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.”
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.
“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.”
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 www.architectsandartisans.com.