Custom Builder Design Challenge Winners Tackle Urban Infill

Plans and elevations submitted for the first annual Design Challenge, sponsored by Custom Builder magazine, show that there’s more than one way to house a family of four in the city. The three winning designs address site constraints, privacy and security issues while ensuring all family members have places to work, play and recharge their batteries.

September 01, 2007
The Judges
The Criteria

Picture your new clients: a professional couple who work outside the home. They have two young, active sons whose primary passions are sports and music. The boys' grandmother visits frequently, and it's likely that she'll move in at a later date. The parents often bring work home at night and sometimes on the weekends. They cook for the children whenever time allows and like to entertain informally.

But here's the kicker. Tired of living in the suburbs and commuting to their jobs in the city, the couple has purchased an urban infill site where they plan to build a home for their soon-to-be-extended family. There are no alleys in this particular neighborhood, so the garage has to be front-loaded. Due to municipal height restrictions, the home can't be more than two stories, and total living area cannot exceed 2,800 square feet.

That, in a nutshell, was the program for what will become Custom Builder's annual Design Challenge. Entrants struggled to minimize the impact of the front-loading garage, find the right location for an in-law suite that offered both privacy and accessibility, and incorporate spaces where the kids could play and the parents could work, entertain and chill out after a long day. Like all designers, they labored over traffic patterns, noise issues, security, natural light and ventilation. But due to the city location, concerns about privacy and security were greater and opportunities for outdoor space fewer.

Entries were submitted from across the nation. Because there were no limitations on architectural style, some elevations reflected the vernacular of a local market while others were eclectic or downright suburban. Except for the second-place winner, the judges agreed there were no designs that really screamed "urban."

Nevertheless, three designs rose to the top for their successful integration of public and private spaces, functional outdoor areas and attention to detail.

First Place

Designer: T.J. Monahan

Studio Z Design Concepts

Gaithersburg, Md.

Praised by the judges for its effective use of the site and strong spatial connections, this design features a formal living room off the entry. An island kitchen opens to the dining room, foyer and great room, creating a comfortable and inviting space for entertaining. From the front door, there is an unobstructed sight line to the great room, which has a fireplace and sliding doors to a large patio. Pocket doors can be used to close off the great room from the adjacent dining room if desired.

A second, smaller patio off the dining room, accessed by sliding doors, can be transformed into a garden where the family can enjoy dinner on a cool summer night.

The mudroom off the garage has benches and cubbies where the kids can stash their backpacks and the entire family can shed muddy shoes and wet coats.

Upstairs, each boy has his own bedroom and bathroom. Their parents are ensconced in a roomy master suite with a private balcony and fireplace. The second-floor laundry room is conveniently close to the bedrooms.

On the lower level is a suite for the boys' grandmother with a living room, kitchenette, bedroom and bathroom. Space is set aside for an elevator that can be installed later to help her get around the house safely and easily. Mom and Dad have a large home office next to the grandmother's living quarters, and the boys can listen to music or play instruments in the recreation room. The in-law suite can double as a guest suite until Grandma moves in permanently. A patio off the lower level provides a cozy outdoor retreat that one judge described as "English garden-like."

The design also calls for an optional bonus room in the attic that can serve as a guest bedroom, a study area or a place for the kids to kick back as they get older.

Second Place

Designer: T.J. Monahan

Studio Z Design Concepts

Gaithersburg, Md.

As one judge commented, this is the only design that seems truly urban. It provides the family with a variety of spaces that allow their use of the house to change along with their needs and lifestyle. For example, there are several exterior spaces that can be used for entertaining as well as a place for the boys to hang out with their friends.

Judges liked the ample private and exterior spaces and the sectional organization of the floor plan. Volume spaces, such as the first-floor gallery, connect the first and second floor and use natural light to give the home a bright and airy feel.

At one end of the kitchen island, countertop space was allocated for the kids to do homework while Mom or Dad cooks dinner. The kitchen is open to the great room, allowing guests to circulate and chat with their hosts. A large patio off the great room, accessed by sliding doors, extends the indoor areas for additional entertaining space. Family members can grab a quick meal at the breakfast bar or gather in the dining room when they have time.

The lower level has a suite for the boys' grandmother, including a living room, kitchenette, bedroom and bath. A second gallery gives some privacy to this area from the adjacent recreation room, where the boys can pursue their hobbies — and perhaps give up some of that space for Mom and Dad to use as a home office.

On the second floor is the master suite, children's bedrooms and laundry room. The kids have a private balcony as do the parents, and there are two additional balconies off the stair landing — more "public" areas where guests can relax over cocktails.

Third Place

Designer: Gary L. Fowler

BSB Design


This design is noteworthy both for its green spaces and green-building concepts. To maximize usable outdoor area, the architect utilized the smallest footprint possible. Main living areas were placed on the second floor to muffle street noise and improve sight lines to the surrounding community.

The grandmother's suite is also on the second floor, at the rear of the home for greater security. A terrace links her quarters to the kitchen and great room and provides a private relaxation space. A residential elevator and 3-foot doors throughout the home gives her easy access to all areas.

The children's bedrooms are on the first floor with the master suite to the rear, adjacent to the pool and hot tub. The main entry is at the side of the house, defined by a large covered porch, and office space is tucked into an alcove off the foyer.

Mom and Dad have several places in which to entertain their guests: the porch, which is suitable for small gatherings; the family room, with its folding doors that open to a patio overlooking the pool; and the great room — ideal for inclement weather.

When the adults crave peace and quiet, they can retreat to the roof terrace with its retractable shade awning and lush garden plantings. The children have their own grassy play area behind the house, where they can wrestle or kick a soccer ball around without having to play in the street or trek to the nearest park.

Judges gave high marks for the green ideas incorporated in this home. In addition to the green roof terrace, there is "cool" metal roofing, cellulose wall insulation, insulated foundation walls, a stormwater retention system and energy-efficient mechanical systems. The stormwater cistern in the basement captures, stores and reuses rainwater to irrigate the green roof and other landscaping. Materials can be recycled from the existing structure on the site, and scrap generated by construction can be used in the new home, such as recycled glass countertops in the kitchen and bathrooms.


The Judges

Paul Alessandro

Paul Alessandro, senior principal of Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture (HPA) in Chicago, practiced for 15 years in Ohio before joining HPA in 1998. Alessandro's extensive experience with large-scale industrial, media and civic projects has enhanced HPA's abilities in the field of historic restoration and redevelopment.

Stuart Cohen, FAIA, principal of Stuart Cohen & Julie Hacker Architects in Evanston, Ill., worked in New York City for Richard Meier and Associates, Philip Johnson and John Burgee before opening his own practice in Chicago in 1973. His work has been published and exhibited nationally and internationally, receiving awards from Progressive Architecture magazine, Interiors magazine, the American Institute of Architects and the American Wood Council.

Julie Hacker and Stuart Cohen

Julie Hacker became a partner in Stuart Cohen & Julie Hacker Architects in Evanston, Ill., in 1991. Before that, she was a project architect for the Chicago firm of Hammond Beeby and Babka, where she redesigned the outdoor play and animal petting areas at the Lincoln Park Zoo's Pritzker Family Children's Zoo in Chicago.

The Criteria

The challenge was to design an in-city, infill custom home for a family of four. The children are 7- and 9-year-old boys whose chief interests are sports and music. Their grandmother often stays with them for one or two months at a time. Both parents work outside of the home and regularly bring work home evenings and some weekends. They cook a moderate amount for a professional, two-income household and enjoy casual entertaining. The grandmother requires some assistance with stairs, and there's a possibility she may move in with the family at a later date, so the plans need to include an in-law suite.

The design could be of any architectural style. Living area could not exceed 2,800 square feet (excluding the basement and two-car, front-loading garage), and the home could not be more than two stories. The non-corner lot is 50-by-150 feet. Only original designs, never before constructed, were eligible.

Entries were judged on the quality and originality of the design, cost efficiency and how well the design met the requirements of the specified buyer segment.

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