At 150 square feet, Big Ten Burrito is a tiny space. But the Ann Arbor, Mich., eatery carves out an identity with some deft design moves by local firm PLY Architecture. First and foremost, principals Karl Daubmann and Craig Borum, AIA, selected FinnForm, a red resin-coated plywood product, for the walls. “Because of the project's small size, we needed something uniform to define the space,” says Borum. The red walls do that—and they also help draw the attention of pedestrian passers-by.

Custom plywood screens layered over the ceiling and side window accomplish several goals in one swoop. The Computerized Numerical Control– milled screens block the view of the restaurant next door and hide the mechanicals overhead. The factory process used to cut the ¼-inch-thick pieces of wood produced relatively little waste. And the screens' warm color and groovy wave pattern turns an ordinary takeout place into a space with a strong visual impact. PLY also employed the CNC process to carve subtle curves into the plywood tiles covering the takeout counter, as well as the wood rings that stack to create cylindrical lamp shades. “With the lamps, if you cut the plywood thin enough, it starts to glow,” Daubmann says. “A CNC machine allows those types of tolerances.”

The 6-year-old firm is beginning to see more parallels between its custom residential and retail work. “They start to cross over when we start working on really specific moments, such as the quality of light in a space or the way things feel to the touch,” says Borum. He, Daubmann, and their staff must be happy with the moments they've experienced at Big Ten Burrito: Since construction ended, they find themselves eating lunch there once or twice a week.

project: Big Ten Burrito, Ann Arbor, Mich.

architect/contractor: PLY Architecture, Ann Arbor

project size: 150 square feet

construction cost: $75 per square foot

photos: Howard Doughty