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Open Season

An architect uses salvaged materials, Craigslist, day laborers, and his own ingenuity to build a crisply detailed, light-filled house

(page 1 of 2)

The exterior of the Bucktown house
Finfrock says he’s “a big fan of alleys and other marginal spaces in the city.” His admiration of rough textures is evident in the choice of cement-covered exterior panels. See more photos in our gallery below.
 

SIZE 4,200 square feet
TYPE Single-family
LOCATION Bucktown

At first glance, this Bucktown house looks as if somebody switched some of its parts around. Picture windows sit way up high, a ribbon of knee-high windows encircles the building at sidewalk level, and a row of young trees sprouts along the roofline. What is going on here?

“There was a driving desire to make it sort of an inside-out house,” says the architect, Curt Finfrock, who is also the homeowner. Heavily involved in every aspect of the project, he served as general contractor and did a lot of the labor himself. “I wanted to break down boundaries between the urban neighborhood it’s in and the private environment inside. It was very much about glass and openness and transparency.”

Finfrock, who has spent his career working for large architecture firms, took a break several years ago to design and build the house, completing the project in the summer of 2009. To maximize the use of glass in the biggest living spaces without putting their occupants in a fishbowl, he set the main floor one flight up from the street—thus the high banks of windows. The two-story living room, framed by the largest grid of panes, looks out at trees rather than at passersby.

But the real masterstroke is the unusual strip of ground-level windows. At night they create what looks like a cushion of light upon which the house floats; by day they fill the basement with enough natural light to make it feel like a living space (they’re low enough to keep all but the most shameless pedestrians from peeking in).

At 4,200 square feet, the house is too much for the architect and his wife now that their three children are grown. But he designed it to be nimble. The basement and a portion of the first floor can be easily cordoned off into a rentable one- or two-bedroom apartment (currently it has two; his son and a friend occupy them). Subsequent owners could undo that arrangement and use the entire structure as a four-bedroom house. “I wanted it to flex such that you could make money off part of the house at times and use the whole thing at other times,” Finfrock says.

His ingenuity is evident everywhere in the airy, open space: Big corner windows nearly eliminate visual boundaries between indoors and out. A minimalist single-spine staircase allows maximum daylight to pass through it.

Narrow horizontal wooden ribs wrap the walls of the home’s interior core from floor to ceiling. Warmly contemporary looking, the wood is discarded cedar fencing that Finfrock bought in bulk on Craigslist and mounted as panels. Other Craigslist finds included electrical supplies, light fixtures, tools, and “about two-thirds of the people that worked on the house,” he says.

Gates recently added out front are fashioned from metal Finfrock scored by bartering with neighborhood scrappers; a bench in the front hall was made from rough wood “cribbing” used to wrap steel for delivery.

By working with salvaged materials and serving as his own contractor, Finfrock brought the project in for about 60 percent of what a conventional custom-built house of its size would have cost, he estimates. But that wasn’t entirely the point.

“I wanted to do it myself, be directly involved in designing and then building our home,” says the architect, who for about a year now has been back at work for a big firm. “It was a blast. I’d do it again.”

NEXT: Buy Guide »

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