Welcome to Curbed's original series Homeward Bound, in which long-affirmed city dweller and design journalist Karrie Jacobs documents her process as a first-time home builder. Jacobs, a professional observer of the man-made landscape, was the founding editor of Dwell magazine and the author of The Perfect $100,000 House: A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home (Viking, 2006). This eight-part series is a continuation of Jacobs's pursuit to solve the puzzle of modest, modern, and regional domestic architecture, using a recently-acquired parcel in upstate New York as a first-person case study.
The most emotionally resonant moment in the years I spent as the editor of Dwell magazine occurred during my first visit to Prospect, a New Urbanist subdivision on the outskirts of Longmont, Colorado, just northeast of Boulder. It was July, 2001. I was on my way back to the Denver airport after spending a few days at a high-minded design gabfest in a small town further west. I made a detour to check out Prospect because I'd heard there were a couple of modernist houses there—maybe one would be worth publishing.
Early one evening I arrived at the home of the official town designer, architect Mark Sofield, and his wife Kelly Feeney (a former Albers Institute curator who served as the development's color consultant). They took me on a walking tour across 80 acres of what was once a tree farm belonging to the family of the developer, Kiki Wallace. It was, essentially, in the middle of nowhere, a subdivision off a state highway lined with subdivisions. The development had been laid out by the premiere New Urbanist firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk, much like a traditional early 20th century town with narrow pedestrian friendly streets and the occasional pocket park. And many of the houses were exactly like the ones you see in almost all DPZ projects: Neo-colonial homes with columns, or bungalows with deep porches.
But after a couple of years of sticking to the New Urbanist template, Kiki and Mark decided to change direction. Many of the newer homes that I saw were unmistakably non-traditional, a dozen or more by the time of my first visit. Whole blocks were modern in a way I'd not seen before: Some were straightforward marriages of low-lying rectangles and taller sheds, while others were angular, nonconforming agglomerations. Designed by Mark and a roster of other architects the 111 houses that had been built as of late 2001 were painted in deep, rich colors like eggplant or olive contrasting with typical beige ("Band-Aid colored," according to Feeney) of other local developments. Prospect, I learned, was an attempt to breed a Modernism native to the mountain west, something more American than European, more Coloradan than Californian.
So there I was, walking in the fading sunlight, under an endless Front Range sky, in a place that was in one way fairly predictable—a cute little New Urbanist enclave—and in another way otherworldly, a subdivision from another planet. As we wandered streets with names like Incorrigible Circle and Tenacity Drive, I felt as if I'd stumbled into a chapter from Ray Bradbury's autobiographical novel, Dandelion Wine, in which life in an ordinary small town is infused with metaphysical wonder.
We put Prospect on the cover of Dwell in early 2002, anointing it "America's Coolest Neighborhood." And Sofield continued his work, through a rollercoaster ride of economic highs and lows over the next dozen years, building out much of the 337-lot, 570-unit plan. His website shows an array of the homes he designed there, each one idiosyncratic and thoughtfully sited to maximize views within the dense streetscape. Sofield describes the style he was trying to cultivate in Prospect as "an attempt to develop an architectural language that is modern but not in a doctrinaire way." This is an understatement. Since that first evening stroll, Prospect seemed indispensable to me, my theoretical home town. Except I had no desire to settle in Colorado.
Fast forward to 2014, when Ed and I are beginning to wrestle with the problem of what to build on our land. Coincidentally, at the same moment that we were trying to figure out how to save and repurpose our long-neglected barn, Sofield and his wife were relocating to the East Coast. Mark set up PSF Projects, an architecture practice in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he's mostly been working on renovations of high-end apartments. In June of last year, I wrote to him about the barn: "I'm wondering whether it would be possible to do a minimalist renovation and winterize some of it, while keeping some spaces less weatherized for use in the warmer months.Like maybe build a pod inside the barn for winter, with more expansive indoor/outdoor spaces for the rest of the year."
Mark embraced the pod concept, but by the time he visit our land in November, the barn's fate was sealed. However, it was still standing at that point, and he toured it with our contractor, picking out some pieces—like boards from one of the old silos—to save and reuse somewhere. We all spent a lot of time on the property, searching for the right spot to site the house. Once we'd agreed on a place where the land formed a plateau, roughly halfway up our hill, Mark spent considerable time photographing and studying the terrain. "Context is everything in design," he recently told me. "So the immediate problem is, how do you deal with a context that's so beautiful. It's a little intimidating."
When I first spoke with Ed about hiring Mark, I left out Dandelion Wine. Instead, I talked up the fact that Mark's job at Prospect was not just about designing houses, or overseeing the designs of other architects—it was about getting them properly built, working closely with a mixed bag of builders. This forced Mark to think strategically about design in ways that his builders, more accustomed to working on conventional tract houses, could understand. Mark says he came to believe that the beauty of his houses, "comes out of their constructability." For an architect, this is a rare and priceless insight.
In his first pass, Mark started by making a space-planning diagram of our stated program: We wanted a long, low, energy-efficient house, primarily glass on the south side for passive solar and the views, with a master bedroom and writing studio (for me) at one end, and a drum studio (for Ed) at the opposite end. The noisy and quiet wings would be buffered by a central kitchen/living/dining zone. And, of course, we wanted lots of deck. Mark mated the pod concept (leftover from the initial plan for our barn) to the site's topography and, in late January, presented to us a house with a "falling downhill feeling." It was a composition of myriad sheds, a house in which each room would be a step or two up or down from the adjacent room. While Mark referenced Sea Ranch, the landmark northern California coastal development begun in the 1960s by Charles Moore and friends, I couldn't help thinking of Frank Gehry's Stata Center at MIT, a wild ménage of forms that famously leaked at all the seams. After we left Mark's studio, Ed and I discussed the design and agreed that there was a problem.
I emailed Mark the next day and said that we liked the overall approach:
"But we both felt that the design you're working on may be overly complex, with too many volumes, too many roofs, and too many seams and junctions. "We really like your notion that the house should have an angle or a hinge in the middle, so that it takes in the views to the southeast and southwest. But we were imagining something more elemental, like an arrow or a wedge or maybe a boomerang.
"I wonder if we could keep the idea of the angle and the dual views, without so many peaks and valleys."
Mark took that critique, digested it, and delivered a more straightforward design a couple of weeks later. It's 1,900 square feet, spread mostly over two large volumes, one with the master bedroom and writing studio angled southwest, and one with the living/dining/kitchen angled southeast. Then, tucked behind the living room is a third volume that contains the drum studio, a small garage, and a laundry/mud room. A shed roof covers the quiet wing and a butterfly roof sits atop the living areas, the noisy room and the garage.
It's not as pure and minimal as AndersonAnderson's Kumamoto Zero house, our aesthetic touchstone, but Mark's design has the quirky personality that I love about his Prospect houses—the thing that happens when an architect doesn't regurgitate Modernism, but instead reinvents it.
We signed off on Mark's second iteration. And then we dove so deeply into the logistics of building—surveying the land, tearing down the barn, building a driveway, installing the electric, phone and TV cables, getting a building permit—that we didn't look at the design for a few months. At the end of July, I sat down with Mark and he showed me a 3D digital model that was far more detailed than anything I'd previously seen. It was astonishing: Here was the corner kitchen window positioned to overlook the gorgeous pasture behind the house. ("That was the main reason why I fought for keeping the house in the upper field," Mark notes. We had considered relocating the site to shorten the driveway.) And here is the view from the bedroom with glass on two sides. (Yes, Mark reassures me, the windows are shaded in a way that maximizes heat gain in the winter and minimizes it in the summer.) And here's my office with the built-in desk…
Sure, it's just a fly-through on a computer screen, but all of a sudden, this object (our home!) feels real. And for the first time since this project began, it dawns on me that I've been on my way to this exact house for 14 years, ever since that first evening stroll around Prospect, Colorado.
Stay tuned for the next installment of Homeward Bound on Thursday, September 10.