House Tour: Skow Residence

Below the roof, there are no superfluous features; climate considerations informed every design decision. For instance, glass comprises most of the southern exterior wall. And while the glazing affords views, it simultaneously performs the arguably more important role of maximizing heat from the winter sun.

Cooling was equally important and here, too, the windows play a critical role by working to leverage the prolific desert winds. On the windward side, the windows appear low on the wall to catch as much of the moving air as possible. On the leeward side, they are close to the ceiling, allowing hot air to escape.

“We just wanted the house to open up to the landscape, and be extremely efficient in its environment,” Sommerfield says.

Fortunately, his students were brimming with ideas.

Skow Residence - Office

Windows not only frame views, but also help the house remain comfortable in its climate. Photo: Jesse Kuroiwa

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes Architects and Artisans.

In Texas, A Million-Dollar Home with a Trailer at Its Heart

See how architect Andrew Hinman embedded a mid-century trailer at the middle of a new structure in Texas Hill Country.

Ranch Trailer Home


Flash floods are a reality in Texas, at least near the Nueces River, which runs through the 10,000-acre ranch owned by a global beauty products company founder. In 2012, he reached out to architect Andrew Hinman with a specific idea in mind: permanently situating a prized possession—his 1954 aluminum-clad house trailer—as close as possible to the family’s favorite spot on the river. The shelter would make the trailer more comfortable and functional as a launch pad for hunting, fishing, and swimming adventures. And of course, it needed to ensure that the trailer would not be swept away by the flood waters that return on a seasonal basis.

Hinman says the trailer was the “the raison d’être for the entire project.” One part of the job was to restore the trailer itself, and Hinman did so by paneling the interior in bamboo, while updating many of its outdated fixtures and fittings. The other part of the job was more dramatic and involved surrounding the trailer in decking, a section of which would be screened, a section of which would be open. From here, the client would be able to enjoy panoramic views of Texas Hill Country.

Hinman remembers that he initially “sketched up a big screen porch with a cradle to hold the trailer.” From there, the project took on complexity, particularly once the client’s wife had seen “the tiny little bathroom in the trailer.” It wouldn’t do. So Hinman designed a separate bath. Air conditioned, with a footprint of 150 square feet, the bathroom includes a stone tub that was handmade in Italy and cost $18,000. All told, Hinman estimates the entire project came out around $1 million.

Related—House Tour: Trailer Living, Reinvented

Ranch Trailer Home - Bathroom 1


The state of Texas figures largely in the story of the Locomotive Ranch Trailer Home. Hinman himself works out of Austin, and he called in a team of Austin-based artisans to make his design a reality. Among them was Mike Thevenet of Boothe General Contracting, who coordinated the work of electricians, carpenters, and welders (Paul’s Portable Welding is a family-owned business run by three generations of men, all named Paul). Even the trailer itself boasts Southwestern heritage, having been manufactured by the Spartan Aircraft Company. Though it’s now defunct, Spartan was born and operated for decades out of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Construction began with sinking a dozen concrete piers, each 18 inches in diameter, deep into sedimentary river rock. “It’s firmly rooted,” Hinman sums up. On top of the piers is a steel carriage, securely welded and bolted to the poured concrete building that now anchors the architecture, both visually and structurally. “It’s like a blockhouse,” Hinman says. “It’s blast-proof. The walls are 12 inches thick.” In design, the tower echoes the profile of  rainwater-collection structures that were preexisting on the property. At the top of the tower is a screened-in sleeping porch; here, the occupants would be safe even from a flood of Biblical proportions.

Related—House Tour: Trailer Living, Reinvented

Ranch Trailer Home - Decking


Thin and transparent, the new house appears to float above the river. That’s due in part to advances in technology. Instead of conventional screening material, Hinman chose innovative fiberglass mesh, which is impervious to the dings that would mar a metal screen, and which also lends the house a diaphanous look.

“People look at it and think it’s made of glass… but it’s not glass at all,” he says.

No. It’s more like a 1,200 square-foot screened porch, designed to shelter a 40-foot, mid-century modern trailer.

Related—House Tour: Trailer Living, Reinvented

Ranch Trailer Home - Side View


An Army of Artisans Descends on a California Craftsman

See how skilled 21st-century artisans brought an early 20th-century home back to life.

Craftsman Restoration

Photo: Spectra Company

In La Verne, California, a small, sunny city roughly 30 miles east of Los Angeles, renovation expert Ray Adamyk recently deployed a half-dozen specialists from what he calls an “artisan army” to restore a down-on-its-heels Craftsman-style home to its former glory.

Occupying a prominent corner lot, the residence was built in 1911 for Henry L. Kuns, a mover and shaker in this town that dates back to the late 1800s and was initially known as Lordsburg. Kuns’s father, David, was a cofounder of the college that went on to become the University of La Verne, and Henry himself had a successful career in business, ran a local bank, and served as mayor.

Related—House Tour: Go Inside a 100-Year-Old Craftsman, Recently Restored

After Kuns died in 1930, his home slowly fell into disrepair. The university bought the place in 2012, and Adamyk entered the picture shortly thereafter. “We bought the house from the University of La Verne,” he says. “We looked at it and saw some potential to bring it back to its grandeur.”

That was no inexpensive proposition. The company Adamyk runs, Spectra, spent $400,000 on the purchase. It then dropped another $900,000 on the building’s rehab. For a full year, carpenters, stonemasons, tile workers and plasterers joined the project, laboring not with the breezy insensitivity that can at times characterize contractors, but in the deliberate, painstaking manner of truly expert restorationists.

Craftsman Restoration - Wood

Photo: Spectra Company

The Kuns House typifies the Craftsman style that remained popular from the late 1800s through the 1930s. In its simplicity, the architecture signaled a reaction against the highly decorative—some would say overwrought—Victorian aesthetic that had come before. In no small part influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and the value it placed on honesty of materials, Craftsman homes harbor such signature traits as exposed beams and generous wainscoting.

Inside, the artisans found plenty of wood in need of refinishing. There was the omnipresent wainscoting, of course, but also oak doors and stairs, and wooden windows that had become inoperable. Hardware throughout was made to shine anew. Where the hardware couldn’t be fixed, the artisans replicated exactly what had been there instead of opting for replacements that, while considerably less expensive, would not have shown the same level of respect for the original building.

The goal, however, was not to create a museum. Rather, Adamyk and his artisans crafted a home equally committed to the past and the present. In the course of work, all plumbing, electrical, and HVAC systems were brought up to date. Although the kitchen was completely redone, its design is in keeping with the rest of the house. In the master bath, the original tub and subway tiles were retained. And in the basement, what was once a coin collector’s vault is now a wine cellar.

Craftsman Restoration - Hallway

Photo: Spectra Company

Perhaps the most intense restoration efforts went into the granite exterior, large portions of which had become loose or had fallen down. Where possible, stones in need of replacement were switched out for granite from the same quarry from which the original stone had come. Artisans gently pressure-washed the granite that had been there for over a hundred years, then scrubbed it all by hand with natural-bristle brushes before pressure-washing it once again. Finally, the artisans applied two coats of sealer to both the granite and the mortar binding it together, preparing the structure for its next hundred years.

Related—House Tour: Go Inside a 100-Year-Old Craftsman, Recently Restored

Completed two months ago, the Kuns House is now on the market for $1.6 million—and it’s turning heads. Sotheby’s reports that potential buyers are inquiring about the residence on a weekly basis. Much of the credit for that interest belongs to the skilled craftspeople who carefully and lovingly brought the place back to life.

Craftsman Restoration - Entryway

Photo: Spectra Company

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes a digital design magazine at, where portions of this feature first appeared.

The Great ESCAPE—A Prairie-Style Cabin on Wheels

See how a 400-square-foot cabin—designed on a human scale and with style to spare—can be spacious, inexpensive, and even movable.

Canoe Bay Escape

Photo: Canoe Bay Escape

Meticulous is the word that comes immediately to mind when you first see ESCAPE, the cabin-on-wheels designed by SALA Architects in conjunction with Dan Dobrowolski, owner of the luxurious Canoe Bay resort in Chetek, Wisconsin.

The tiny 400-square-foot structure, informed and inspired by the Prairie style, is the culmination of more than two thoughtful decades during which Dobrowolski oversaw the building or renovation of 17 structures at the resort, including a lodge, a restaurant, and a collection of gem-like cottages. Canoe Bay was at first an ambitious, learn-by-doing enterprise for the network meteorologist turned hotelier. Over time, the resort’s architecture matured into a sophisticated, cohesive aesthetic that is reflected in the design of ESCAPE.


“Twenty years ago, I bought an abandoned church camp and developed it into a world-class hotel and restaurant,” he says. “We’re in Wisconsin, home of Frank Lloyd Wright, so we adopted our native son’s architectural style for our property.”

Canoe Bay Escape

Photo: Canoe Bay

Showing savvy design instinct in his vision for Canoe Bay, Dobrowolski recruited Wright protégé John Rattenbury, a cofounder of Taliesin Architects in Arizona. He then brought in Kelly Davis from SALA Architects in Stillwater, Wisconsin.

Their designs paid off in spades, as the evolving architectural language they’ve articulated is immensely popular today. Five thousand people pass through Canoe Bay every year, pausing to stay in Dobrowolski’s carefully crafted cottages, to enjoy the outdoor life on three lakes tucked into 300 acres, and to commune with eagles, otters, and bears out in the middle of nowhere.

And now they also come to admire the ESCAPE.

Although the little home takes its cues from the standard park model recreational vehicle (RV), it doesn’t suffer from the standard claustrophobic interiors, usually the result of attempting to cram in every possible luxury, appliance, and gadget known to mankind.

No, this cozy structure has been deliberately built to feel spacious, an effect achieved in part by its cathedral ceiling, but also by its simplicity; the interior is stripped down to the basics without sacrificing style or scale. “It’s a different kind of animal,” Dobrowolski says. “We came at it from a different angle—from the building side.”

A park model RV—taxed as personal property rather than real estate—is restricted by law to a size of just 400 square feet of enclosed space, excluding a porch or deck. So the designers and builders had to adapt. “We decided to see if we could make our architecture fit that size,” he says.

First, they designed ESCAPE on a human scale, despite the limitations of its 14-foot-by-28½-foot dimensions (14 by 40 with the optional screened porch). Second, they did not scrimp on either materials or features. ESCAPE is clad in cedar outside and yellow pine inside, with oak floors. There’s built-in cabinetry everywhere, and a fireplace crafted from weathered aluminum sits in a corner of the main living area. In the bedroom, a huge armoire provides both drawers and hanging space. The full-size kitchen accommodates a standard 30-inch range, and the expansive bath includes such amenities as a walk-in tile shower, a double vanity, and a separate toilet room. “Everything is normal-sized, with high-quality elements,” he says. “It’s built for real people—I’m a big person, and Wisconsin has a lot of full-sized people, so that’s the way it’s built.”

Canoe Bay Escape

Photo: Canoe Bay

To say that ESCAPE is energy efficient is like saying that Frank Lloyd Wright was somewhat gifted. The prototype now on-site at Canoe Bay requires very little electricity. In fact, with every LED on, the lighting uses perhaps 120 watts total, and the entire home could be solar-powered. “The refrigerator and television would eat up most of the energy,” Dobrowolski says. “The energy bills for this prototype have never met the minimum bill of 30 bucks—it’s never gotten close.”

ESCAPE is constructed in the same manner as a traditional stick-built home, with a balloon frame and standard windows, trusses, roofing, siding, and floors. It just happens to lie on top of a steel frame on wheels. “It complies with the federal code, just like an RV,” he says. “It can be pulled anywhere—and the wheels can stay on, with a plywood skirt that covers them.”

Canoe Bay Escape

Photo: Canoe Bay

At 22,000 pounds, however, it’s not something that can be towed around on the rear of a pickup. Like a mobile home, ESCAPE requires the power of an over-the-road tractor to get it where it’s going. But once on-site, setup is essentially a “plug and play” process for plumbing, wiring, and the like. “It takes four to five hours, and we’re done,” he says. “You can take the wheels off if you want, and the hitch too.”

A stripped-down model, sans screened porch, starts out at $79,000. Add the porch, a heated floor for the bath, and all the furnishings, and ESCAPE can top out at $124,000, window coverings included. “You have to bring your own clothes,” he says. “But then you’re ready to have fun.”

ESCAPE can be financed as you would a car or RV, rather than with a mortgage. The monthly payments, he says, are less than the rent for a one-bedroom apartment. Better yet—and unlike an apartment—the ESCAPE can be moved if need be.

Dobrowolski says he’s been surprised by the “tsunami” of demand for the little building since its debut late last year, but he believes he’s hit a nerve. So far, he’s received commitments for more than 100 units, a number of them destined for large campgrounds and resorts out West.

“I’ve immediately solved their problems,” he says. “If I deliver 20 of these to them, then they’ve got an instant resort.”

If only, he says with perfect hindsight, he’d thought of it 20 years ago.


J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes a digital design magazine at

Deconstruction and Smart Planning Brings New Light (and Life) to a Raleigh, N.C., Home

A heavily wooded lot and a poorly built house steered a North Carolina couple toward deconstructing the existing dwelling to erect in its place a new, light-filled gem of a home.


A Raleigh, N.C., couple’s desire for dappled sunlight—thwarted by poorly placed windows in their 1990s house, which was already in horrendous shape—spurred them to build a new, contemporary home on its existing footprint.

“The natural light was there, but it couldn’t be appreciated because the old house had no windows on the south side,” says Angela Hodge, who with her husband had bought the house—their first—in 1999.

The master bedroom suite on the southwest side was the one exception. “That bathroom was nice and bright all the time—the brightest spot in the house,” she says. “But I didn’t hang out in the bathroom all the time.”

Spring Residence Original

Original house prior to deconstruction.

After living there for 10 years, the couple stepped back to take stock of the residence, whose builder clearly must have been in a hurry to throw it together. “As you live in a place, you begin to see its quirks and faults, its good points and bad points,” she says. “This house just wasn’t that well built, with various things like mold and other stuff going wrong.”

“It had Masonite siding and rotting windows, with west-facing, large Palladian windows and solar issues addressed really poorly,” says Erik Mehlman, principal in BuildSense, a design/build firm in nearby Durham that the couple had encountered at a 2009 Green Home Tour. “They had a good sense about the particular house we were in, and what we were ultimately hoping to accomplish,” Hodge says. “So we asked Mehlman to come to the house for a walk-through.”

“It was a production builder’s house, a plan-book house meant for a flat site,” says Mehlman, “but it was on a steep slope.” Underneath the home was a crawl space, 4 feet deep at one end and 12 feet deep at the other.


Discussions ensued about whether it would be best to sell the home, then find another lot and build there. But the clients kept coming back to their heavily wooded site with its mature trees and the light that trickled down through the leafy canopy. Clearly, they did not want to leave it. After careful consideration and weighing of options, the architects conceded, opting to stay on site and rebuild.

One of the initial challenges was the house’s location. Because the home was located near a U.S. Corps of Engineers lake and in a buffer zone for an old streambed, the architects had to respect the home’s existing footprint. Initially, they decided to build atop the crawl space and foundation.

Spring Residence - Living Room

An open plan, ample outdoor spaces, and expanses of windows blur the lines between indoors and out. Photo:

“We said: Let’s take it down to the floor system of the first floor, leave the foundation and masonry work and crawl space, put the floor joists on top of that, then the walls, and then the roof,” Mehlman says. “We wouldn’t have to move the driveway, and we’d avoid site work and the money involved in that.”

Then the client came to them with a request for a guest room in the crawl space, and a wood shop too. The architects began to reconsider. Before long, they ended up digging out the crawl space to create a full, 2,500-square-foot basement with 8-foot-tall ceilings. The space offered a guest room, wood shop, mechanical room, wine cellar, and greenhouse with southern exposure and skylights.

Rather than demolish the home, the architects deconstructed it. They removed the brick and reused it. They saved all the wood framing and built the main staircase out of old studs. “It’s a direct visual link to the old house,” he says. What couldn’t be used was donated to Habitat for Humanity.

As the architects’ vision was coming into place, the homeowners were having a similar shift in design sensibilities—from antiques and clutter to lean, modern, and contemporary. “I call it my Southern Living phase, and actually I guess it really wasn’t me,” Hodge says. “But then I started seeing spaces in homes I visited that were different—streamlined, visually simpler, without a lot of ornate stuff going on—and I responded to that aesthetic better. It was calmer, and resonated with me.”

“They brought us a stack of Atomic Ranch magazines,” Mehlman says. “Then Angela asked if I’d heard of the Japanese engawa way of circulation. It blurs the lines of interior and exterior spaces, and she wanted to experience the outside as much as inside.”

Spring Residence Perforated Aluminum Panels

Perforated aluminum panels distribute light throughout the home. Photo:

So began the design phase. BuildSense started to dissect what makes an Atomic Ranch house—what it is and what, precisely, the client liked about it. Primary candidates were the low, sloping roof, the abundance of decks, and the aesthetic strength of a large masonry unit, inside to out. Instead of focusing on a heavy element, however, the architects listened to what both the clients and site were saying about light. They proposed a three-story tower built of perforated aluminum panels. Lacy and bright, the 16′ x 20′ structure forms an illuminated beacon that pierces all three stories of the new home.

“That light box defines the entry,” Mehlman says. “It’s a good orientation device that brings light in during the day, and at night it’s like a lantern to the street.”

It’s also helpful for finding one’s way up to the third-floor catwalk that leads outdoors to a platform and the telescope that the client required.

But mostly, this is a tower that’s all about dappled light.


J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes an online design magazine at

Mountain Re-Shack: An Abandoned Outbuilding Becomes Home

Architect Chad Everhart breathed new life into a derelict, abandoned shack in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to create a house that is not only eminently habitable but architecturally interesting too.

Mountain Shack Makeover

Photo: Chad Everhart

“Brutal” is the word architect Chad Everhart uses to describe his first encounter with a home he now calls the Mountain Re-Shack.

“There was a seven-foot-long black snake sitting on the front porch,” says Everhart, a professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. “Nobody had lived in it for decades—the windows were blown out, and there were animals in it. But it was solid—you could jump on the floor OK.”

Most would call that a fairly low threshold for a renovation project. In fact, most would simply have called in the sledgehammers and the wrecking ball, and simply taken it down. But not Everhart. “I thought I could patch this thing up,” he says. “I thought it was fixable.”

Original Mountain Shack

The original mountain shack. Photo: Chad Everhart

It was a Depression-era home sited in a 10-acre cow pasture 25 minutes west of Boone in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was most likely built for a farmhand working on larger fields down the road. There were no studs in the walls, just hemlock boards barely hanging on. A galvanized tin roof struggled vainly to keep the structure dry. Inside, vandals had had their way.

“Everybody I talked to said, ‘Tear it down! Put it in the dump!’ ” he says. “But it would have cost a substantial amount of money to throw it away.”

Besides, he was enamored of its highly unusual fieldstone foundation and chimney. It was a cast-in-place affair, shaped by someone who first created wooden forms, then just tossed in rocks and poured concrete on top. Clearly absent were the craftsmanship and clean grout lines that any self-respecting mason would have insisted upon.


“A bunch of farmers probably got together and made this thing—pretty fast and not too fussy,” he says. “There’s no cut stone at all—it’s more like: ‘Here’s a pile of rocks, now let’s see what we can make of it.’ ”

Everhart’s client had initially hired him to build a new house on the site but then shifted gears: Why not do the little house first, live in it for a while and get used to the property? He wanted to see what it would take to make the derelict, abandoned shack livable for a time.

The architect thought about it and offered two approaches. He could fix it up like a little cottage and make it dark and rustic. Or he could celebrate its abandonment with a ghost-like frame that would give it an ephemeral kind of commentary. His client was intrigued.

“Should we patch it up or go absolutely crazy?” Everhart asked him.

The client answered with his own question: “Can we do both?”

They met in the middle and wound up redesigning the house so that it’s not only eminently habitable but architecturally interesting too. It maintains its old ruinous roots with its stone foundation and chimney, but now it wears a new skin—a hemlock-banded rainscreen, painted bright white.

“The client wanted to contrast the old and the new,” Everhart says. “It was kind of like: What could have been there, what should have been there, and what’s there now?”

The architect found a local contractor who’d been a carpenter for 40 years and got to work on reconfiguring most of the interior. “It was 1,000 square feet when we found it, and then we whittled it down to 850,” he says. “It was real chopped up and didn’t make a lot of sense—you had to walk through one room to get to another.”

They replaced the old roof with a new one and added gutters, then moved on to the interior, replacing a few joists to level the floors. “We didn’t want the client to walk on an undulating floor, so we squared it up to make it safe to occupy,” he says.

Mountain Re-Shack Chad Everhart

Living room before and after. Photo: Chad Everhart

They converted two tiny bedrooms on the second floor into one loft that now overlooks the living room below. In that living room, a propane stove, vented through the chimney, heats the entire home; a kitchen/dining area with full bath and laundry area are adjacent. The hemlock rainscreen is repeated inside, painted bright white in contrast to the gray-painted drywall and exposed ceiling joists.

Now it’s a home with its own narrative to tell, rather than a tear-down or a simple restoration. “It’s a story of how the past and the present merge together to show how something abandoned was reclaimed, reworked, reclad and reinhabited,” the architect says.

Everhart looks to both client and site for design inspiration, noting that this is not the house he would have designed for another client—and that for anyone else he probably would have torn it down. But this client is an interior designer who has worked with a number of architects on other projects and was itching to work with one for his own home. Moreover, he represents a new kind of resident for the rural mountains of North Carolina.

“He’s a typical client moving into this region, saying, ‘I want a farm, but a fresh overlay to what that means,’ ” Everhart says.

And then there’s the site itself. “It’s in an old farming community, and we responded to that with local materials and a local guy to build it—and we maintained the original form.”

They did so economically too. Even with its new well and septic system, the Mountain Re-Shack came in just under what new construction might have cost.

“We probably did it for about $150 a square foot,” Everhart says.

And there’s nothing brutal about that.


J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes an online design magazine at

Award-Winning Architect Shares 9 Renovation Tips

Architect Ann Sellars Lathrop distills what wisdom went into her firm's award-winning renovation of a 1950s Cape-style home in Connecticut.

Renovation Tips - Old Hill House

Photo: Ann Sellars Lathrop

Architect Ann Sellars Lathrop made the most of every inch in the Old Hill House, a Westport, Connecticut, family residence that Sellars Lathrop Architects renovated in 2012. (Don’t miss the full story HERE.) For Lathrop, the project brought an award and high praise, but like all the work her firm undertakes, it was also a valuable learning experience. In the wake of transforming a 1950s Cape into a practical, modern dwelling with historic-home flair, Lathrop offers these words of wisdom to anyone planning a large-scale remodel:

  • Eliminate walls to enhance the feeling of space. Our renovation gave the homeowners sight lines between the kitchen, family room, and dining room.
  • Raise the ceiling. In the Old Hill House kitchen, we removed the ceiling joists and exposed the roof rafters, adding skylights over the sink.
  • Add windows for natural light and a view to the outside, and to make rooms seem larger. A worthy goal is for every room to have windows on two walls.
  • Skylights: They’re really important! Abundant light completely changes the mood of a space, and you never have to turn on lights during the day.
Renovation Tiips - Family Room

Photo: Ann Sellars Lathrop

  • As you make other changes, avoid relocating bathrooms; the cost usually outweighs the benefit.
  • Maximize usable square footage not only to improve your quality of life at home, but also to boost resale value.
  • Build shelving into every nook and cranny, because there’s no such as frivolous storage space.
  • The simpler your roofline, the better your bottom line. Gables and other roof features of relative complexity carry a high price tag.
  • Insulation pays. This home’s Energy Star rating warranted a rebate from the utility company, and monthly heating costs have plummeted.
For more on Ann Sellars Lathrop, click here.