In designing the Kohout Residence, architect Kirk Blunck, FAIA, faced a subdivision design code that read like the recipe for a classic McMansion. “Roofs pitched at 45 degrees, double-hung windows, wood shakes … it was very prescriptive,” says Blunck, who nevertheless persuaded the powers that be to permit a house that violated most if not all of its guidelines. His low, butterfly-roofed design also represented something of a leap for its owners: from the French country style of their previous house to a spare modernism that directs attention outward, to the South Dakota prairie landscape. But durable, unadorned surfaces simply make sense for an active family with four children and two dogs, and an open-plan layout keeps adults and children in touch with each other and the outdoors. “Somewhere along the way,” says Blunck, “they decided that they were so busy with careers and kids that they should have a house that made their lives simpler and more connected.”
Blunck’s plan lays out in two neatly balanced wings—public areas and children’s rooms to the south, garage and master suite to the north—separated by a gallerylike entrance hall whose glass end wall frames a view of a small fountain pool and the yard beyond, which borders the Missouri River. A 120-foot-long board-formed concrete wall defines one side of the entrance hall, projecting from the house at both ends. “It’s partly for function, partly for drama,” Blunck says of the wall, which manages views both from neighboring properties and between the wings of the house itself.
The house’s public wing centers on an open great room, whose flat ceiling helps define the cooking area and pitches skyward over the living and dining areas. The room “has views in three different directions; it’s clearly the hub of the house,” Blunck says. “The clerestory lights are oriented essentially to the south, to bounce light off the ceiling and even deeper into the space.” Glass panels in the pantry floor channel light from roof windows to the children’s lower-level playroom. Stained oak cabinets and PaperStone counters join the dark walnut floor as background for the room’s brighter elements—and for the sweeping view outside.
Sliding doors open the living room to a sheltered patio, but Blunck resisted the reflex to surround the house with decks or hardscape, instead using a low retaining wall to establish “a very flat, manicured lawn that takes the place of a deck or terrace. It’s perfectly possible to have a social event out on the lawn,” he says. Another unobtrusive retaining wall creates a discreet daylight walkout for the lower level, whose brightness belies its sub-grade elevation. “The owners wanted the house to be a place where their kids would stay and where their kids’ friends would come,” Blunck explains.
Blunck echoed the horizontality of the prairie landscape with local white cedar siding and the shadow lines of the concrete work, achieved by fixing 1x4s in a randomized pattern to the inside of the forms. The house’s massing and trimless modernist details generated “some angst” on the design review board, Blunck says, but in time he found the group commendably open-minded. “We said, ‘We can do sloped roofs, but we’ll slope them to the interior rather than the exterior,’” he says. “They kind of raised their eyebrows,” but they ultimately agreed. “People only know what they’ve seen or experienced. Our job is to widen that field of vision.” And if the board were concerned about his clients building a dog that would damage property values in the neighborhood, Blunck says, they needn’t have worried. “There were three different people trying to buy it from them before they even moved in.”