Anyone who commissions a custom home expects a lot. But the Walker family, of Fayetteville, Arkansas, asked for no less than a dwelling that would transform their lives.
The clan includes Tim, Kathi, and their kids, Emily and Grace. Previously, they resided in a newer, traditional home described by Kathi as “nice, but not us,” and she likens occupying it to wearing someone else’s clothes.
“We wanted a house where we could really live, something that was more than shelter. We were looking for a home where we could go to escape, but also engage with the world around us,” says Tim. “We didn’t want a sheetrock box. Instead, we wanted a place where we could celebrate small moments—like the play of light and shadow.”
The family had grand ideas, but as a graphic design firm owner (Tim) and a bookkeeper (Kathi), they didn’t have an infinite budget. What they did have is the desire, the will, and a friendship with Marlon and Meryati (Ati) Blackwell, principals of the award-winning Marlon Blackwell Architects.
The Blackwells are known for their modern—and stunning—commercial architecture. But their portfolio also includes residential projects, such as their own home, which was built for $185 per square foot. As importantly, the firm is committed to the mantra: “Architecture can happen anywhere, on any scale, at any budget.”
So, when Tim asked Marlon over beers if the architect thought that he could afford to build a modern home of his own, the answer was an educated affirmative.
For Tim, the decision to build was a case of practicing what he preaches. “I’ve been trying to convince clients of the value of design my whole working life,” he says. “Asking Marlon to design a house for us was like living my own convictions.”
But for a family that had never done anything like this before (Tim says he’d never been on the client side of any project), the prospect was daunting. Both Tim and Kathi evoked the word “unnerving” when talking about their feelings at the outset.
A note about the budget: The 2,500-square-foot home came in at under $200 per square foot, including labor, materials, and installation of utilities. To anyone who lives in a large metro area, this may sound, to be blunt, like crazy talk. Blackwell allows a few things factored into it.
“In other parts of the country, this would cost a lot more,” says Marlon, noting that other regions have much higher labor and material costs. “First of all, they are old friends, so we gave them what we call the ‘brother-in-law’ price for fees. Next, we chose a simple and inexpensive material palette: concrete bricks, concrete floors, and simple wood siding. We kept the detailing really clean and really simple—which reduces labor costs. And we built carports instead of garages.”
For inspiration, the Blackwells drew on the principles of the Case Study Houses. After all, those homes were an experiment in making modernism affordable for the middle class.
The Walkers have long loved the Case Study Houses, and dreamed of living in one. “Marlon told me Case Study Houses were significant because they were built for their time, and that he would not simply copy them, but rather design a house for our time, in the same spirit,” Tim says.
Of course, the Case Study Houses (and midcentury modernism in general) are more often associated with Southern California than Northwestern Arkansas. But make no mistake, Fayetteville is not a stranger to the style.
Tim was turned onto modernism as a student at Arkansas State. “The art department was in an amazing International-style building,” he remembers. “It was clean, simple, and uncluttered, with lots of light, white walls, and gray concrete floors. There was always the smell of paint, and you could always hear music being played, and there was always a performance of some sort being staged. It had a huge impact on me and it was the beginning of my love for the style.”
Fayetteville may not as famous for Modernism as, say, Los Angeles. However, Tim says that it is an unexpected destination for modern buildings thanks to the legacy of local midcentury architects such as Fay Jones, Edward Durell Stone, Warren Seagraves, and others. Now, current inhabitants like the Blackwells, whose firm received a National Design Award last year, are included in their number.
When the Walkers bought their lot, they chose an eclectic neighborhood that has plenty of midcentury-modern and modern organic homes, alongside traditional dwellings.
“Most neighbors have been incredibly supportive,” Tim says. “I had an older gentleman walk past the other day, and he complimented me on the house. He said, ‘I don’t know why everyone doesn’t build this way today. We don’t drive Model Ts around anymore, why would we want to build new old houses?’”
No one would compare the Walkers’ new home, an L-shaped building that sits atop a hill, to a vintage car. Its material palette expresses itself in way that’s both honest and elegant. The concrete brick (half-size concrete block) that is used on the exterior shows itself, unadorned, in the interior. The concrete floor is merely slab-on-grade, and is not hidden by wood or tile. Throughout the house, cabinets are Baltic birch plywood. It’s a look that is, certainly, reminiscent of early midcentury modern, but completely of the here and now.
“Nothing in the house is non-functional or just for show. For example, there are window seats, but they are needed for seating, not for adornment,” Marlon says. “We focused on getting the form right. After that, we worked on making the materials simple and light. It gives the effect of floating.” Ati adds, “The real luxury here is light and the connection to the outdoors.”
Of course, where there is a tight budget, there you will find sacrifice. At first, the Walkers envisioned a charred-wood exterior and a geothermal heating and cooling system, and they passed on some higher-end furniture and finishes. “Sure, I have some regrets,” Tim says. “There are some design details we eliminated for practical, cost reasons. But we got the main things right, and that makes all the difference.”
When asked if they received the life-changing home they dreamed of, the simple answer from both Tim and Kathi is “yes.”
“We got everything we asked for. It fits our home and our lives perfectly,” says Tim. “We consider the house a member of the family, as it’s the container and the backdrop for our lives. It’s a place of refuge that we look forward to returning to every day. Personally, I anticipate spending the rest of my life here.”