Frame Of Reference
A North Carolina Modernist House Gets A New Skin On Its Bones.
Time marches on. But in custom building, it doesn't always march in a straight line. Take this house. Only 40 years old and fast headed for an early grave, it was rescued by a team of builder/architects who had not yet been born when it was new. These young craftspeople, some of them fresh out of architecture school, rebuilt it in a style that is older than their grandparents. Which, of course, we call Modernism. In spite of the looping path, however, the building arrives at the present day in very fine form. The bones of its once deteriorating structure support a house that is visually stimulating, great fun to live in, and—this time—built to last.
Vinnie Petrarca, 34, and his crew at Tonic Design had been watching the house for a while, hoping to get their hands on it before it got scraped off. Modernists by training and inclination, they liked its flat-roofed form, its exposed steel structure, and the way it seemed to float in the treetops of its steep, wooded site. The odds of finding a patron who shared their enthusiasm, though, did not look good. The house sat on a desirable lot that could be subdivided to carry two new houses. Worse, the building itself was in a miserable state. The steel frame and concrete floor decks were intact, but the rest was rapidly heading south. “It was a melting wood structure, just falling apart,” Petrarca says. When he showed the place to an Ohio couple planning to retire here in Raleigh, N.C., curb appeal was in notably short supply. “It was a rainy day in January,” Petrarca remembers, “and there were tarps all over the house.” Still, he pleaded its case. Despite appearances, he maintained, the house was still “strong in concept.” The couple left unconvinced.
Soon after, though, on a trip to Los Angeles, they followed Petrarca's advice and visited architect Pierre Koenig's Case Study House #22, a glass-walled icon of mid-20th-century Modernism. The house, which cantilevers over the brow of a steep hill overlooking the entire Los Angeles basin, is early-1960s zeitgeist in a bottle: light, transparent, and cool. This, Petrarca had told them, was what he had in mind for the Raleigh house. And that, apparently, was that. The clients returned, settled on the property, and gave Tonic a remarkably free hand in plotting its second incarnation. “The only program statement we had was, [the owner] said he wanted the most loft-like house or the most house-like loft,” Petrarca says.
Modernists like nothing better than a structural grid, and Tonic wasted no time in picking the building down to its bare bones. “We stripped everything out,” Petrarca says, leaving only the steel frame and concrete decks. Built down-slope from its driveway and parking area, the original house snugged up close to an L-shaped concrete block retaining wall. Petrarca sacrificed some square footage to pull the house away from the retaining wall, creating a walled garden at the building's lower level. The original steel roof girders remain, delineating an open two-story volume spanned by an entry bridge from the parking area. “It's kind of an upside-down house,” says Petrarca, who located the entry and living spaces on top for better access to views and daylight and maximized both by enclosing much of this level in floor-to-ceiling glass. At these areas, the walls pull back within the steel frame, creating a narrow balcony that wraps the perimeter. The latter provides ready access to the outdoors and, prosaically but no less importantly, facilitates cleaning all that glass.
The glass-wall paradigm spurred other heads-up decisions. Small, floor-mounted fixtures wash light up the surface of the glass and keep it transparent at night. Using aluminum-frame storefront panels held the cost down, but Petrarca found the available operable windows too clunky. Instead, he specified narrow, floor-to-ceiling doors screened with perforated steel. While the holes in the latter looked small enough to keep the bugs out, Petrarca says, “We put a couple of mosquitoes in the jar and put the perf metal on top to make sure.” Two bays project beyond the basic cube of the building: a glass-walled sitting area off the kitchen that the owners call “the sun porch” and a two-story mass sided in shiplap cypress. Solid perimeter walls that stand within the steel framework are sided with full-height panels of Cor-Ten steel. In the best Modernist form, intersecting walls meet at frameless glass-to-glass connections. “You always dissolve the corners,” Petrarca says.
This highly evolved shell contains an equally sophisticated interior. The entry level clusters smaller, more contained spaces around the elevator shaft at the center of the plan, allowing the major living spaces to run to the outside walls. Abbreviated partitions distinguish function areas without isolating them. Rectangles of white wall surface backdrop the owners' collection of mid-20th-century art and furniture. The effect, Petrarca says, is “somewhat period. All the furniture is low; none of the furniture touches the floor.” The main stair, a welded steel unit with Brazilian cherry treads that hangs by a single steel stringer buried in the wall, extends the theme of levitation. An 8-foot-long skylight over the stair pours daylight through the oversize stair opening to the lower level's large circulation core. More private and enclosed than the living spaces above, the lower-level rooms enjoy more focused views. The twin guest bedrooms overlook the wooded slope down to a wide creek. A glass corner makes the laundry room something of a woodland retreat. (The den, painted Buckeye red, offers seasonal views of Ohio State football.)
The master bedroom's outdoor focus is the garden defined by the original retaining wall, which the builders adorned with a fountain they fashioned from panels of oxidized steel. As Petrarca explains: “We had all these extra pieces of Cor-Ten . . .” It's the kind of improvised solution that seems naturally to follow when architects take the role of general contractor. Daily presence on the jobsite and personal relationships with subcontractors give design/build architects a different perspective on the project, Petrarca says. “When we're doing brake metal, whether the guy has an 8-foot brake or a 10-foot brake influences the design.” The phenomenon came strongly into play in the building's rooftop deck, with its wing-like canopy (see “Controlling Overhead,” page 75), but Petrarca can point out another dozen such features that evolved during the construction phase.
The existing frame facilitated on-site design, serving as an armature for mocking up walls. The foot-high band of horizontal glass at the breakfast area, tailored to the owners' seated heights, is the product of such fine tuning. The steel skeleton did have its downside, Petrarca hastens to add. “It was a blessing and a curse. You don't use a nail and a hammer; you drill for a couple of hours and bolt it together.” But a couple of hours amount to little when measured against the proper lifespan of a house. Recognizing real value and working to preserve it, Petrarca and his company salvaged a fine and durable legacy for a building that could easily have been lost to the passage of time.