Case Study: House Etch by Studio Dwell
Satisfying custom clients’ often conflicting desires is no easy task for residential architects. Chief among them is the call for abundant natural light and privacy from the street and neighbors. Compound the problem with a dense, city-bound site—and a corner one at that—and you have a knot only expert architects can unravel successfully. Mark Peters, AIA, of Studio Dwell is such an architect, with deep experience in the challenges of urban dwellings—both single-family custom and multifamily projects for developers (which have their own set of contradictory goals to reconcile).
For this project in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, Mark had not only his expertise going for him, but also a dash of good luck: His clients tapped him to help find just the right lot. It was a process that took more than two years, but resulted in a commodious piece of property that’s both deeper (165 feet) and wider (44 feet) than the city’s typical 125-by-25-foot lots. Its location on a northeast-facing corner enabled Mark to site the house at the sweet spot of solar orientation and program function.
The long hunt for the lot served as an extended period of due diligence into the nuances of the clients’ needs, desires, and overall life rhythms. “I talk to clients about how they think they want to live, and how they really live,” he explains. “They usually have a program that’s kind of a fantasy. I try to get at their daily routine—how they wake up, how they relax, how they go to bed. I pull out the reality.”
For this couple with three children, there were some critical must-haves. Paramount were places to blow off energy inside and outside the house. So the basement is essentially a rec room for the kids, and there’s an ample courtyard for outdoor play.
The couple also loves to entertain on a grand scale, so the house cleaves into public and private realms. The public space, or great room, absorbs the lion’s share of glass, which faces the intersection of the corner lot’s two streets. Because the first level is raised 5 feet above street, it gains a measure of detachment from the hustle and bustle. Expanses of glass are carefully choreographed with sections of wall to relieve any feeling of overexposure. The stair to the second level and basement is located here, too. Its open risers and glass rail combine with the glass walls to bring much needed daylight into the lower level rooms.
The connected kitchen and family room flip the ratio of glass and wall to provide more privacy for everyday life. On the street-facing side, clerestories top walls of cabinetry and then descend into floor-to-ceiling sections of window. The sections provide a glimpse to the street, says Mark, but a “controlled glimpse.”
On the courtyard side, accordion glass door systems open the house fully to outdoor living—a grilling zone, terrace, lawn, hot tub, and the basketball court. It’s the south side of the house, so the design team cantilevered the second-level master bedroom to shade the terrace area and protect the interior from excessive heat gain.
All this is to say the firm achieved that precious balance of light and privacy. “Having done this for years and years, I’ve developed some techniques. We take a look at our surrounding area, if there are sidewalks nearby or a close neighbor. For some areas, we know we’ll need to light and vent,” says Mark. “We take windows and we push them hard to the floor and to the ceilings. We also know we’ll get better light out of a smaller window pushed up to the ceiling plane than a 5-foot-by-5-foot window punched into the wall. The light will wash across the ceiling, and its location high on the wall helps with privacy.”
One of the clients has Latin American heritage and a special passion for the region’s modern architecture. “She loves that heavy concrete Latin American modernism,” says Mark, “so we wanted to use those ideas and forms.” The firm extrapolated the aesthetic into a palette of board-formed concrete, cedar siding, and glass, and arranged them in a pattern of solids and voids, transparency and opacity.
The board-formed sections of concrete juxtapose with sections of actual wood boards—and glazing in strips and blocks separate the two. “We conceived of the public zones as the board-formed concrete areas and the cedar sections as the private areas,” Mark explains. “We didn’t want the contrast between the two materials to be too obvious, so we went for an etching quality to both.”
It turns out that executing the more rustic finish was much harder than one might suppose—much more difficult than achieving a smooth finish would have been. “I’m from the farm, and board-formed concrete used to be the easy way to build,” he notes. “But now it’s a difficult process with liners. There’s a lot of labor involved to make it look natural. Sometimes it doesn’t work and can look forced or fake.”
Thankfully, the project had a talented and fearless builder in George McLeod of McLeod Builders. He and Mark have collaborated on a number of tricky projects. “He’s one of our best builders. He’s very open to doing new things and his craftsmanship is just great,” says Mark. “If I could put him on every house, I would. He’s the kind of contractor who asks his questions months in advance—not while holding a hammer on the job.”
Such forethought was essential on this project, especially when it came time to build those concrete walls. “We laid the forms on the ground and board formed the wall on top,” Mark recalls. “We built shims so some of the slurry would press through. Then the forms and wall were tilted up into place. Because we were pouring a full basement and a full first story, the walls were 20 feet tall in one pour. It looked so huge, it was surreal.”
Using building materials as finish materials is a key component of modern architecture, but it can be a nerve-wracking one for sure. The board-formed concrete isn’t just relegated to the exterior, it comes inside in the kitchen near the terrace and most prominently in the fireplace wall—two very high-profile areas. “We used pine boards with a release agent,” he says, “and added a little water to bring out the grain. Then we applied a sealer that creates the effect of some transparency and iridescence.” The unique mix of roughness and polish complements the smooth walnut floors and sleek white cabinetry, marble counters, and walls, in addition to all that glass.
Deploying the materials and executing the program, all while maintaining solid control of the composition are what set skilled architects apart from lesser ones. “I’m always thinking about how the house looks from the street—during the day and at night with the lights on,” says Mark. “At night, those clerestories become like veins of light, an artery that courses through the house.”
Plans and Drawings
ARCHITECT: Principal-in-charge Mark Peters, AIA; project architect Jon Heckert, Studio Dwell Architects, Chicago
BUILDER: George McLeod, McLeod Builders Inc., Wayne, Ill.
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Studio Dwell
PROJECT SIZE: 6,500 square feet
SITE SIZE: .17 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: $1,850,000
PHOTOGRAPHY: Marty Peters, Marty Peters Photography
ACCORDION DOOR SYSTEM: LaCantina
COOKING APPLIANCES/ DISHWASHER: Miele
COUNTERS: Marble, Silestone
ENTRY DOORS/WINDOWS: Kawneer
FAUCETS: Dornbracht, Grohe
FIREPLACE: Spark Modern Fires
KITCHEN SINK: Blanco