A Custom Home On Chicago's North Shore Changes With Its Owners' Lifestyle.
The clients for this new home in suburban Chicago needed two residences: a family house for themselves and their four teenage sons, and an empty-nester cottage for just the two of them. “We knew our family would shrink temporarily when the boys went off to college,” explains the wife. The problem was, they could only build one house. They'd have to find one that could do double duty—that could expand and contract along with them.
While out walking their dog one evening, the couple spied an empty lot for sale in their neighborhood. Unbuilt lots are a rarity in their 135-year-old North Shore town, where teardowns are normally the only way to build new. So they pounced on the heavily treed, half-acre property. They hired respected architects Stuart Cohen and Julie Hacker, a husband-and-wife team whose complementary talents meet to form light-filled, contextual homes. And they chose builder Teschky Inc., banking on its sterling reputation, staff of 12 skilled carpenters, and focused workload. The company builds about three new houses a year, plus additions and remodels, enabling it to give a project its full attention throughout construction.
Before Cohen and Hacker could start creating a floor plan that satisfied their clients' dual desires, they had to figure out how to site the house. The process was no picnic, for there were trees to save, a fairly narrow lot to navigate, and a close-by neighboring house to handle. The architect pair decided to leave the front half of the site, the part closest to the street, basically untouched except for a driveway. An arborist helped them determine which trees and undergrowth needed to be taken out in order for the rest to remain healthy. The strategy effectively gave the owners a small forest to drive through every day. And it meant the house would sit at the rear of the site, catty-corner to the one next door rather than parallel to it. The clients did give up a large rear yard, but in exchange they retained their privacy (and their relationship with the neighbors).
As requested, Cohen, Hacker, and project architect Jennifer Morgenstern came up with a floor plan that can grow and shrink as the clients' lives evolve. With its master suite, laundry room, and home office all on the first floor, the plan enables the couple to live on one story. The HVAC system contains three zones: the open kitchen and family room; the master bedroom and living/dining space; and, upstairs, the four kids' bedrooms. When the clients shift into empty nester mode, they'll be able to save money and resources by shutting off heating and cooling on the second floor. The design provides them with precisely what they had imagined: a one-story and a two-story house under a single roof.
Not only did the owners like the idea of one-story living, but they also liked the look of it. “All the magazine clippings they showed us were of one-story houses,” explains Cohen. So he and Hacker tried to minimize the building's scale by breaking down the roof with gables and dormers. They tucked each second-floor bedroom under a set of eaves, bringing in extra natural light with transom windows and a hallway skylight. Even the two identical bathrooms are topped with transoms that match their translucent French doors. “Everyone got the exact same thing,” says Hacker of the equally sized bedrooms and baths—a smart way to head off arguments in a four-child family.
While she and Cohen made an effort to hold down the roofline throughout most of the home's second floor, there was one place where they purposely let it pop up. They call it the Tree House; it's a small tower tucked a half-stairway above the boys' TV room. Spacious enough for one or two people, it's a great spot for breakfast, reading, or just plain quiet time. “It's a little hideaway,” says Cohen. “A place to go if you were mad at somebody or wanted to be left alone.” Windows identical to the transoms used elsewhere in the house surround the upper portion of the tower, and extra corner windows let in even more light. For most of the year the view from the Tree House is lush and leafy. In the winter months, it's even better: With no greenery to block sightlines, the owners can look out that corner and see Lake Michigan.
The transoms reappear downstairs above interior doors and in an intermittent band around the exterior of the house. Cohen and Hacker custom designed the bold, elegant molding that wraps around the first floor at the same 10-foot ceiling height in each room. Such consistency lends continuity to the space, but it also makes for a demanding construction process. “The dimensioning here was critical,” says builder John Teschky. “You have a straight line running around the entire house.”
Cohen and Hacker's work tends to fit into its surrounding neighborhood without imitating a particular style or time period, and this house is no exception. While influenced by English Arts & Crafts, the home's simple detailing edges it closer to the Modern end of the spectrum. The ashlar limestone façade alludes to the smattering of stone houses throughout Chicago's North Shore, and dark green stock window frames supply a pleasing contrast. Copper flashing and cedar shingles round out the exterior materials palette for an overall feeling of quiet luxury.
Limestone also forms a freestanding wall that separates the entry court from the woods. “We use walls to make courtyards and other exterior spaces, so the house can unfold gradually,” says Hacker. The idea works perfectly here—no matter which role the home is playing.