A Second Act For A Home Destroyed By Fire.
Thomas and Kay Crowder hadn't planned on leveling their 1950s ranch house in southwestern Raleigh, N.C. But sometimes fate—or fire—has a way of changing things. Early one morning in 1998, the Crowders and their two children fled out the front door while a hot water heater fire raged. The blaze destroyed most of the unpretentious brick house, along with nearly all of the family's possessions.
Though an unqualified disaster, the fire did help them realize how committed they were to living in their neighborhood near North Carolina State University. “Sitting out there that day, we must have had 50 neighbors offering us their home, clothing, anything they could,” says Kay. Within days, she and her husband, the principal of Raleigh architecture firm Architektur, decided to rebuild and expand on the blackened foundation of their old house. Thomas sketched out a new design that resembled the original in size and scale, but incorporated his love of clean lines and industrial materials. Not only would the project represent a new beginning—“an opportunity to start over,” he says—but it would also be as noncombustible as possible. The Crowders weren't going to risk another fire.
There was just one problem, though. The only contractor the couple approached categorically refused to take on the job. “We said no twice,” says Dan Hill of T.W. Smith Co., a Raleigh-based commercial contractor who's built several non-residential Architektur commissions. “I didn't want to do it because of our lack of experience in residential construction.” Thomas Crowder persisted, arguing that the home's light-gauge steel frame and concrete block walls were more typical of commercial construction than residential. Hill finally agreed. “I felt a responsibility to Thomas as a friend and a client,” he says. “And he did convince me that it would be a good project.”
So Hill and his crew set about clearing the sooty site. “A fire rebuild is nasty work, until you get all the fire-damaged materials out or encapsulated,” he says. Once that part was finished, the company's expertise in building quickly, accurately, and on very tight sites became apparent. Crowder designed the house on a 4-foot module, meaning every window, door, and electrical outlet had to line up perfectly so as not to throw off the grid. To make matters more challenging, many of the project's raw materials—concrete block walls, metal columns and door frames, and poured concrete floors—were left exposed. “The tolerances were lower than usual,” says T.W. Smith's Tony Zlatovich, the project manager. “The columns, for example. Typically you'd have a chance to wrap them, but here we used them as a finished product.”
Part of Crowder's goal in specifying such an industrial palette was aesthetic. “I wanted to take utilitarian materials and blend them together in an elegant way.” he says. But visions of the old house going up in flames never strayed far from his mind. The 10-inch concrete masonry units that make up most of the new home's interior and exterior walls can withstand a fire for up to two hours. They contain an inch of rigid polystyrene insulation, chosen for its high R-value. “The insulation would melt under high heat, but it wouldn't contribute to flame spread,” he says. “The same with the steel frame. The laminated beams in the ceiling will burn, but since they char they don't spread fire either.” Furniture, built-in cabinetry, and hardwood floors in some areas represent the only wood in the house apart from the beams.
The project's floor plan also reflects the family's indelible experience with fire. Each room, including the bedrooms, contains an exit to the outdoors to enable a quick emergency departure. “We may have gone a little overboard,” admits Thomas. “But it was good therapy.” This time the hot water heater and the rest of the mechanicals are isolated behind a CMU wall, reachable by a metal door from Kay's potting shed. And the sheer openness of the entire house means there's little chance of a hidden combustion. A soaring, curved ceiling shelters the public rooms, which extend toward the rear of the house from the front door. Visual cues, like strips of concrete flooring and lowered, drywalled ceiling beams, define the edges of each space without shutting off sight lines. The master suite and children's bedrooms flank the foyer, eliminating the need for long hallways.
The Crowders also took environmental concerns into account. Rather than have most of its windows on the western side, as the old house did, the new house is lined with Kalwall on the upper portion of its south-facing side. The translucent fiberglass material lets sunlight bathe the interiors, so the family rarely has to turn on a light during the day. Deep roof overhangs protect the building from gaining too much heat during Raleigh's steamy summers. Kay oversaw the creation of carefully landscaped outdoor areas, such as a manmade pond, a dining pavilion, and a front lawn that serves as a front porch.
Three-foot-wide openings between rooms, lever door handles, and a wheelchair-friendly shower ensure accessibility should the Crowders or any of their relatives ever need it. “We designed this house to meet our needs now and later,” Thomas says. They can think about the future with confidence now. This house is here to stay.
After sifting through the scorched remains of their home and belongings, the Crowders felt they were due for some good fortune. So they took a course in feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of creating environments that promote well-being and positive energy. “We found that feng shui is all about sound design principles,” says Thomas, and the new house incorporates some of their discoveries. Operable windows, clerestories, and oversized sliding doors permit a constant flow of fresh air, a feng shui mainstay. High ceilings are also thought to be lucky, and the vaulted ceiling in the main living space measures over 15 feet at its topmost point. Kay's side yard pond, with its gentle waterfall and darting goldfish, is a model of correct feng shui.
Not everything fits into the complex system; exposed ceiling beams, for example, contradict feng shui rules. “That's one reason why we also have some flat ceilings, to minimize the effect of the beams,” says Thomas. “It was very important, especially for Kay, to have some form of spirituality in the design. But we didn't get to the point where it was going to dictate what we did.”
It took T.W. Smith Co. about nine months to build the Crowder residence. For a highly detailed, custom job like this one, that's a pretty quick turnaround time. To vice president Tony Zlatovich (right), though, it seemed long. “The timeline for our usual projects is 4 to 6 months,” he says.
As a commercial contractor, T.W. Smith generally runs on a tighter schedule than a home builder. The company gets help from SureTrak project management software by Primavera, but the biggest factor in its ability to deliver well-built, on-time projects is the high caliber of the people it hires to work on its jobsites. It employs several tradespeople full-time, including the skilled finish carpenter who hung the doors and detailed the trim at the Crowder house. And prompt payment policies have given it access to the best subs in town. “For our entire existence, we've paid our invoices in a timely manner,” says president Dan Hill (above left). “That's getting less and less common, so if our subs are choosing between us and another contractor, it really helps us. It's the most important reason why we've been able to hire top people.”