My house as a life: When architects design for themselves

Driving around town, you've probably seen them: the louvered orange house with the terraces down by Riverview Park; the machine-like structure with the big green "V" over on Farish; or the three-story wall of glass brick gleaming in the woods above Meadowbrook Road. With luck, you didn't swerve off the road.

What do these eye-poppingly modern buildings have in common? They're all houses architects have built for themselves, places where the wildest theories of structural design are put into practice for the architects' own personal pleasure.

Now, before you classicists and fans of colonial brick roll your eyes at the results, consider this: Thomas Jefferson's Monticello was no less radical in its day.

In fact, Jefferson spent 40 years building, altering, redesigning, tearing down, and rebuilding what he called his "essay in architecture."

Visiting America in the early 1780s, the Marquis de Chastelleux remarked that Monticello "resembled none of the others seen in this country," and Jefferson acknowledged in an 1822 letter, "experience has proved to me that my place is considered as among the curiosities of the neighborhood."

Some even thought curiosity killed the cat. Thirteen years after Jefferson's death, the Niles National Register offered this assessment of Monticello: "We will venture to say that Mr. Jefferson had no distinct conception of any design when he commenced building, but enlarged, added, and modified as his ingenuity contrived, until this incomprehensible pile reached this acme of its destiny in which it stands at present, still indeed unfinished."

Monticello, an "incomprehensible pile"? It just goes to show that what seems architecturally outrageous today may be stamped "classic" tomorrow.

In the same way Monticello served as "the one place where Jefferson's ideas about what a house should be could evolve," as William Beiswanger writes in Monticello in Measured Drawings, the houses here are not only homes but also modern labs for testing their owners' philosophies of how life should be lived at a material level. Join The Hook as we take a tour of what architects build when they build for themselves.

 

"Timepiece"

  614 Park Street

Owners: Carrie and Kevin Burke

Architect: Carrie Burke (Consulting architect: Kevin Burke)

General Contractor: Carrie Burke

Year started: 1998

Move-in date: 1999

Size: 2,200 square feet

Noteworthy materials: Copper siding and roof, poured concrete flooring, marine hardware and cables, birch and maple.

Hubbub: Featured in Architectural Record, 01.2003.

When Carrie and Kevin Burke first put the copper siding on their Park Street house, it raised a few eyebrows– and a few tempers. After all, who would build a modern house shining like a freshly minted penny amid the grand old mansions of a historic district? Believe it or not, a pair of architects dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the neighborhood.

What the Burkes knew, and some critics may not have, is the reflective orange would rapidly weather to a burnished purple on its way to an eventual green, allowing their house to recede almost unnoticed from the street. "Ultimately, we'd like to see this original Victorian block just read as the three original houses," says Carrie Burke, "and ours won't be, from a city experience, visible."

The changing color of the maintenance-free copper exterior is just one aspect of the architect's obsession with time. In fact, the entire structure functions as a sundial in what was once a section of the 1884 Duke House garden (current Duke House owner Marla Ziegler embraces the Burkes' design). Interested in light as a "style-less medium," Carrie Burke placed a skylight with an oculus in the roof of the new house, creating a beam of light that sweeps through the open interior in arcs and planes that vary with the seasons and illuminate the ceiling and stair forms.

Burke says, "Living here at first I was struck dizzy by just how quickly the earth is spinning and how fast time is moving... But after that initial crisis, now I have a real sense of peace about it." She revels in how the quality of light changes throughout the day as she works in her mezzanine-level studio overlooking the main floor.

Sharing the house with her husband (a design partner at William McDonough + Partners) and 10-year-old daughter, Burke may be heady with intellectual theory, but she's down-to-earth when it comes to practicalities, like poured concrete floors with radiant heat (able to be marked with chalk when charting light paths!), passive solar heating from south-facing windows, innovative sliding storage in the kitchen, and medicine cabinets incorporated in the vertical trim of the master bath's floor-to-ceiling windows.

"The only thing I really miss is there was one design that had a sky window over our bed," Burke says. "I've always imagined it would be great to fall asleep looking up to the sky."

 

Vickery House

 430 North First Street

Owners: Mary and Robert Vickery

Architect: Robert Vickery

General Contractor: Smith and Robertson Contractors

Year started: 1994

Move-in date: 1995

Size: 2,340 square feet

Noteworthy materials: Red brick, glass brick, copper, white oak.

Hubbub: In 1996, received an honor award from the James River Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Mary and Robert Vickery like North First Street. Since moving to Charlottesville in 1969, they've lived in three different houses along its short stretch, including the 5,000-square-foot Gleason House. "From my viewpoint, this is one of two sorts of urban streets in Charlottesville. The other one is Second Street," says Robert Vickery. "This is where I like to live. I like an urban environment."

So when the couple decided to build a home for their later years, naturally they snapped up the street's last remaining lot, a tiny sliver of land with a steep grade. To meet the city's requirements for construction, they had to purchase a foot or two extra from neighbors on either side.

But working small was what Robert Vickery had in mind, having become convinced that architects were designing overly large homes. Given the site's limitations, he created a flat-faced, red brick, cube-like structure roughly half the size of the Gleason House.

"Some people say we violated the neighborhood by building this rather abstract facade," he acknowledges, "but in terms of scale and placement, we were very concerned about the context."

Vickery, a founding (but retired) partner of VMDO Architects, designed a street-level bridge as access to the house's front entryway, which features sliding red barn doors. Mary Vickery laughs that people often remark, "Oh, you have a moat."

Inside, a broad hallway opens onto a two-story living area, with a dining room table at the heart of its north-south, east-west axis. According to Robert Vickery, "The dining room is the most important room of the house. That's where everyone comes together."

A "floating" kitchen to the south allows socializing while cooking.

Except for the bathrooms and two lower-level studios, reached by a glass bricked stairwell, there are few closing doors within the house, which Vickery says makes the small space feel large by allowing rooms to open onto each other.

To accommodate an elevator, which he admits doesn't get much use, Vickery shifted the front hall's closet to an unusual location. "We moved the coat closet to the back of the toilet," he explains. "Everyone thought we were crazy, but when everybody's ready to go home..."

Pleased with the home's reduced scale of living, Vickery nevertheless says, "I'm convinced that if we did it again, we could take another 800 feet out of the house."

 

Waldman House

  3260 Sutherland Road, North Garden

Owners: Nancy and Peter Waldman

Architect: Peter Waldman

General Contractor: Ace Contracting, Inc.

Year started: 1994

Move-in date: 1995

Size: 2,800 square feet

Noteworthy materials: Copper siding, poured concrete flooring, glass brick, concrete block, steel framing.

Hubbub: Featured in numerous publications. It was the only American house profiled in 1996 Japanese review of international architecture.

It would be easy to mistake UVA architecture professor Peter Waldman's brown copper-fronted house, with its attached silver smokestack rising above a concrete-block kitchen, for some sort of agricultural storage facility tucked in the woods above a gravel North Garden road. But a closer look would reveal occasional windows and deck furniture atop the concrete block half-moon.

It's an altogether different story inside. As you enter the kitchen (which has a drain in middle of the floor for hosing down after messy meals), concrete stairs rise beside an exterior wall of clear glass, arriving in one startlingly huge room. The south-facing front wall is jammed with art: Here's a birthday piece from Michael Graves; there's a photograph of a fallen tree; in the middle, an Indian miniature. A long stretch of floor-to-ceiling glass brick forms the back wall, ending at the edge of a bathroom with a step-down black-tiled tub.

In the middle of the concrete floor, beyond an arrangement of living room furniture, stands a giant circular sculpture that Waldman created in 1987 for the American Museum of Arts and Crafts. He explains, "It's a bit like the house, in that the outside can be beat up like the wheel, which is like a packing crate. The weather can leave its marks. But it gets increasingly more refined when you get into it."

Constructed of cut-and-fill concrete slabs topped with a steel frame, the house has all its plumbing and wiring exposed for easy maintenance. It gives Waldman and his wife, Nancy, what they were looking for: "We wanted one good raw space."

Since it's the first house he's built for his wife and himself, Waldman's interested in experimenting, and delights in the happy accident. For instance, a shallow trough of pottery shards runs through the floor, the result of some shelving that fell early on. Out back, the copper roof is now bleeding bluish-green streaks down the wall. Waldman observes with a smile, "It comes up with its own rhythm."

There are still a lot of projects left to do, including building a more private bathroom attached to the back by a glass hall, installing a roof garden, and creating a glazed room around a fireplace on the front deck.

Although he sometimes wishes the house had an attic or basement for storage, Waldman points out, "It's dedicated to materials... It's very low-tech, and it's very primitive.

 

Ewing-Hayes House

  1900 Chesapeake Street

Owners: Allison Ewing and Chris Hays

Architect: Allison Ewing and Chris Hays

General Contractor: Craig DuBose

Year started: 1998

Move-in date: 1999

Size: 2,800 square feet

Noteworthy materials: Cyprus, reclaimed heartwood pine, Douglas fir, birch and cedar, Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), Hardiplank siding (fiber-cement), Plycem flooring (fiber-cement).

Hubbub: Featured in Natural Home, March/April 2003.

Standing on his broad trellis-covered verandah, looking out across the backyard pond to the Woolen Mills church on the hill beyond, Chris Hays says, "I think what was really exciting for us was to find a place in town that felt like it was still part of the country." After all, Hays and his wife, Allison Ewing, both design partners at McDonough + Partners, had been looking a long time for the right city site on which to build a family home for their two young children.

As environmental architects, the couple wanted to design a sustainable house using an innovative combination of materials, such as cyprus for the exposed wood on the exterior and Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs, essentially a foam core sandwiched between two sheets of plywood) for the interior walls. Ewing says, "In general, I think our interest is how to build healthy and live in perhaps a different way than our traditional way of living."

The pair also wished to incorporate aesthetic ideas they'd admired in Italy and Japan. In particular, they liked the Italian tradition of first arriving in a garden, along with the appreciation of outdoor living areas, and the Japanese concept of "ma," or "the space between," which influenced their creation of a bridge connecting the two wings of the house and placement of large windows throughout to blur the line between within and without.

The result is a passive solar, light-filled, two-part house. On the left, beyond a pivoting gate fronting Chesapeake Street, stands a two-story living room that flows into a dining area with an open kitchen just above. Upstairs to the left, a small play area leads down the hall to the children's domain, two rooms connected by an internal window below and a play loft above.

To the right of stairs, a sun-drenched bridge provides access to the master bedroom and bath, which are over a separate studio to the entry gate below. Ewing points out with a smile, "It's a very rational plan, in that there's no feng shui going on."

Although occasionally they long for a little more space, Ewing and Hays are pleased with their collaborative effort, noting their biggest source of contention when designing the house was the color scheme. "Chris likes orange," Ewing laughs. "Everything's orange. He won."

 

Clark House

  2013 Pine Top Road

Owner: W.G. Clark

Architect: W.G. Clark

General Contractor: Ace Contracting, Inc.

Year started: 1995

Move-in date: 1996

Size: 1,400 square feet

Noteworthy materials: Concrete block, poured concrete flooring, glass brick, birch plywood.

Hubbub: None. They did not publish on purpose in order to ensure privacy.

Entering W.G. Clark's house, a two-story wall of transparent windows to the east and a three-story wall of glass brick to the north create a strange sensation of still being outside. There's an obvious difference, though: Outside is messy and tangled, whereas Clark's interior is nothing if not clean and spare.

"I don't like clutter," he says, although he does enjoy looking at it beyond the window. "I have always loved this hillside, and one of the reasons I love it is because of its wildness, its unmanicured trees falling down, the changes with the seasons."

Located at the end of a cul de sac near Meadowbrook Road, Clark's small house at first appears to be a solid exercise in concrete block, although a hint of light plays behind the chimney visible through the glass entryway. It's the ideal façade for a man who values his privacy.

"First of all, I'm single," Clark says, "and so I built this totally with the idea that it's for a single person. And so you will see it is tiny."

Nevertheless, the living room, with its ceiling of birch plywood two stories overhead and railing overlooking a sliver of the bedroom below, feels large. "The trick is to build one room that has volume and space in it, and the others can be very, very small," Clark explains.

He points out that the guest area/study on the mezzanine level above has "the tiniest bathroom in the Western world," and jokes about its unusually narrow sink, "My son claims he couldn't shave in it and wasn't going to stay here anymore."

Likewise, he says of the kitchen, "It's a small room with generous spaces." Clark has indulged a few particular preferences in the kitchen, like putting a side-by-side refrigerator under the counter because he doesn't like hulking refrigerators out in the room. "Most people won't let me do that, but I will," he says.

Two things Clark especially enjoys about the space he's designed are the west-facing kitchen, which allows him to watch the sunset as he cooks dinner, and the way the glass block diffuses light when darkness falls. During the day, the north wall's translucence diffuses views of Bodo's, 29 North, and the 250 bypass, but Clark says, "At night, the effect of the glass block, all the cars and things going by, it turns into candles burning, and it's just beautiful."

 

"Dooms Bremo"

  Red Hill School Road, North Garden

Owner: Walter Lundwall

Architect: Walter Lundwall

General Contractor: Walter Lundwall

Year started: 1998

Move-in date: 1999

Size: 850 square feet

Noteworthy materials: Concrete block, stucco, oak.

Hubbub: You're looking at it.

Down a deeply rutted red clay road in North Garden, standing next to a gnarled dead tree, Walter Lundwall's mottled grey stucco house looks like something out of a twisted fairy tale. Its lancet-arched front door, steeply pitched roof, and exaggeratedly long windows loom on a hill above hay fields stretching toward the last mountains of the Piedmont. "I want to grow all that into poppies," he says gesturing toward the fields.

Adding to the surreal feel of the site is an unfinished concrete block "arboretum" that Lundwall's adding to one side of the house. With more lancet-arched entries, its as-yet-unroofed walls currently rise 16 feet (Lundwall plans to extend them another eight) around a carpet of green grass. An enclosed catwalk will connect to the second floor of the main house, and, eventually, it will all bear the same mottled stucco façade. "I call it the bombed-out European look," Lundwall laughs.

Lundwall built a similar home in Batesville in 1990, but sold it "because it was a little too far out of town." Because he liked his first house, he essentially copied it in North Garden, with one significant improvement: "I put a closet in this one."

Although he lacks formal architectural training, Lundwall is rich in practical experience as a design/build contractor for his own company, Freighttrain. "And my grandfather was an architect, so I think it just bled through to me," he says.

"I literally built this entire house by myself," Lundwall points out. "The only thing I had done here was, obviously, I had a well drilled, and then when I did the excavation, I hired a backhoe."

His construction skills enable Lundwall to add and remove features as he pleased. The back of the house bears the scar of an aborted "room of zero meaning," which he tried out then rejected as too narrow to be practical. Inside the house, though, he decided to leave its cast-iron gate in place.

Besides finishing the arboretum, Lundwall is currently at work on an attic studio, and he eventually plans to build a 20 x 40-foot "great hall," where he plans to throw parties. Looking up at his house, he shakes his head, "It's a work in progress. It will never end."

"The biggest building lesson I've learned," he says, "is it's always way harder than you think it's going to be."

 

Ford House

  707 Farish Street

Owners: Edward and Jane Ford

Architect: Edward Ford

General Contractor: Ace Contracting, Inc.

Year started: 1999

Move-in date: 2001

Size: 3,000 square feet

Noteworthy materials: Steel framing, girders, pine and oak.

Hubbub: Will be featured in The New American House 4 (Watson-Guptill Publications, June 2003).

Drive down Farish Street, and you can't miss the big steel V, painted brilliant bottle green, that provides structural support to the front of the house Edward Ford shares with his wife, Jane. If you were to walk around to the back, your jaw would probably drop at the glass table riding atop an orange girder that seems to pass through the dining area's glass wall. But pay too much attention to the industrial aspect of the house, and Ford will bristle.

"It uses a lot of different materials," he points out, "mostly wood framing. Wood floors. There are even some fairly traditional details in the house if you look for them."

Inside the front landing, there are, in fact, beautifully crafted oak steps descending into an expansive kitchen, with the inside half of Ford's unique dining table jutting into the room on the right. Ford says the kitchen, which features extensive counter space, a central island, and a glassed-in breakfast nook at the far end, was a priority because his wife grew tired of the their old house's tiny kitchen.

Passing through a small sitting area with its own fireplace on the landing between the kitchen and the main level, the UVA architecture professor explains, "I wanted to have something that had the character of a traditional house but that didn't have the sort of literal, Disney-like kind of imitation of a house." Admiring both traditional wood houses and contemporary steel residences, he decided to try to capture the character of both.

"We decided to build a house for us, not for resale," he says.

Since this was the first home Ford attempted, he threw himself into working on every aspect of the project. "If things got done wrong, it was my fault," he says. "It probably wasn't a very efficient way to work, but I enjoyed it."

Now after a year of living in the house, Ford has discovered no big regrets and points out, "I'm not very good at visualizing what if, like 'what if we had done that,' or 'what if we had built there.'"

He admits, "I have to say the first question everybody asks me is about the color," although he's surprised they're not more curious about the butterfly-winged roof.

"I don't think of this as a Virginia house," he says, "but I do think it's a very American house."

 

Schuyler House

  Birdland, Orange County

Owners: Karen and Mark Schuyler (lighting designer)

Architect: Jim Rounsevell

General Contractor: Floyd Hill

Year started: 2002

Move-in date: TBD

Size: 1,700 square feet

Noteworthy materials: Galvalume (sheet steel with a zinc aluminum alloy coating), Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), parallel strand lumber

Hubbub: TBD

Architect Jim Rounsevell respectfully refers to Mark and Karen Schuyler's house-in-progress as "Strawberry Field." Mark Schuyler calls it "The Chicken Shack." And Karen Schuyler laughs that it's the "Palais de Poulet."

Looking at the long, silver-sided structure, with a passage dividing it into two spaces, Mark points out, "Not only is it modernist, but it's a sly joke because it's all the southern thingsI t's a chicken shack, shed-roof barn, chicken shack with a dog trot in it which is actually pretty funny."

When the lighting designer and his wife, who works at the Nature Conservancy, decided to build a house, they had two major concerns: 1) it had to be within their budget, and 2) it had to offer a sustainable design. The choice of a lighting designer was obvious, but how to choose an architect when Mark works with so many? Karen says, "We decided to go with the one that I wanted, to get Mark off the hook."

Enter Jim Rounsevell, who had worked with Mark previously on Higher Grounds. "They really came with pre-conceived notions ideas about materials," Rounsevell recalls. "They like the corrugated metal and wood."

Given their conservative priorities, he created a modest open-floored plan, featuring passive solar heat conduction on the nearly windowless south wall (glass beneath the raised pitched roof provides light from all sides of the house), and a series of sliding transparent doors on the north, looking out toward the mountains in the distance.

The architect also incorporated some economical, efficient materials, such as parallel strand lumber for the beams and Structural Insulated Panels for the walls. The latter required Mark to nail his lighting design down early since the pre-fab panels had to be pre-cut for electrical fixtures and outlets.

Regarding the one picture window on the south side, which sheds light on a buried bathroom, Karen jokes it's "the go-go cage." Mark adds, "That's how we're going to pay the mortgage. Karen will go-go there on the first of the month."

Due to move into their new house any day, Mark is anxious to experience living with his own lighting design. Already, he says, the experience of building for himself has made him more sensitive to his clients' concerns, something he can ponder on the long commute to town.

"Doing a sustainable house and then driving to Charlottesville," he says, "there's something kind of ironic about that."