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How Modern Style and Matching Buildings Re-Energized a Raleigh Neighborhood

Instagram can be an endless font of inspirations and introductions, from new fashion concepts to undiscovered travel destinations. For architect Robby Johnston of the Raleigh Architecture Company, the visual app turned out to be a great way to find a new neighbor.

"A friend was house hunting a few years ago and posting images on Instagram, and as I clicked through, I found a couple doing the same thing nearby," he says. "I looked at their account—they were well traveled, with interesting careers—and thought, 'maybe they're crazy enough to work with us.'"

Crazy isn't always the operative word a homeowner uses when looking for a new neighbor, or the quality an architect seeks out when hunting for a new client. But then again, Johnston wasn't a typical architect looking to sell a standard home. Along with partner Craig Kerins, Johnston was in the midst of developing a matching pair of modernist homes in Raleigh's Hungry Neck neighborhood, thin, striking structures of North Carolina cypress and slate rescued from a demolished historic home, one of which him and his family would soon occupy. The two homes, 554 and 556 East Edenton, designed to be "fraternal twins" with matching features and window systems, shared a common courtyard, so the choice of client and neighbor was a particularly meaningful one.

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The "Edentwin" homes in Raleigh.

For Kerins, and Johnston in particular, the Edenton homes, which were finished last summer, were a personal project, slightly mismatched twins (one was a little taller, the other boasted an exterior of Corten steel) that let them explore their personal aesthetic. But, along with three other modernist homes they designed in the immediate area over the last few years, they formed a string of projects animated by a neighborhood-first philosophy that's become a guiding principle. These types of urban infill projects "fill the void of the urban fabric," says Johnson, an especially attractive quality as more people in Raleigh and cities nationwide seek out homes that provide a more immediate connection to the city, and the ability to live, work and play downtown. These homes, relative neighbors in an area near the city center, have done more than help the firm get its name out.

"They re-strengthened the street," says Johnston, "and added five new front porches to a neighborhood that hasn't seen a new one in the last 40 years. Every time we finish the house, we have a big cookout and invite the neighborhood. There's a real social component to this."

Modernist homes are far from unheard of in the region—North Carolina Modernist Homes maintains an extensive archive (and spoke to the architects for their US Modernist Radio show)—one of the reasons the friends, who met while studying at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, decided to set up shop in town in 2012. For them, housing diversity goes hand in hand with neighborhood diversity. Located east of downtown and south of the Oakwood Cemetery, the Hungry Neck neighborhood consists of a variety of standard, one- or two-story homes; not run-down by any means, just traditional. The five buildings in the area completed by Raleigh Architecture Company do stand out, but Kerins and Johnston believe they can co-exist with the current streetscape, offering contrast and excitement. Often utilizing thin, abandoned lots, their work attracts younger families.

For the Everton projects, the duo played architect, developer and builder after Johnston was able to secure an option on the land. They sort of hung out their shingle with those homes, so to speak, and potential clients began cold calling. They saw a market opportunity in Raleigh, and a chance to make an impact in Hungry Neck, and moved on it.

The last three homes they've built, a series of rectangular, double-height spaces that play with light and a modern aesthetic, share the same design language. Johnston and Kerins served as go-betweens for the last few projects, helping connect potential clients with the banks; they didn't collect brokerage of development fees, just helped to generate business for their company, and bring more new development to the area. One was even picked up by local musician Joe Kwon, of the Avett Brothers. They're currently working with a developer on a series of spec houses nearby, modernist designs that more closely reference the historical porches and facades of nearby structures. While they don't know who the new neighbors will be yet, they already have a vision in mind.

"It's a contribution to the neighborhood," says Kerins," with the neighborhood being our client."

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Robby Johnston and Craig Kerins of the Raleigh Architecture Company.

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