Modern houses are popping up on urban and close-in suburban lots across the country. While not fully centered in the mainstream yet, it’s obvious the market for modern is growing. One strong indicator is that many of these houses are speculative projects, which are typically conservative ventures geared toward the common ground of buyers’ tastes. No one would build them if they didn’t think there was a real appetite for them. Alas, a large portion of these speculative houses aren’t very successful from a design standpoint. They miss the mark in the massing, the detailing, and a myriad of other flaws. Atlanta is replete with these kinds of mediocre moderns, but buyers’ hunger for something fresh and different means they still sell and the cycle continues. When a good modern house turns up here, it’s a truly noteworthy occasion. Such was the case with Split Box House, which emerged from its hilly, muddy site last year like a beacon of hope—finally someone was building a good modern house in the city. It captured everyone’s attention—and a starring role on Atlanta’s annual tour of modern homes.
You can probably guess the punchline from here. No, this was not a speculative project; it was not even a simple custom home—it was an architect’s own house for himself and his family. Sometimes architects are their own best patrons—if they can convince their spouses to come along for the ride.
For David I. Goldschmidt, AIA, and his family, it was a long journey in years to this point, but a short trip from their rental house in the same close-in neighborhood. “When my wife and I moved here from New York, we had to find something quickly. So we rented a 1950s, three-bedroom ranch,” he recalls. “We thought we would just stay a short time until we found something we liked, but it took us eight years to locate the right property. I liked nothing. There were one or two houses to buy in the neighborhood, and they were OK, but we would have had to renovate. We put bids on two properties before this one. One ended up as a bidding war and I was too cheap to pay another $2,000 for it. It would have been less expensive in the long run—and an easier build. The other property had a huge, steep hill—even worse than this site.”
Although the lesser evil, this wooded urban lot was no walk in the park by any means. Says David’s general contractor, Wyatt Anderson of Post + Beam Builders, “It’s basically a hole. It is the most difficult site I’ve ever had to deal with.” Still, it had some virtues going for it. The location is close to two of Atlanta’s biggest employers—the Centers for Disease Control and Emory University—and it’s a mature neighborhood with plenty of greenery, parks and trails, and convenient shopping nearby. Best of all, the lot was deep and wide—nearly 300 feet to the back of the property and 110 feet fronting the street. There was elbow room to get creative.
“No developer would have touched this site,” David admits. “They would have moved on to something easier. But we like the challenge. The more constraints there are, the more opportunities. If it’s a normal, flat site, what do I do? And the width of it gave me the ability to play.”
If you drive through the neighborhood, you can see how decades of builders and architects have coped with the topography—which drops 15 feet or more from the road in some areas. “There are a couple of houses where people drive across a bridge to get to their house and then park underneath. We thought about a bridge, or an entrance terrace with steps to the house. Instead, we did a series of terraced steps descending to the house—but everyone still walks down the driveway.”
The Hole Story
David had eight years to ponder his design, but without a specific site he could only narrow down the aesthetics and approach he hoped to take. “I had an idea of how I wanted to do the house—the minimalism and the detailing,” he says. “When we got the property, I devised the general idea of coming down the site, going through a hole, and continuing down. The whole house would step down the hill and work with the topography. Then I could figure out the massing.”
Architects have a penchant for taking something easy and designing in complexity. Speculative builders, on the other hand, tend to stay with the easy and layer on decoration. Had David wanted to build the cheapest, most straightforward modern house he could, he would have simply plopped a glass-filled cube on the lot, as so many are doing in the city. But he wanted to do more than just employ the site, he wanted to engage it at every opportunity. So he started with the usual house box, “cut” it to suit the programmed square footage, divided it into public and private functions, and then split and rotated the box into perpendicular volumes.
A public main level is the long bar that runs lengthwise down the lot, and the private second level orients widthwise parallel to the street. The second level spans across to join a ground floor guest suite, forming the “hole” to the back of the property.
The hole is much more than the sum of its parts, however. In many ways, it’s the central delight of the house. Lined in ipe, it becomes a fully articulated outdoor room—a grand front porch, of sorts. It asks the eye to stop, rest, and enjoy, while simultaneously beckoning it on to the curated landscape beyond.
“A square is the most efficient house to build,” David admits. “Ours, because it’s two long bars, is not the most cost-effective. But it allowed me to frame every interesting view to the back of the property. At first, I didn’t even want windows on the front of the house. But my wife wouldn’t go for that.”
David is good humored when describing the dynamic of designing for his own family—in a punchy, Henny Youngman kind of way: “It was interesting having my family as a client. In general, it worked out OK. I would narrow things down to a few choices, and my wife would pick the one I liked the least. And then I’d overrule her,” he jokes.
Ultimately, it was a successful collaboration that influenced especially the internal organization of the house. Bedrooms for the couple and three young children are clustered on the second level, for instance, instead of the market’s typical master on the main floor. Spanning the hall between them are computer homework stations (illuminated by those windows at the front of the house), where foot traffic keeps the kids out of internet trouble. “Hallways are usually wasted space anyway, so building the nooks with cabinets above and desks below made good use of it. And it meant the kids’ bedrooms aren’t grossly oversized,” says David. “We didn’t want them to go into their rooms and hide.” The children’s rooms are democratically proportioned, but each has its own arrangement and personality.
The main level, which comprises a combination kosher kitchen, dining, and living area, makes use of its long, south-facing circulation spine for runs of built-in walnut cabinets. “People want to live in a modern house, but they don’t have places for all their crap,” David quips. “So we have storage walls to put all the junk in. We have a million cabinets that are nowhere near full. Having all that cabinetry means we don’t have to store things in the basement or have a garage full of stuff.”
The unencumbered basement benefits from the site’s topography, which allows for a family room completely above grade. An additional guest room with dedicated bathroom and a small reading area occupy the less commodious areas. David took the subterranean basement area of the site’s previous house to make a “hockey room,” where kids can burn off steam without harm to finished spaces.
Architects love reveals and, for the most part, builders loathe them. Wyatt and partner Ryan Howard definitely mustered some deep reserves of patience in executing David’s fiber cement rainscreen cladding. “Those panels were the toughest part of the job,” Wyatt recalls. “But they’re also the most impressive aspect of the house. Every reveal lines up with a window or door. I had done a small rainscreen before, but nothing of this size and complexity. It was a real learning experience.” (David managed the concrete contractor himself to ensure equal precision for the foundation walls formed on a 3-foot module.)
Overall, the architect, who is also LEED accredited, is very happy with how the cladding functions. Not only does it cope with Atlanta’s countless days of rain, the air gap it creates keeps the house cooler during the hot months. Other green moves include placing the glazing to the east and north of the house, skylights daylighting the kitchen, living area, and stair hall, and, of course, the live roof. “Functionally, it handles some of the water run-off on the site,” he explains. “But aesthetically, because we’re down so low, if you were standing on the street or looking out from the second floor, you would otherwise be looking at white TPO. I hate when you’re in a nice house and you see a crappy roof. But I created the problem by splitting the house in two, so I had to solve it.” Maintenance access is provided by a large operable window.
Speaking of windows, pattern is also at play in the fenestration—both in service to framing particular views and to the larger goal of activating the façades of the house. “If they were all the same size and shape, the house would look kind of static,” says David.
The application of wood trim achieves the same purpose—enlivening and adding warmth to the house both inside and outside. David’s logic for where it’s placed follows the idea of those “cuts” to the box. “We applied it wherever the house got chopped—ipe outside, white oak inside, and engineered walnut for the walls. Every time the building gets ‘cut,’ it becomes a different material. I thought the window wall could have been wood inside, too, but my wife said no.”
With some guidance by Core Landscape, David manipulated the property to master the hill’s transitions and to slow the flow of water on site. Vegetation was selected to that end, as well, and to provide curated glimpses of nature from those strategically placed windows. A low foundation wall toward the back of the lot creates a flat spot for the kids to play.
In addition to the accolades on the home tour last year, Split Box House has recently won merit recognition in AIA Atlanta’s Residential Design Awards. It seems the city might be ready for some good modern houses, after all.
Plans and Drawings
Split Box House
David I. Goldschmidt, DiG Architects, Atlanta
BUILDER: Wyatt Anderson and Ryan Howard, Post + Beam Builders, Atlanta
INTERIOR DESIGNER: DiG Architects
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Core Landscape, Atlanta
STRUCTURAL ENGINEERING: PEC Structural Engineering, Decatur, Ga.
CIVIL ENGINEERING: Crescent View Engineering, Marietta, Ga.
PROJECT SIZE: 4,878 square feet
SITE SIZE: .77 acres
PHOTOGRAPHY: Alexander Herring
CLADDNG: American Fiber Cement, ipe
FAUCETS: Kohler, Axor, Aquabrass
FLOORING: White oak
COOKING APPLIANCES/DISHWASHER: Miele
GARAGE DOORS: Custom, LiftMaster
GREEN ROOF: LiveRoof, TPO
HOME CONTROL: Savant
LIGHTING: C Lighting, Satco
LIGHTING CONTROL: Lutron
MASTER TUB: BainUltra
PAINTS/STAINS: Benjamin Moore, Sherwin-Williams, Messmer’s, IdeaPaint Magnet White Board
PASSAGE DOORS: EzyJamb
SECURITY SYSTEM: Honeywell
THERMAL/MOISTURE BARRIERS: VaproShield Revealshield
TOILETS: Duravit, Icera
WASHER/DRYER: LG, GE
WINDOWS/WINDOW WALL SYSTEMS/ENTRY DOORS: Western Window Systems