Monday, April 07, 2008

Black + White in Alaska

Black + White Studio Architects and Our HouseOur house isn't our dream home but we love the location and our big backyard (hard to find nowadays in the city). I love my garden out back and the south light it gets. And then every time I start to think of moving to a bigger house I remember what it took to get our piano into the family room and that cures me. Moving is not going to happen. We're staying put, just bury our bones in the back.

Of course after remodeling our kitchen then our fireplace last year we've become so keen on the remodeling process that we've been desperately looking for other ways to pour money into our house--apparently we've taken it upon ourselves to make sure the home improvement industry is alive and well. So we've decided to remodel the family room downstairs then take the two small kid bedrooms over the garage and push the whole front wall out farther over the garage to give us a bit of growing room as we start into Life with Teenagers.

So far so good? But Andrew and I try to live by the Socratic "True wisdom is knowing that you know nothing" slogan and we knew that designing an addition was well beyond our capabilities. A neighbor down the street had a similar house and did almost exactly what we wanted to do and I wasn't pleased with their results. We needed an architect--but where?

As fate would have it (if you believe that fate cares about things like flooring products and interior lighting) we have an acquaintance, Bruce Williams of Black + White Studio Architects, who is an architect but we didn't know him that well--I'd seen a couple of his buildings, knew he created contemporary designs but doubted that he'd want to be bothered with our puny little project. However Andrew is gutsy so he called him and set up a time for him to come over to check things out.

Bruce brought his assistant, Michael Gerace, with him and after looking at the house they started asking all sorts of questions. They wanted to know how we used different spaces in our home, what we wanted to use the new areas for, what our personalities are like, how we relate to our children, how our family interacts, all sorts of artsy questions. I told Andrew that I felt like we should have been lying on the couch there was so much analysis going on.

At first I didn't really understand why all the questions were important, the project seemed pretty straightforward to me, but who doesn't like talking about themselves? And after they'd left Andrew and I felt pretty confident that these were the guys for us--we had absolutely no idea what we were in for but it just felt right. I guess all that touchy-feely analysis stuff was starting to rub off--stop me before I start talking about the karma of load-bearing walls.

Anyway, a couple weeks later they called us in to present what they'd come up with and we were in no way prepared.

They plopped down the conceptual drawings which had the basic addition drawn over a photograph of the house, still in very rough stages, and we were shocked. What is that? Was our first thought--though not in a bad way, just a wow-I've-never-seen-that-before way.

There, on the front of our ugly split-level 1970s house was a glassy rectangular cube: simple and elegant but emerging from the house like a protege making his debut on stage. The more we looked at it, the more we saw it and analyzed it and absorbed it and the more we loved it. We didn't necessarily get it at first but we loved it.

Then I realized that what they'd done was really brilliant. They'd taken both of the kids rooms and pushed them forward, cantilevered on three sides out over the garage, and instead of two separate rooms they'd extended the middle dividing wall with a sliding door so that the whole new addition could be one long space or (with the door closed) two separate rooms. The front wall facing out alternated with vertical cabinetry and floor-to-ceiling glass in front of built-in shelving and desks to take advantage of the mountain view while the windows on both ends were designed to supply fresh air by swinging out on different pivot points and maximize the currents.

The wood floor of the addition was divided from the carpet of the old structure by a strip of frosted glass covering a recessed trough of lights so that the room would be partially lit from below. The whole thing had become a studio for our children, a space for them and their creativity while being so useful and beautiful as to make me want to take over the rooms as soon as they're out the door for college.

The more we studied the design the more we realized that it was perfect. Not in the transient, casual way a good cake or a sunny day can be "perfect," but perfect as a structure because the space was exactly suited for its occupants and their needs. The design had no more or no less than what was needed, it was creative and it was beautiful. The only problem was the rest of the house that was still attached.

What to do with the rest of the place? Our original plans called for replacing the exterior of the house to update it from the pre-made, fake, pieced-together 1970s look. We'd asked Bruce and Michael about our options for exterior materials and it became apparent that they were not limited by traditional supplies. Basically any material you could nail or cement to the outside was fair game--I nearly expected them to present us with a picture of the house wrapped in alligator skin--and I got downright tingly at the prospects of what they'd come up with.

But when we sat down a second time it was a little disappointing--they said that they didn't think we should cover the house with anything, that we should clean up what we had, give it a high-quality paint and leave it at that. Their reason? Well, part of the reason we wanted a new exterior was to blend in the addition with the rest of the house. This addition? It was going to blend about as well as a Hare Krishna dancing at the Bolshoi--there was no "blending" this.

Again, I didn't get it at first and was disappointed because I wanted to see something as creative and beautiful as what we'd seen before but the more I heard what they were saying the more I agreed. If you already have a design that is perfect why would you change it to blend with the surrounding inferior structure? If you had a surrounding structure that will never be able to match the addition why make it ridiculous by wrapping it in something that doesn't fit? The house ends up as something that it's not, pretending to be modern art but failing miserably (and an expensive failure at that). It would just look silly.

So the more we thought about it the more we knew Black + White was right. Instead they came up with some clever landscaping and other exterior ideas that would make the design work for the house and for the neighborhood.

Why am I telling you this long story? Well because it's been really, really fun to experience. I enjoy seeing creative minds at work and though I may not understand everything that's going on I love learning--and I've learned a tiny something about design, a lot more about what I like and how much I admire Black + White's designs. I've come to trust what these guys say will work and what will not work because they've got this project so right. It's fun to realize that this could be the future of Anchorage as the city comes to grips with what to do with all these 30 year-old homes and more home owners want to remodel. Ah, the whole thing has made me crave a re-reading of The Fountainhead. Seriously.

It's also been fun because we talked about this whole experience with some friends of ours over dinner and they got as excited as we did. They're building a new home in Spokane and decided that maybe Bruce and Michael were the men for them too and since Black + White designs structures all over the place last I heard the mighty Design Duo was flying down to Spokane to camp out on the 20-acre property and check it out first hand. What a life.

So why aren't I posting pictures of the design? Well because it's wild and it's new and it's going to get lots of looks from the neighbors--while it's fun to give people something new to think about (Andrew and I each have a rebellious streak) I don't want to post pictures while it's still only an idea. When I have something real to show, probably in a month or so, then I'll let you all gawk. Andrew's joked that we can probably recoup the cost of construction by charging admission because people are going to want to see the inside of this one.

As one of the kids said, "Well at least we won't have to worry about people not knowing where we live, all we'll have to tell them is 'we live in The Cube' and they'll know where to find us."

26 comments:

cheeky said...

Sounds exciting! It will be neat when you can give us a visual.
I love the idea of putting your time and effort, ok and money too, into a home where you love the location. Location is everything in my book. Good luck with all of it.

Robin said...

I work with a lot of architects, and your description of that first meeting had me cackling. It's SO typical. They do tend to speak their own language, but the results can be spectacular. I love the way you've described your addition, it sounds like B&W have really done a fabulous job identifying your needs and designing something that meets them perfectly. I can't wait to see how it all develops.

Remind me one day to tell you about the loony architect who consulted with us (as a favor to Jay, he doesn't do residential) when we renovated - he had some incredible ideas that we leapt to adopt, but a few that were obviously coming from a man who's never run a household in his life. His kitchen design called for doing away with access to the window where my laundry lines are (used all year round here in Israel and saving mucho bucks) because "what's laundry compared to the perfect kitchen?"

luvmy4sons said...

Wow! How awesome! I can't wait for the pictures.

Holding It Together said...

Wow, it sounds like they really know what they are doing - how nice to work with such professionals. Can't wait to see the final design!

Patty W said...

WOW..how exciting for you! Can't wait to see how it all plays out!

Tammy said...

I can't wait to see the finished space! I used to work for an architect, and it amazed me how he could take an ugly old building (such as a factory) and change it into a cool condo building! A great architect will ask a lot of questions so that the finished space will be perfect for the owner!

Chandra said...

I love looking at houses and talking about new designs. That all sounds so fun and exciting for your family!

I came here from technorati and added you to my favorites. I enjoyed your posts and will definitely be back!

Prisca said...

I think this sounds absolutely faboulous! Good for you two for being so adventurous and letting such a creative pair work with your house. I can't wait to see how it all turns out. We'll have to put you on HG TV for the renovation. Seriously, call them up-- maybe they'll film you and pay for it!!! ;)

I'm just so impressed that Black + White is working WITH what you've got. I'd also have assumed they'd tell you to ditch the exterior etc. I wish we could fast forward and see it all complete.

Andrea J said...

I'm very excited for you and excited for me that I'll get to see updated pictures and the like.

tjhirst said...

From my experience, married to an architect, your statement, "we knew that designing an addition was well beyond our capabilities" is atypical. That was my first tip off that this will be a positive endeavor for you! Good luck with the building process. It's not nearly as fun as the design process, but the results last a lot longer. We have our own "cube" in a four story red tower, and the neighbors are getting accustomed to it.

ph, husband of tj said...

You guys sound like perfect clients. Willing to talk, willing to accept something different. I wish we had more clients like you...

Most of the time we get micromanaged out of a decent project into mediocre.

Having said all that, I'm afraid to ask about the budget...

Kelly @ Love Well said...

Can't wait for the sketches.

And I love your description of the give-and-take between you and the architects. Working with truly creative people, when I get the opportunity, is one of the great joys of my life.

Scribbit said...

Husband to tj: Actually, I've been pleased with that as well (the budget) It's hard when you see all these other things you'd like to do but are restricted by the budget but actually it's been a very good time in Anchorage to do this kind of thing. The market is slow right now and I think a lot of contractors are looking for projects so we've had that as an advantage. Then also they've tried in a few areas to cut costs for us--such as in the landscaping area. There was one thing about that that I didn't care for and didn't agree with them on but it was somewhat minor. I think (not sure, haven't seen the latest stuff) that they've tried to find a new way to do it that would be less expensive, which I really appreciate.

I don't know if this is saying too much but the whole thing has been pretty reasonable actually. Of course that's on this end and I'm aware how easy it is for projects to mushroom into something much more expensive than planned. Well see what I say in a couple months.

Kim Priestap said...

Ooh! It sounds fantastic. You've really piqued my curiosity. I can't wait to see it.

ames said...

hey, Spokane!

Sorry, just perked up at the mention of my hometown. Sounds like a dream studio space, so much light!

My Ice Cream Diary said...

I love how much they cared about you and your personal life style instead of shoving their own ideas on you. I love to see things transform from old to new, and look forward to the pics.

Richelle said...

That is exciting. Can't wait to see some pictures!

Coach J said...

This does sound very neat, and I can't wait to actually see it! (I'm not good at visualizing)

Heffalump said...

We would like to bump out a part of our upstairs so we can have a couple more bedrooms up there, but have no idea how much something like that will cost. That is what is keeping us from pursuing it right now.
I look forward to seeing what happens with your home in the future

Leslie said...

This is so exciting! We have plans to do a little remodeling and add on to our house a few years down the road. I can't wait! It's so fun to make your house your own.

bestfamily said...

I cam e across your blog and thought I'd check it out. I lived in Anchorage for a year and loved ever minute of it. You can't beat the views! One day I hope to reurn. May be sooner than I had thought...hubby got a job offer in Juneau!

John & Laura said...

I'm having a hard time imagining what this will look like. But I'm excited for pictures and updates!

Theresa said...

Yowza. You're definately going to be on my sightseeing tour when I come to town.

Damselfly said...

Hare Krishnas at the Bolshoi, eh?

How cool is that to have an architect remake your home?!

planetnomad said...

How fun! I can't wait to see the reality :)

Remodeling NYC said...

I am very exciting with the outcome your new home remake. I can't wait to see the results.