Architects for Everyone
By Tom Lassiter
|Photo: 2014© Tim Buchman Photography. www.timbuchman.com
Peter Tart, architect, Charlotte, North Carolina.
Architect Peter Tart knows exactly where his life-long love affair with outdoor spaces began.
“I grew up in a small town, in a Greek classical home,” says Tart, a North Carolina architect for more than 30 years. “The yard was carved up by shrubbery into various rooms. Each one had its own character. They were magical.”
Now based in Charlotte, Tart draws upon his appreciation for the natural environment whenever he designs Outdoor Rooms for his residential clients.
Just as retailers prize a huge, five-figure sale, architects look forward to projects with generous construction budgets on sites replete with opportunities, not restrictions.
Reality, though, is that signature projects – much like blockbuster retail sales – come along infrequently.
Tart’s projects most often are remodels and renovations of older, existing homes, houses that are well loved and situated in mature neighborhoods. That suits him just fine. He shares a philosophy with the iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who believed that the common man deserved beautiful, functional architecture just as much as oligarchs and titans of industry.
Wright’s solution was to create homes presumably affordable by people of average means. He called them Usonian houses. Tart and other architects contacted by Hearth & Home take an approach more suited to these times, applying their talents and skills to improve existing residences. They say that when homeowners come to them with a project, the wish list often includes an Outdoor Room.
“I like to be everyone’s architect,” Tart says.
Each renovation project comes with its own specific challenges. Considerations include how to harmonize the new with the old; creating fresh vistas while maintaining privacy and minimizing distracting views; crafting an inviting, flowing transition between indoors and out and, as always, budget constraints.
“Typically, when I approach an outside project, it’s an opportunity to fix a lot of problems,” Tart says.
Homeowners across North America increasingly are engaging the services of architects when they include Outdoor Rooms in their home renovation plans. Tart and other architects interviewed say they first noticed an uptick in Outdoor Room inquiries about eight or 10 years ago.
Commissions for new home construction softened following the Great Recession; some architects contacted say the shift was so dramatic that they were forced to refocus on commercial projects almost exclusively. Architects willing to take on smaller projects, such as home renovations, say interest in Outdoor Rooms hasn’t waned. Homeowners continue to place a high priority on improving their outdoor living environments, creating havens for relaxing with family and entertaining friends.
“We definitely have had clients looking at more outdoor spaces,” says Candace Smith, an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia.
|Photo: 2014© John Horner Photography. A custom design by David Sharff, architect, Medfield, Massachusetts.|
Like Tart, she has clients with “more modest homes” who understand the benefits that an architect offers. “We use our skills to listen to what they need and think about their budget,” she says. “By using our services, they wind up with a better outcome than they might have.”
Tom Nychay, who practices with Sortun-Voss Architects in Seattle, says upgrading outdoor living spaces “has become more of a priority than in years past. It’s always an idea I bring to the table.” His firm has six architects, he says, and 90 percent of its work is residential.
Outdoor Room additions and renovations usually are part of a more extensive project, the architects say. The remodel of a kitchen or family room may include enlarging windows or doors leading to a backyard. That leads to rethinking how the space immediately outside is used, including approaches and entrances. The evolving space may be a patio, a partially sheltered deck, a pergola or a screened porch.
“When the opportunity arises to add that amenity, we try and do that,” explains David Sharff, an architect in Medfield, Massachusetts. The architect’s role is to think globally about the project, which may involve a number of contractors, subcontractors and craftsmen. Landscape architects may be in the mix as well. Having the big picture in mind, Sharff says, enables the architect to “pull everything together so that it’s coherent and consistent.”
Rather than making one big statement, the architect’s influence in a completed home renovation and Outdoor Room project usually can be found in the subtleties – things such as the width of a step; changes in ceiling height that set the tone for use and ambience; unobstructed sightlines or, in the case of less appealing views, discrete shielding; door placement that allows traffic to flow while providing arrangement options for furniture.
When these and an infinite number of other details are considered before the first carpenter shows up, the resulting space can be like a well-crafted piece of custom furniture, aesthetically pleasing yet highly serviceable.
The View from Seattle
Sometimes an Outdoor Room project evolves when clients seek an architect’s help on other issues, says Seattle architect Nychay. “People typically come to us because they need a solution for a functional problem with the house,” he says, such as a kitchen or family room remodel.
Expanding the scope of the project to include an Outdoor Room does add expenses, but “it’s not costing as much as other parts of the house.” The absence of elements such as HVAC, solid walls and perhaps a roof brings down the cost per square foot. On the other hand, adding amenities such as a complete outdoor kitchen pushes costs back up.
Nychay’s design for the remodel of an early 20th-century Craftsman-style home illustrates how a sensitive approach can adapt an older home to contemporary standards and lifestyle concepts. The owners of the Craftsman home planned a whole-house renovation. The work included “enlarging the kitchen and opening it out to the deck. Our job was to make that work.”
Whenever a project involves outdoor living space, Nychay says, “Our overarching philosophy is to think ‘inside-to-outside’ as much as possible.” That means considering the indoor-outdoor area as a unified, flowing space.
The key, he says, is convenient access, visual and physical. The space “needs to draw you out there. Finding a way to integrate it, with as few impediments as possible, other than a door, is what we strive for.”
The waterside home boasted large roof overhangs, providing doorways with shelter from Seattle’s infamous cool-season weather and imparting a cozy feel. The existing deck was constructed of durable ipé.
A counter, including the kitchen sink, spanned the width of an exterior wall adjacent to the deck. To the right of the countertop was the existing door leading outside.
Nychay’s solution replaced the existing solid wall above the counter and window with a glass half-wall that folds away accordion-style. The traditional door was replaced with a matching glass door that also folds open.
|Outdoor Room with pass-through window by Tom Nychay, architect, Sortun-Vos Architect, Seattle, Washington.|
“There was only one manufacturer at that time that could make a window and door that folded open without a mullion in between, making a clear span without a post in the middle,” he says.
Once construction began, the client wanted to incorporate a barbecue grill. Nychay placed the built-in grill in a sheltered corner location. Matching windows open wide to the kitchen, allowing items to be passed easily back and forth to the grill chef.
The kitchen redesign features a long granite-topped island with a cooktop at one end and a small sink for food prep. The island’s generous width allows room for dining and socializing with guests seated in tall, bistro-style chairs.
The accordion window wall frames an arresting panoramic view of sky, water and evergreens. With the glass wall fully open, the result is a perfect realization of the ideal Pacific Northwest lifestyle, living in harmony with nature.
Thinking Ahead in Charlottesville
Architect Candace Smith says furniture considerations always influence the evolution of designs for her Outdoor Room projects. Staying abreast of outdoor furniture trends ensures that the spaces she’s designing will accommodate the scale of products ranging from deep-seating conversation groups to umbrellas.
“We are always looking at furniture,” she says, noting that dining tables grew exponentially toward the end of the 20th century and, she notes, “Umbrellas that used to be smaller now take up much larger areas.” Furniture dimensions “have influenced the shape of some of the porches we’ve done.”
When a client plans on using existing furniture in a remodeled Outdoor Room, Smith takes measurements to ensure that the resulting space will be appropriate for those items.
Just as savvy retailers ask questions of shoppers to help them select furniture that will best answer their needs, architects probe clients to fully understand their lifestyles and how they want to use their homes’ spaces, indoors and out.
Thanks to what Smith calls the design exploration process, she has helped clients realize “four-season rooms and screened porches that they would not have had if there had been no design exploration.” The process enables the architect to “still meet their budget and even better meet their needs.”
A primary consideration in any Outdoor Room project is to integrate the indoor and outdoor experience as seamlessly as possible. Sightlines from deep within a home’s interior that ultimately leads to windows create “a different sense of orientation in space.” Rather than being confining, an interior with long sightlines feels more expansive and open.
|Outdoor Room by Candace Smith, architect, Charlottesville, Virginia.|
“I believe line of sight is really important,” Smith says, noting that ceiling heights in covered outdoor spaces can open up vistas or, conversely, limit views. “You can get so much more of the outdoors in.” The rolling hills around Charlottesville provide many homeowners with scenic opportunities, often leading Smith to specify porches and doors “bigger than the normal standard.”
A well-executed Outdoor Room design should enable people to move easily from a sheltered space into open spaces and nature. The route usually includes steps, elements that get particular attention from Smith.
When steps and stairs are designed with proper proportions, she says, “The easier it is to step down into the garden. If the steps are deep enough and tall enough for the human body to pass easily, you can maintain that tight connection to the garden.”
Designing with Sensitivity
|Photo: 2014© Tim Buchman Photography. www.timbuchman.com
Ceiling fans are present in all of Tart’s designs.
Peter Tart understands how friends socialize. Friends invited to a backyard get-together know they aren’t expected to enter by the front door. They’re comfortable strolling down the driveway or taking a familiar sidewalk straight to the party. So when Tart considers how to approach an Outdoor Room project, either by itself or as part of a larger renovation, he considers all angles and approaches.
“There has to be a well thought-out circulation plan,” he explains. Some of the necessary but unsightly elements of modern suburban life might be located between arriving guests and the Outdoor Room. Tart considers ways to minimize these distractions. “We like to add places to put the garbage cans and the utilities,” he says. “Often there needs to be a place for firewood to be stored.”
Architects true to their craft approach every project and client as unique. An Outdoor Room project featured on Tart’s website shows an angular screened porch constructed of richly colored timber, wood reclaimed from a Vermont mill. The porch features varied ceiling heights and a broad fieldstone chimney rising above a wide, wood-burning fireplace. Ceiling fans stir the North Carolina air, which tends to be thick and humid in the summertime.
“I don’t think I would ever do a space without a ceiling fan or two,” Tart says. “They’re wonderful devices. I have them all over my house.”
Each angle and detail in the compact space was specified on purpose and for a reason. A generous overhang helps protect the porch from blowing rain. Tart called for built-in cabinets to be constructed of cypress, a wood that is superior for use in damp areas. The fireplace is oriented to be seen from inside the home, creating a visual element to draw out those who are indoors. “It’s important to make the connection strong between inside and out,” he says.
Translucent roofing material in one section brings in daylight, animating the face of the stone chimney. The roofline dips in one area, providing two benefits: The lower ceiling delineates the space, creating a cozy spot to sit; at the same time, the lower roof blocks the view of a neighboring home.
A renovation project with a more robust budget created a new guest bedroom for an empty-nest couple whose priorities include entertaining at home. They wanted to open their existing kitchen to a new outdoor living space, which would include an outdoor cooking area with appliances. They wanted a conversation area, a firepit and a pool.
Tart’s design delivered all their wishes while maintaining the integrity of their mature landscaped yard.
A counter divides the cooking area, featuring a built-in grill head and refrigerator, from a built-in sofa constructed of ipé. The sofa faces a built-in fire pit, and to the right is the newly constructed pool, featuring a shelf for shallow-water relaxing in chaise lounges. In somewhat deeper water are permanent stools, where guests may sit partially submerged and converse with friends seated near the fire pit.
The client, Tart says, wanted a “seamless, open flow without barrier” from the kitchen and family area to the Outdoor Room and entertaining space.
His solution was to replace an existing outside wall of the kitchen with a folding glass wall system. Once the span is open, inside and outside kitchen spaces become one.
Sections of the L-shaped lot had extensive landscaping, so the pool was sited to protect existing terraces and foliage. The client engaged landscape architect Ric Solow of the Solow Design Group to work with Tart to provide fresh plantings near the pool and integrate the new with the old.
Tart relished the collaboration. “Ric’s sensitivity fits mine like a glove,” he says. “He dovetails perfectly. He knows how to be casual and moderate.”
The project wrapped up just in time for the July 4 holiday and stands ready to be enjoyed throughout North Carolina’s lengthy and moderate autumn.
Tart’s verdict on how the empty nester’s project turned out: “The basic form is gorgeous. It flows. I wish I had it.”
He also knows his client’s verdict: “She’s thrilled. She’s very proud of it.”