There is something comforting about a house that is easy to understand. Exhausted after a particularly brutal day at work? What a relief, then, to arrive at your house—a simple bar-shaped structure with a see-through central living area. Your children’s bedrooms are on one side of the house and your office and master suite are on the other. Virtually one generous room wide, the building has no complex forms or clever maneuvers and is intuitive to navigate. In other words, it’s so instinctive that it seems as if it was never designed at all.
That’s the case with this residence, a 10-minute drive from downtown Indianapolis. The owners had lived a mile or so away, and the husband discovered the property on a morning run. Its 12 acres stretched along a piece of land with a wooded upper area, a small clearing, and a sloping meadow. “They fell in love with the site and saw an opportunity to embrace living in a more connected way to the outdoors than they had in their existing house,” says Noah Biklen, a principal at Deborah Berke Partners, which received the commission. The family of five lived in a beautiful 1950s colonial-style white brick house in an older neighborhood, but this property sparked their imagination. “It inspired them to consider, ‘Wow, we could live in a different way’,” Noah says. “They asked us to help figure out what that would mean.”
The couple found New York-based Deborah Berke Partners through a contact affiliated with the Cummins Indy Distribution Center in downtown Indianapolis, which the firm was designing at the time. “It was great to be thinking simultaneously about a way of working in the city and a way of living in this neighborhood,” Noah says.
A key part of the brief was the request that every room be a space the family used in everyday life—no ceremonial dining or living rooms—but also a home they could enjoy with friends. As the design team began to sketch ideas, it seemed fairly obvious to position the house as a long, north-to-south single-story volume along the clearing. The driveway winds up through the woods on the west, and a sloping meadow behind the house faces east.
Out of that grew the main organizing principle: arrival and public spaces—living room, dining room, and kitchen—would be in the middle of the house and engage the outdoors in a very transparent way, while the private spaces at opposite ends—two offices and three bedrooms—could be more intimate and closer to the trees. “It made a lot of sense for how they live as husband and wife to have their area to the north and their three kids’ area at the south,” Noah says. The couple’s offices are tucked behind the communal space’s fireplace wall, while a stairway near the children’s bedrooms leads to a lower-level family room and storage area.
Slender in the Grass
One of the firm’s guiding principles is to bring a human-centered approach to spatial design, and this project succeeds on that level. The strong horizontal roofline draws a dramatic line against the site’s hilly topography and helps define the house’s place on the site. Deep overhangs shelter large and small terraces outside nearly every room. On the west, the cantilever is as deep as 13 feet to shield the entry, living space, and an office from glare. Cutouts create a shadow line that marks some of the terraces and lets light flow through to the pachysandra groundcover, whose tidy, controlled form is a contrast to the wilder landscape. Walls of sliding glass doors expose the central living area, inviting views out in both directions, while the solid bedroom walls are wrapped in zinc panels; mahogany windows and doors soften the ensemble.
Not incidentally, the behind-the-scenes details are as rigorous as those on display. The roof and walls have 4 inches of continuous insulation outboard of the sheathing, and the use of non-metallic Z-girts keeps the cold from tracking through the framing. “One of the challenges was that there is not a ton of modern house-building today in Indiana,” Noah says. Luckily, “our contractor, Brandt Construction, had experience with some of the more commercial materials and approaches we were interested in, such as the zinc rainscreen system.”
Inside, materials are refined yet simple, chosen for their durability, feel, and outdoor compatibility. “We were interested in materials that show patina over time, not artificial but that have warmth and depth,” Noah says. The terraces’ light gray Indiana limestone pavers continue into the public spaces, where they are radiant heated and provide thermal mass in winter.
“It’s always great when you’re able to think at all scales and use color, texture, and pattern to create an environment that works in concert with the view,” he says.
A dismantled factory in Gary, Indiana, owned by a friend of the husband’s, yielded the heart pine that bookends the living area. Its knots and weathered grain add richness to both the fireplace wall and the wall inside the entryway. That wall also encircles the kitchen, where deep blue, handmade ceramic tiles provide some reflectivity, a sense of scale, and a pop of color against the wood wall and white-painted cabinets.
One of the strengths of the overall design is its strategic transparency, which sets up a nuanced relationship with the landscape. “We’ve discovered that creating a sense of place doesn’t always require a heavy hand,” Noah says. And if this house has a big idea, it’s that simple is not a style, but a state of harmony. “The best compliment we heard after it was complete was that they use the whole house,” he says. “They’re often outdoors, hanging out on the terrace or down in the meadow. The house sets up how to live on the site, and it’s great to hear that’s how they’re using it.”
North Penn Residence
ARCHITECT: Deborah Berke, FAIA, principal; Noah Biklen, AIA, principal in charge; Marc Leff, AIA, Shuning Zhao, AIA, project manager; Tal Schori, Ilsa Falis, AIA, Deborah Berke Partners, New York
BUILDER: Brandt Construction, Indianapolis
INTERIOR DESIGN: Caroline Wharton Ewing, senior principal, Deborah Berke Partners
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Silver Creek Engineering, Indianapolis
MEP ENGINEER: MSA Professional Services, Madison, Wis.
LIGHTING DESIGN: PHT Lighting Design, New York
PROJECT SIZE: 3,500 square feet
SITE SIZE: 12.9 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHY: Chris Cooper, Glint Studios, Kevin Miyazaki
EXTERIOR CLADDING: Rheinzink America
DOOR HARDWARE: FSB
WINDOWS: Quantum Windows
Plans and Drawings