Before the cladding went onto architect Ross Smith’s Asheville, North Carolina, home, it looked, he says, “like a big green wedge dropped from outer space.” The geometric structure needed the white pine boards on the exterior to soften the sharp angles. It also needed some round shapes, some circles and curves, to strike the right note. Hence the playful circular windows from Pella that bookend the dining nook and the entryway. “It’s almost like someone shot a bullet through the house,” Ross explains. “I think they add charm and softness to the exterior.”
All of the house’s unusual architectural details, including the archways that open into a sunny atrium and the lofted space accessible via a built-in ladder, are the result of a series of negotiations that took place between Ross and his wife, Anna Welton. Before she began working as the director of Warren Wilson College’s international program, Welton spent several years living in Latin America, where she gained an appreciation for both tropical plants and architecture. “I had to balance my desire for a contemporary house and Anna’s desire for a plant-filled bohemian space,” he says.
While the couple has similar styles, they didn’t always want the exact same thing. Compromise was key, as was flexibility. Ross let each design decision influence the next. The angled roof inspired the circular windows, the windows inspired the arches, and so forth. Ross says the house is better for it. “It’s like when a lead singer of a band goes off to do a solo album,” he says. “It’s never as good as when they worked together.”
But it wasn’t always easy. At first, Ross resisted the idea of having an atrium for their ever-growing collection of potted houseplants, many of which Anna purchases from the Warren Wilson College greenhouse sales. “I didn’t know if we could have that in a compact house on a budget, so I had to really think about it,” says Ross. He didn’t want to have a room off the side of the house that would be devoted to plants—he wanted to create a multi-functional space that would get a lot of use. By locating the atrium at the core of the house, he created an area where he could place a lot of windows (set back from the street to ensure the couple’s privacy) as well as functional skylights. During the summer, they can open the skylights to vent the hot air from the structure. As the hot air rises, cooler air is pulled up through the basement, thus passively heating the central rooms of the home. “I wondered if that would function how I’d read it did,” he admits. “But it really does.”
While Ross calls their houseplant collection a “weird driving force” behind the design, there’s another less-weird force that came into play: money. The couple had limited funds to create their dream house, so Ross had to look for ways to save without cutting corners. To that end, he decided to install primarily inoperable windows, including the oversized portholes and several large squares. “Fixed windows are a fraction of the cost, so I whittled down the number of operable windows to the bare minimum,” he says. “We put in some for cross ventilation, which let us get big chunks of glazing at a reasonable price.” Other cost-saving measures included using a prefabricated foundation, white pine cladding that was treated to take on the look of cedar, and Ikea cabinet boxes in the kitchen that have been fitted with cabinet faces from Reform. “It’s a fully off-the-shelf kitchen system that looks totally custom,” says Ross.
The kitchen cabinets also pick up on the circle motif, which echoes throughout the entire house, in their recessed pulls. It’s a playful touch, like something you might see in a high-minded kindergarten. The green paint, the color of well-hydrated moss, is similarly youthful and vibrant. While Ross says he’d like to claim the verdant hue was inspired by Anna’s plant collection, he thinks he might have been influenced by consumer trends. “I recently read an article about green cabinets that said they’re going to be everywhere in the next decade,” he says. “I think our cabinets were influenced by the retinal burn of seeing so many pictures.”
It doesn’t really matter how that seed got planted, because it works. All the little compromises and negotiations along the way led to the creation of a house that looks hip and personal at once. It has a ’70s vibe, which Ross says makes sense, given his respect for architects of the era. You can see the influence of the decade in the high ceilings, the wood paneling, the earth-toned tiles, and the recessed living room. While not quite a conversation pit, Ross says the step-down living room and kitchen feel “like one big conversation pit.” It’s something he’s been noticing more often. “Now, architects have been sinking the entire room rather than just one area,” he says.
The sunken living room seemed to require low-slung couches, and while Ross and Anna wanted built-ins, they knew they couldn’t afford to have custom upholstery made. They scoured the internet, and eventually Anna found floor cushions from Pottery Barn Teen that they could use to create a sectional. “I had to change the design a bit so they would fit,” Ross says. Fortunately, the store even offered a corner-shaped cushion, which enabled the couple to complete the L-shaped seating arrangement. Ross used budget-friendly marine-grade birch plywood to build the platform, which runs along interior walls, facing the black Danish modern fireplace and a pair of funky chartreuse swivel chairs (and, of course, a few potted plants).
Then there was the perennial question of how to hide the television. Everyone wants a TV in the living room, but no one really wants to see it when it’s off. Here, too, Anna had the answer. She suggested adding a barn door-esque sliding panel. “You don’t want the television to be the center of everything,” Ross says. “And now it’s not.”