Case Study: Thayer Brick House by Brooks + Scarpa and Studio Dwell

A traditional, tree-lined neighborhood in a venerable Chicago suburb is hardly the place for a glassy courtyard house. Nor is the prominent use of Chicago common brick, a cheap and abundant material historically deployed in areas obscured from the street. But Brooks + Scarpa’s client requested something unusual on this 50-foot-by-150-foot infill lot near Northwestern University. “Our client wanted something very different and striking,” says Larry Scarpa, FAIA. “He said jokingly, ‘I want them to hate me.’” He got his wish, except for the community response. “So far the comments have been very positive,” Larry says. “It has not been controversial, and no variances were required.”

Designed for a single man with grown children, the layout is straightforward, with a rectangular open living room, dining area, and kitchen, and an offset office near the front of the courtyard on the first floor. Above are an open-plan master suite and a guest bedroom over the office. But the building is not about the plan, it’s about the spatial experience. The porous street façade consists of an outdoor courtyard behind a row of stacked, twisting brick columns-cum-art installation. The 28-foot-tall columns create an undulating pattern of opening and closing as light moves across them. This appears as a moire-like pattern to people passing the house—transparent at some points and opaque at others. The brick scrim also allows glare-free natural light to penetrate the building’s glass walls, while illumination from the house seeps through to the street at night. 

Fascinated by the idea of buildings that “move,” Larry was counting on this effect. 

“When I give a talk and organize it, I start to see some threads in what I do,” he says. “What’s been emerging recently is the idea of movement as something that’s more dynamic; architects have had a lot of failures of moving buildings. This building doesn’t physically move, but when you walk or drive by, it appears to move. The way it’s organized changes from solid to void.”

He looks to artists, rather than other buildings, for design inspiration. One of his muses is the British painter Patrick Hughes, who did a series called Reverspective. “He paints pictures of other famous artworks, but in the way he puts it on canvas, it shapes the canvas so that when you move past it, the painting appears to move and change. Literally when you pass by it, things that appeared open from one view close up in another view; it’s ephemeral.”

In this way, the house almost serves as a palate-cleanser in the suburban landscape. “We thought of the building as a bit of a pause in the setting in that it’s more neutral, almost blank on the site,” he says.

Science of Perception

Early on, the client was set on having a steel-and-glass house like a Brooks + Scarpa project he’d seen in Venice, California. “He didn’t want brick at the time, but it’s Chicago, you have to do brick,” Larry says. But what kind of brick? His local partner on the project was the architecture firm Studio Dwell. Its principal Mark Peters, AIA, weighed design decisions against the reality of costs, served as the client’s local contact, and managed construction. Several years ago Mark rebuilt the front wall of his office with Chicago common brick grafted from another part of the old warehouse. “When the client came to my office, he said, ‘I want that look,’” Mark says. “We did 20 mockups in the field before he approved.”

Made from Lake Michigan clay, Chicago common brick looks different from typical red bricks as a result of the clay’s geological composition. When fired, the colors come out inconsistent—spotty, red, yellow, or dark. Larry’s idea was to turn a humble material into something extraordinary. “I like the idea of taking what was always seen as the bad stuff and hidden from view, and displaying it prominently as a major feature of the design,” he says. 

Ironically, unbeknownst to Larry at the time, the brick has become desirable today as supplies dwindle. But it is solid, irregular, and difficult to install. The team ended up working with a manufacturer to produce new bricks that look like Chicago common brick, a tricky process of choosing the right percentage of yellows, reds, and pinks. 

Getting the front wall’s twirling columns just right was equally complicated. Over many iterations, the team mapped out the rotation of each brick on a computer. “We made a lot of animated 3D video clips, making the user move to see the effects of what we did,” Larry says. “Some bricks go from flat to 90 degrees. The idea was to create a surface that undulates and you can see through; using the rationalization or computer helped us turn that into easy components that are understandable and constructible.”

Like a painter on canvas, this is the architect’s interpretation of something that flows and moves. “A piece I really like was done by one of my colleagues at USC who is also a well-known choreographer,” Larry says. “He did improvisational pieces with light and his body, creating shape through the interaction of light and movement. I think of it as experiments or a moment as opposed to some finite and fixed design.”

The wall’s relative ease of construction belied its complexity, though the team tested various ways to install it. One of the earlier ideas was to slide the bricks down vertical rods like beads on a chain. However, working with an engineer, they figured out that, because the columns pivot, a 4-inch-round circle of mortar between each brick would be enough to support them. “It was the lateral wind load that was the issue,” Mark says. “We had 2-inch-by-3-inch-by-6-inch tubes running every 32 inches horizontally, and we tied the bricks back to those.” The wall was divided into 12 quadrants and laid on a sheet, mapping out the 18-, ¼- , or ½-inch turns. “I was really surprised at how willing the mason was to work on it,” Mark says. “Once he started, he said it was the easiest thing ever, and it went up quickly.”

See Through

Behind the wall, the house has a conventional envelope—wood frame with doubled-faced brick sides, a glass front façade, and cement panels and glass on the back. The path to the front door follows the playbook too. It’s laid on the diagonal so that, from the front, the building looks like it’s sitting in a field of native prairie grasses, and visitors can experience the changing façade as they approach the recessed entry. A door on the left opens into the courtyard, where a concrete walkway and stepping stones hug the perpendicular brick façades on an indirect route to the front door. 

Planted with airy honey locust trees (think New York City’s Paley Park), the 24-foot-wide-by-39-foot-deep courtyard contains gravel made from brick that broke or was cut, and crushed rock left over from the foundation.  The house retreats behind the courtyard wall, its sides mostly solid. “From the garden in back you can see right through the house and courtyard and kind of through the courtyard wall, almost like a house of mirrors,” Larry says.

Floor plans can be deceiving. Their simplicity gave Larry the freedom to manipulate the building section. The glass-enclosed office, for example, can be seen across the courtyard from the living room. “If you put a plan of, say, the Salk Institute or many things by Lou Kahn in a student project and just showed the plan, 90 percent of professors would fail them,” Larry says. “I worked for a guy in Florida named Gene Leedy, and one thing I loved about his work is this idea of seeing from the inside of your building to the outside and then back in. The outside space becomes part of the inside space because it’s squeezed into the building.” 

Another example of this indoor-outdoor choreography occurs in the living room, where the side brick wall makes a knife-edge connection to the glass back wall. As Mark explains it, “We ended the brick wall a window-frame width from the outside face and ran the frame past the thickness of the wall, 16 inches. So the frame is now on the outside. All we had to do was come up with a custom cap on the outside so it wouldn’t have any exposure on that corner. We worked with the window manufacturer. Once you ask a question and try to figure it out, it’s pretty amazing how you can come up with a solution.” 

What’s more, the back corner has solid brick above and glass below, and as you turn the corner, the materials switch to a glass window above and brick below. “The horizontal line above the glass in the living room and the garage form that pops out is absolutely perfect around the building,” Larry says. “That’s our interpretation of a Miesian corner.”

That rigor extends to the garage detailing. Its door is integrated with the cement panels, which were installed as a rainscreen on the back of the house. While flush or pivot garage doors can cost $12,000 or so, Mark’s workaround was to install a standard door on custom double tracks. “The top wheel goes into a track that pushes it all the way out flush,” Larry says. “It’s very clever; now I use it all the time. You weigh a lot of decisions against the cost. Mark went above and beyond the call of duty to make it all work out properly.”

Cultural Connection

Likewise, the interior could not be more subtle or succinct. The owner never cooks or eats at home, so the kitchen is fully concealed, all appliances tucked behind white-painted wood panels 10 feet high. “The doors are the tallest solid-core doors we could find; they pivot in different directions, and the middle section encloses the range,” Mark says. Bar stools, clad in the same white Caesarstone as the bar, slide in flush and disappear when not in use.

Nearby, floating stairs come out of the floor in concrete and meet the folded steel stair coming down, “so you’ve got something heavy going up and something light hanging down,” Larry says. It rises to a bookshelf-lined hallway connecting the master suite and guest room at opposite ends of the house. The master suite spans along the back of the house, divided only by a floor-to-ceiling bed headboard with vanities behind it. Cabinetry runs top to bottom along the inner wall, but light floods in through glass in the outer parapet wall. This room also steps out to a private deck on the garage roof.

By deploying a prosaic, history-laden local material in a spontaneous way, the design dramatizes the architectural experience of life at home. And it does so without upstaging the street. Larry’s version bows enthusiastically to this legacy—not primarily as an object, he says, “but an experience that lasts well beyond the physical presence of the building.” 

Additional Photography

Plans and Drawings

Project Credits

Thayer Brick House

Evanston, Ill.

Architect: Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, principal in charge; Angela Brooks, FAIA; Jeff Huber, AIA; Arty Vartanyan, Chinh Nhan Nguyen, Cesar Delgado, Eleftheria Stavridi, Fui Srivikorn, Matt Barnett, AIA, Brooks + Scarpa, Hawthorne, Calif; Mark Peters, AIA, principal in charge; Jonathan Heckert, project manager, Studio Dwell, Chicago

Builder: Studio Dwell

Landscape design: Brooks + Scarpa

Civil engineer: Studio Dwell

Structural engineer: Louis Shell Structures, La Grange, Ill.

Project size: 2,800 square feet

Site size: .17 acres

Cost: $1.2 million

Photography: Marty Peters and Brooks + Scarpa

Key Products

Appliances: GE, ISE, Bosch, Fagor, Bertazzoni

Doors: T.M. Cobb, Timely Industries, Steelcraft, McKEON, Nationwide Industries, Anemostat Door Products, Total Door Systems

Flooring: Walker Zanger

Glazing: PPG

Hardware: Schlage, Trimco, LCN, Ives, Rixson, Monarch, Pemko, Johnson Hardware, Elmes

Insulation: Johns Manville

Lighting: Shaper Lighting, Bega, Prudential Lighting, Stonco, Belfer Lighting, Delray Lighting

Lighting controls: Lutron

Paints: AFM Safecoat

Plumbing fixtures: American Standard, Kohler, Bobrick, GROHE, Chicago Faucets, TOTO, Delta

Roofing: CertainTeed

Tile: Walker Zanger

Windows: Milgard, Fleetwood, U.S. Aluminum 

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