The New City Home
The open plan of the loft (not to mention its bohemian cachet) has been co-opted by real-estate developers, who now erect structures with interiors embellished with ersatz industrial character: exposed ductwork, raw concrete floors, faux brick walls, and nonstructural columns. Where the resemblance falls shy of the original is, not surprisingly, in the living area.
Many of these lofts-come-lately are only marginally larger than proportionately sized apartments; eliminating interior walls without expanding the perimeter only yields an average of 50 square feet (4.6 square meters) of "extra" space, little more than a generous closet.
Bringing Light into a Row House
Take a random stroll through the residential neighborhoods of any city and you're sure to notice a mix of architectural styles. Without getting academic about it, two broad schools of expression stand out from the hodgepodge of mostly undistinguished dwellings.
Some houses, graced with classic ornament and rich in detail, are courtly reminders of the past. Others challenge viewers with their exploration of contemporary creative directions. Of course, there's room for both — the ongoing dialogue between the old and the new is part of what gives a city its dynamism.
This house in Baltimore's Federal Hill district belongs to the second category. Most recently it was a parking garage; a hundred years ago, a trio of 15-foot- (4.6-meter-) wide town houses occupied the site. Seeking comfortable quarters for their family of five, the homeowners selected Baltimore architect Rebecca Swanston to take the structure into the 21st century.
Metaphorically speaking, it practically zooms there. On the street side of the building, an angled pair of windows juts out from the second story in the sole, subtle hint of what's to come. It's fully revealed only upon walking through the house to the back room, where a pointy wedge of glazing set in an aluminum frame rules over the combined kitchen/dining/living area.
Its prowlike outline knifes out of the rear of the building, into the patio. In elevation, it's a cross between a pyramid and a rocket ship, reaching 33 feet (10 meters) into the air. The glazed element isn't just a flash in the plan; it plays a major role in the new house.
Tall Window Captures Light from Above
Row houses maximize their interior space (and minimize construction costs) by sharing their side walls with their neighbors. The usual consequence of this arrangement is, obviously, a paucity of daylight in the middle of the floor plan. Hemmed in on both sides and, at 45 feet (14 meters), much wider than the typical town house, this house would have been doomed to the same dim fate but for the towering light well, which draws sun into the core of the building.
While the open plan of the ground floor easily accommodated the window structure, the conditions were decidedly different upstairs. There are four bedrooms on the second story, one located in each corner of the building. The interior walls of two of them directly face each other across the shaft, raising the question of how to supply the rooms with the privacy they needed without blocking off the sun.
The solution: The walls that open to the light well are striated into four horizontal bands of three materials. The bottom layer is wood, which is then topped with panels of frosted glass. These are capped off with two rows of clear glass. The mullions of the interior window walls line up with those of the exterior, creating a seamless appearance.
Sacrificing Space for Light
One of the common walls was the focus of another design decision that had a significant effect on the feel of the ground floor. In the living area, the owners could have built out the room to the limit — that is, all the way to the exterior wall. Doing so, they would have gained about 60 square feet (5.6 square meters) of indoor space.
The alternative concept, which they ultimately approved, called for pulling the living room back approximately 3 feet (91 centimeters) from the shared wall, creating an outdoor corridor that's open to the sky — and thus establishing an ideal opportunity to continue the glass wall around the back to the side of the building.
Although this scheme sacrifices some floor area, its benefits are considerable. It brightens the downstairs, improves the balance of natural light, and counters the potentially overwhelming solid mass of the architecture with transparency.
All the design "punch" isn't concentrated at the back of the house. While the glass wall certainly dominates the project, another element introduces it in terms of how the space flows. Just inside the front door, a spiral stairway literally throws a curve into the otherwise angular plan, and sets up a diagonal view all the way through the house to the glazed rear facade.
The building's mid-block location created a logistical challenge during construction. The situation could be likened to painting oneself into a corner, except, of course, there was a particularly urban escape plan.
The house's new steel framing was all in place, ready to receive the components of the rear window wall. With no side access to the property, a crane was used to hoist sections of the framework over the shell and into the patio, which was used as a staging area for the assembly and installation.
Leslie Plummer Clagett has been writing and editing books and articles about urban residential architecture for 20 years. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, Arts + Architecture, and others.
This article is excerpted from The New City Home: Smart Design for Metro Living, copyright © 2002. You can order the book from the publisher online at The Taunton Press or by phone at 800-888-8286.