Quonset chic: New hut district in the works?

If you tell Gib and Liz Akin their new house looks like a Quonset hut, they won't be offended. In fact, a Quonset was both a joke and the inspiration for the structure going up on Kelly Avenue. That would be the one that has a big sign out front that says, "Warning, NASA test facility."

The idea of the galvanized metal structure sprang from the Akins' frustration at trying to find a material that would enclose a lot of space inexpensively.

"My wife was in an art class and said, 'I could live in a Quonset hut,'" recounts Gib Akin, a professor at the McIntire School of Commerce. "Someone said, 'There is one.'"

They were directed to the headquarters of Gropen Exhibits on East Market Street. From there, they contacted architect John Rhett to learn how to turn a Quonset hut into a residence.

The exterior going up now is a galvanized metal upgrade called Galvalume. "The shell is a very efficient use of material that encloses the most space with the least amount of skin," says Rhett. "That's why the military uses them."

Rhett compares the shape of the large open structure to being inside a cave. "It has a very sheltering quality," he says. He also describes it as like being under a wave, an idea that came from one of his favorite architects, Spain's Antonio Gaudi.

An indoor waterfall will blur the line between outside and in, running through the wall and into the garden outside. The 3,500-sq.-ft. interior is largely open, with a 1,000-foot mezzanine for Liz's art studio.

And is the Galvalume as economical as they'd hoped? Gib Akin declines to discuss cost. "I don't think I want to talk about that," he demurs.

The house is within a block or so of two other double-take houses designed by architects for themselves (and featured in the March 27 Hook): Edward and Jane Ford's Farish Street place with the big green V-shaped steel supports and butterfly-winged roof, and Carrie and Kevin Burke's copper-clad residence on Park Street.

Is north downtown becoming a hotbed of innovative architecture?

"It appears so," answers Rhett. "I think there are a lot of architects in that neighborhood."

Phoebe Frosch, whose Evergreen Avenue lot abuts the Akins', has had architects interested in building on her property. "If you want something interesting and architecturally designed downtown, there's not that much land available," she says.

The Akins bought the lot on Kelly Avenue in 2000 for $175,000 and tore down the existing 1950s modular building that Frosch calls "a ratty little house." And she thinks teardowns– long popular in Southern California– might be more of a trend for well-heeled Charlottesvillians.

Frosch has no problem with the new house. "It's different and out of keeping with the architecture of the neighborhood but the architecture here isn't all that interesting anyway," she says.

And she envies the way modern architecture integrates indoors and out in a way that her 1930s house doesn't.

But not everyone is impressed with the shiny metal frame taking shape. "Someone asked if it was a hangar," says Akin, hence the NASA sign put up by the metalworkers.

Willie Mae Perkins has lived on Kelly Avenue for over 30 years. When asked her opinion of the Akins' house, she laughs and says, "You wouldn't be able to print it."

Perkins doesn't understand why such avant garde architecture is going up in a traditional neighborhood. But her larger concern is the effect on her property values.

"My main gripe is my appraisal goes up," she says. "They build these enormous structures, and older residents' taxes go up. That's not fair."

Perkins takes solace in the fact that the Quonset house is set back from the street on a fairly secluded lot. And it won't always have the current gleaming metal exterior. Insulation will be sprayed on, giving it a gray, stucco-like finish, says Akin.

He's looking forward to the open space of his new home with its radiant heat floor and the huge kitchen with "serious firepower." And the couple will build more barriers to screen their huge windows from the street. Completion date is scheduled for April.

Neighbor Perkins sounds dubious when she says, "I guess they call it progress."

It's not a hangar, but it was inspired by the architecture of a Quonset hut.