Text by Edward Keegan
More than 12 years ago, an MIT professor bought a modest Cape Cod house on a corner lot in Lexington, Mass., and began planting an extensive garden. Not satisfied with the relationship between inside and out, he hired Boston-based Merge Architects to enlarge the structure and create a stronger connections between house and landscape. The result of the iterative design process was no simple addition focused on views, but rather a new two-story, 1,975-square-foot suburban villa whose interlocking volumes combine garden and house in one entity.
Dubbed the Grow Box by Merge principal Elizabeth Whittaker, AIA, the rectangular mass of the new house contains six recessed gardens, all but one of which are primarily experienced from the second floor. “You feel like you’re in a tree house,” Whittaker says. Only a single garden penetrates to the ground level, and the rest of the house unfolds around that 30-square-foot, glass-enclosed space, which holds a single Japanese elm emerging from a floor of moss.
The main entry is tucked inside a blank recess facing the street and leads through a foyer into a double-height, clerestory-lit living area, a kitchen, and a dining space, all of which open onto the central glass-enclosed garden. Upstairs, the gardens divide the second floor into quadrants—occupied by the master bedroom, an office, another bedroom, and the upper portion of the living area. This configuration emphasizes the role of the garden within the house while providing sufficient distance for privacy within the relatively small footprint.
The house’s Cor-Ten steel rainscreen is punctuated by several interventions. At the first floor, shallow insets denote entries on each elevation. At the second level, the roof gardens are carved into the metal volume. Below each recessed garden, a horizontal scupper projects from the façade and drains water away from the plantings. And on each face, steel troughs convey rainwater to the ground.
Finishes are rendered in a minimal palette, a contrast to the house’s spatial complexity. The interior is predominantly white: “It’s clean, but not too stark,” Whittaker says—noting that white oak floors and millwork add warmth. Much of the cabinetry is from IKEA, with modest customization by the architects. Outside, the Cor-Ten was left raw and mottled, giving it “a handmade quality that is unpredictable in a beautiful way,” Whittaker says.
Grow Box posits a very specific relationship with nature based on textures, colors, and rhythms found in the natural world. But unlike the previous house on site, it’s a carefully designed object that encourages the contemplation of nature and its own place within it.
Project: Grow Box, Lexington, Mass.
Design Architect: Merge Architects, Boston . Elizabeth Whittaker, AIA (principal-in-charge); Amit Oza (project manager); Allison Austin (project designer); Jamie Pelletier, Anne-Sophie Divenyi, AIA, Duncan Scovil (project team)
Structural Engineer: Evan Hankin
Steel Fabricator: Ramos Iron Work
General Contractor: Evergreen Group
Size: 1,975 square feet