Case Study: Chicago Residence by Booth Hansen
As a residential professional, one of the most intimidating kinds of projects is renovating the work of a distinguished architect. That’s the challenge Larry Booth undertook for this award-winning urban project in Chicago. The punchline is, the distinguished architect responsible for the existing 1980s-era house was Laurence Booth, FAIA—the man in the mirror. He returned—nearly 40 years later—to update and improve upon his own work.
Perhaps the passage of so much time was a kind of blessing. Says Larry, “It was done so long ago, I really had no sense of ownership of the original.” This was one of those projects that starts as a small job, but then grows and grows until no portion is left untouched. So, had Larry felt possessive of his first go-round, it would have proved problematic, indeed. “The concept is still basically the same, but nearly everything is improved in design and execution. The detailing is more sophisticated after 30 years have gone by. The tech is much improved in what it enabled us to do. And the clients were more generous in their ambitions.”
Larry’s revision was sharpened by the progress of design thinking during the intervening years, of course, but also by the collaboration with his project architect on the house, principal Alex Schabel, AIA. The house, at least from the outside, was very familiar to Alex, who lives just a block or so away. “I’d see it on my walks and think how cool it is,” she says.
The current owners fell in love with the house for its contemporary feel and for its abundance of light, but they saw room for improvement in how it served their family. They didn’t care for the kitchen or bathrooms, and they didn’t need all the bedrooms Larry had designed for the original couple’s multiple children. Paring down the program meant the design team could also enhance the flow of natural light and circulation. “We started with the idea of just surgical interventions,” says Alex. “The parti is essentially the same and the house was originally pretty stripped down inside, but the clients are real minimalists—like nothing-on-the-coffee-table people. So we ended up doing a very strict editing job. Everything was considered and curated.”
The team’s big bold move on the revised house was to enlarge the east-facing glass façade from one story to two. “We made it taller and stretched it up, and we enlarged the window above,” says Alex. “The house is in a historic district but does not have historic designation. It always stood out, so we weren’t going to cause a big stir with that change. In fact, it’s now more in proportion with the neighborhood. That was something Larry was excited to be able to do.”
“It’s now more vertically commanding on the street,” says Larry. “And the transparency of the glass further complements the solidity of the stone.” Both Larry and Alex agree that advancements in glazing technology made the changes possible. “The curtain wall is custom made and structurally glazed to eliminate mullions on the outside. It’s a high-performance unit that’s also low-E,” says Alex.
Despite the transparency of the façade, the interiors retain a measure of privacy. The main floor is elevated above the street, and a partial storage wall divides the entrance vestibule from the main living area. The tile floor in the vestibule is warmed by radiant heat (a welcome feature for Chicago winters), and there are operable windows here and there to ventilate in milder weather.
The second biggest move was to relocate the kitchen from the middle of the main floor to the rear of the house, capturing natural light for a critical family space. “Now you look right through the living room to the kitchen and out to the garden space,” Alex explains. A verdant little tiered patio, it gives the owners a refuge in nature. Having come from a high-rise building with no outdoor space, seeing green from end to end in their new house is a seasonal delight.
Perhaps no space in the project was more “curated” than the kitchen. The clients had collected a great quantity of marble for the project, intended chiefly for the kitchen and the master bathroom. “Everything was about that marble,” Alex says. “The kitchen island is some 12 feet long. Overall, they wanted a very clean look and a place to put everything away. They cook, and do a lot of snacking, baking, and homework there. Then things can be put away in the custom lacquered cabinets. The room looks especially pretty when there’s snow outside.”
You know the palette is really minimalist when the pizzazz comes from the veining in the marble and the shadow line created by the island’s reveal. Reveals continue throughout the house, adding just enough break in surfaces to elevate the sparse detailing. “Since we were working with so very few materials, we tried to separate them and give them air,” says Alex. “It was very tricky to get the old and the new to match up and look intentional.”
You see those reveals in the base trim and in the new undulating main stair, among other locations. The stair evokes the curves of the original, but the glass is new and the railings have been flattened and squared off, as compared to the 1980s ship rail used before—just a few more examples of how every touchpoint was reconsidered for today’s aesthetic.
Although some variation of the main stair was sure to stay, the spiral back stair was on the chopping block at the beginning of the project. In the existing house, it accessed a series of sunrooms and quasi-outdoor spaces—areas that were vulnerable to heat gain from their western exposure. Ultimately, the owners and team decided to retain the stair as a “cool remnant of the original house,” Alex recalls. Those rear rooms were repurposed as resolutely interior space—a sitting room for the second-floor master and a playroom for the top-floor child’s realm (the footprint gets smaller as you go up). Meanwhile, the architects pulled the roof line out a bit to create a little more shade and protection from the sun, and all the glazing was redesigned and replaced with more energy-efficient specimens.
The master bath showcases more of the owners’ marble slabs, each piece carefully placed to highlight the patterns created by the veining. Behind the vessel tub, a giant X aligns its sinews along the rise of the tub filler. The result looks effortless, but of course the room required some of the most intense work in the project. “We photographed every slab so we could work with the photos to lay out the design,” says Alex. “It all starts with the X pattern behind the tub. There’s another X on the floor. The slabs all book match and mirror. It took 30 or 40 tubs to pick out the right one. The stone setters did an amazing job.”
Ups and Downs
Although the renovation pared some rooms on the interior, it added a stunning rooftop deck. The new elevator makes it truly feasible to use as an entertaining area or simply a place to grill burgers en famille. Because the neighborhood is a landmark historic district and many of the surrounding buildings are not tall, the vistas are wonderfully expansive.
True, the house was not a landmark building, but it still came under scrutiny by the review board, which was especially concerned about the building’s height as it appeared from the street. “The roof was flat and the limestone parapet was original, but we added the custom glass and zinc coping and railing,” says Alex. (Both disappear at street level.) Zinc also clads the “portal” volume that houses the elevator and stair access. The roof is floored in porcelain pavers. The oculus skylights were original, but the architects swapped out their acrylic covering for low-E glass with better performance and clarity. The largest one illuminates the main stair, bringing natural light in through the center of the house.
Last but not least, an informal family area occupies the lowest level. More built-ins keep things just as tidy as elsewhere in the house, with several sections flipping down into work tables for crafts and other activities. At the back is a media room that terminates in a work of art—a gel-lit depiction of cherry blossoms that remain forever in bloom.
“When we first built this house, people were still leaving the city for the suburbs,” Larry recalls. “You can live a lot better in the city these days—all you need is a little bit of nature.”
Plans and Drawings
ARCHITECT: Larry Booth, FAIA, principal-in-charge; Alex Schabel, AIA, project architect, Shirin Reklaoui, associate, BOOTH HANSEN, Chicago
BUILDER: Howard Dardick, TipTop Builders inc., Skokie, Ill.
INTERIOR DESIGnER: Diane Zabich, Diane Zabich Architecture and Interiors, LLC, Evanston, Ill.
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Doug Hoerr, Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, Chicago
PROJECT SIZE: 8,000 square feet (approx.)
SITE SIZE: .07 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHY: Dave Burk, Dave Burk Photography
WINDOW WALLS/SYSTEMS: Fleetwood
CURTAIN WALL: Rareform Architectural Products, LLC
ROOFING MATERIALS: Sika Sarnafil, Grace Ice & Water Shield
RADIANT HEATING: Nuheat
FIREPLACE: European Home
VENT HOOD: Bosch
WALL OVENS/STEAM OVEN/DISHWASHER: Miele
KITCHEN/MASTER BATH FAUCETS: Dornbracht
KITCHEN SINK: Blanco
OTHER FAUCETS/SHOWER HEADS: Grohe, Hansgrohe
MASTER TUB: Hydrology
OTHER TUBS: Duravit
MASTER SINK/OTHER SINKS: Lacava
EXTEROR LIGHTING: Bega
INTERIOR LIGHTING: Philips Lightolier, Acolyte, Robern
LIGHTING CONTROL: Lutron
EXTERIOR PAINTS/COATINGS: Sto Corp
INTERIOR PAINTS: Benjamin Moore