Ready for Prime Time

The two homes featured here occupy small footprints, but their architectural charisma, rich details, and finely tuned living spaces are big on impact.

A variety of ceiling and lighting treatments add interest to what otherwise would have been a vast, flat ceiling on the first floor. The stone accents on the walls also add interest and texture.

November 14, 2013

Some of the most desirable custom-home sites can be found in existing neighborhoods. The draw might be a spectacular view or the neighborhood itself, with its proximity to shopping, entertainment, and the other perks of city life. The two homes featured here occupy small footprints, but their architectural charisma, rich details, and finely tuned living spaces are big on impact.

Brimming with southern charm


Like many homes in the East Shore neighborhood of The Woodlands, Texas, this custom residence evokes New Orleans and Charleston, S.C., with its tall, narrow shape. The small, fenced-in yard, wrought-iron balcony railings, shutters, traditional columns, brackets, and decorative shingles are also reminiscent of homes in those southern cities.
 
East Shore, a neighborhood in the Houston suburb of The Woodlands, features tall houses on narrow lots that are reminiscent of New Orleans and Charleston, S.C. Architect John Cronin of The MZO Group, Stoneham, Mass., says empty nesters often relocate to East Shore from larger homes on larger lots within The Woodlands, attracted by the neighborhood’s convenient location to shopping, restaurants, and entertainment. One move-down couple, who had recently married, asked Cronin to design for them a new home that would blend the nautical/sailing theme of his bachelor pad with the West Texas ambience of her home.
 
The clients wanted a home that was conducive to entertaining their large, extended family and many friends. The two-story, 4,341-square-foot residence has a curved stairway that adds a sculptural and inviting element, with space underneath for the couple’s baby grand piano. Cronin made sure the main living, dining, and kitchen areas were wide open to each other, “resulting in a warm, informal, comfortable feeling when entering the foyer,” he says. The kitchen has a 14-foot island that seats six, and an adjacent walk-in pantry with an extra freezer that is also accessible from the side patio.
 

The kitchen is a dream for the homeowners, who love to entertain. The 14-foot island seats six, and there are two dishwashers, separate wine and beverage refrigerators, and an additional freezer in the adjacent walk-in pantry.
 
Cronin says it was a challenge to fit the couple’s combined art and sculpture collections, (which included many original LeRoy Neiman paintings) into the design. “Some [items] were sold or given away to make room for the most important pieces,” he says. The clients selected all the lighting for the home and coordinated the interior design.
 

The curved stairway is a sculptural element at the entrance to the home, with space underneath for the clients’ baby grand piano.
 
The second floor is accessible by the front curved stairway as well as a rear stairway and an elevator. The master suite and two additional bedrooms and bathrooms are on this floor along with a morning kitchen and powder room, which also serve the media room and screened porch. The master bedroom has a fireplace and an exercise room, accessed by a hidden door that blends into the bed wall. An additional outdoor space overlooks the main boulevard and a park used for informal gatherings and dog walking. The laundry room is conveniently located on the second floor and has direct access from the master dressing room.
 

A patio on the side of the house is set up for relaxing as well as for grilling, conveniently located just steps away from the walk-in pantry with its extra freezer. 
 
The rear, alley-loaded garage is wide enough for two cars and tall enough for two additional cars to be stacked on lifts—ideal for the husband, who is a classic-car collector. “There’s a wall-mounted, flat-screen TV in the garage because he spends a lot of time there tinkering with his cars,” Cronin says.
 
The 35-by-128-foot lot was a challenge for builder Dennis Gau of Poulson Custom Homes, Magnolia, Texas. First, he had to tear down a home that was framed and then abandoned by the builder. Cronin measured the existing slab foundation and designed the new house around it.
 

The first-floor office was designed to include space for the wife’s custom-made Lone Star desk, and features many built-in cabinets and bookshelves.
 
“We had to stay within the [design] guidelines of The Woodlands,” says Gau. “For example, we had to get permission to add the dormers and upstairs balcony rail and move some windows, which the clients requested after we started building.”
 
With only 6 feet between the home and its neighbors, Gau had to be especially careful during construction. All building materials, equipment, vehicles, and dumpsters had to be kept off the rear alley, which added to construction time and cost. Painting the exterior was tricky, he says, “Especially if you were going to spray it. You had to [do that] when there was no wind at all. For the most part, everything was done by hand.”
 

The two-car garage has a high ceiling that accommodates lifts for two additional cars, allowing the client to store and tinker with his classic automobiles.
 
Gau removed the car lifts from the husband’s previous residence and reinstalled them in the new home. “The garage has a two-story ceiling [to accommodate] the lifts,” he says. “That was a bit of a challenge. Also, the garage door, per the [owner’s] request, does not go up and roll back horizontally; it goes straight up like a guillotine. Most of the garage-door [companies] in Houston had never done that before.”
 
He estimates that the home took 10 months to complete. 

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Designing around the view


The swimming pool, outdoor kitchen, and fire pit were placed on the east side of the house, where they’re sheltered from prevailing winds coming up from the canyon. Glass walls enclosing the main living areas allow unobstructed views of the ocean.
 
This property is in the seaside community of La Jolla, Calif. Sandwiched between two large Torrey pine trees, it’s blessed with natural canyon frontage and views of ocean waves several thousand feet below. There was no question that the family’s new home would have expanses of glass facing westward. 
 

Anigre, an African hardwood, was used for the doors, cabinetry, and the ceiling in the kitchen and living room as well as the media wall. The fireplace surround is limestone.
 
John Pyjar and David Keitel, principal and senior associate, respectively, of Domusstudio Architecture, San Diego, went into the design phase with the following goals:
 
•  Preserve the two Torrey pines
•  Maximize views of the ocean and whitewater canyon
•  Give the clients privacy from neighboring homes
•  Create indoor/outdoor flowing spaces that were protected from the wind
 
In addition to 4,755 square feet of conditioned living space, the home has approximately 1,000 square feet of decks. But it’s only 8 feet high on the street side, minimizing its scale in a neighborhood of much smaller homes.
 
An existing home built in 1958 was demolished to make way for the new construction. “The existing home sat at street level with an exposed basement on the back,” says Keitel. “Our home basically does the same where the building is exposed at the rear to the lower level. Beyond the property, the canyon begins and slopes dramatically down to the ocean.”
 
Precast Concrete Walls: Strong and True
 
The home in La Jolla, Calif., featured in this article was built with precast concrete wall panels that were made in the factory, delivered to the site, and erected by cranes in a single day. “We’ve used precast concrete panels on a couple of projects and they work pretty well,” says architect John Pyjar, principal of Domusstudio, San Diego.
 
Domusstudio specified Metal Stud Crete thin structural wall panels from StructureCast of Bakersfield, Calif. The panels consist of thin, conventional concrete and modified light-gauge metal framing. They’re made by pouring 2-1/2-inch thick concrete into the metal frame and letting it cure.
 
According to StructureCast, Metal Stud Crete panels far exceed minimum seismic, sound, fire, and wind requirements. The load-bearing, structural shear wall systems conform to building codes nationwide through ICC/ICBO.
 
David Keitel, senior associate at Domusstudio, says using the panels was a challenge: “All the structural connection points are hidden in dual-sided panels that are capped on the top and ends.” But Pyjar points out that the manufacturing process results in a better product: “It has the look and finish of poured concrete, and by doing it in a shop versus in the field, [StructureCast has] much better control over quality.”
Excavation was a delicate procedure because it took place so close to the rare Torrey pines. “In some places we had to cut some of the roots to dig the basement,” says Dan Arenas, principal of Premier Custom Builders, San Diego. A local arborist supervised the conservation of the trees. In the past, fossils and Indian artifacts have been discovered on the site, so it had to be inspected periodically by paleontologists and archeologists.
 
The lot is 0.45 acres, though only 50 percent is buildable area (the rest is protected open space). The clients brought magazine clippings of homes they liked to Domusstudio, which drove the contemporary design of the 4,755-square-foot residence.
 
The major axis of the home points directly to the only whitewater view far below in the canyon. This axis is the circulation spine and organizing design element for the house, he says. The home is zoned to provide privacy for the parents, spaces for the children below and toward the canyon, and indoor/outdoor living and entertaining opportunities.
 

Precast concrete wall panels were used for the structure and also form part of the interior finish. The panels were fabricated off site and erected in a day.
 
The clients’ large collection of automobiles is housed in two perpendicular garages, which help obscure the true scale of the project. Glass walls around the main living areas completely erase any barrier to the canyon and ocean. At the same time, solid walls to the north and south offer privacy from the closest neighbors on each side.
 

Luxuriously appointed with an oversized shower and a sunken whirlpool tub, even the master bath has views of the ocean.
 
The home took 18 months to complete which, according to Arenas, is typical for the size and complexity of the project. In addition to digging the basement, the Torrey pines had to be shored up and retaining walls built.
 

The flooring and stair treads are made of fossilized sandstone, quarried in India and cut into rectangles.
 
Subdivision bylaws limited the height of the home on the street side. At its highest point, it’s only 8 feet above the curb. But in a neighborhood of 1,600-square-foot, one-story homes, it’s a good fit despite being three times the size.
  
“Even though it’s a contemporary design and doesn’t really go with the other houses in the neighborhood, it fits in real well and doesn’t obstruct anybody’s view,” Pyjar says.

 

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