Thinking Inside The Box

Small square footage and a tight budget inspire major creativity in an architect’s house in West Town

The Talsma's living room
Chris and Sara Talsma kept furnishings to a minimum in the living room, where a pickled red oak floor gives the space a light, airy feel—and makes dog hair less visible. An office nook was created next to the fireplace wall with pre-made Ikea countertops.  Photo Gallery »
 

When they had their first child, Chris and Sara Talsma lived in a loft—“and I mean a loft—there were no rooms,” says Chris, co-owner of Filoramo Talsma Architects and Ten Penny, a development/construction company. “We knew we wanted a second child and needed more space, but being in the business I’m in, it wasn’t going to be ‘Just go buy something.’” Instead, the then-32-year-old architect with a real-estate license and general contracting chops set out to build a house. It was 2005—before the great real-estate implosion—when Chris asked his wife, a human resources director for Holly Hunt, to scout the five cheapest single-family lots he could find within a couple of miles of the Loop. She was most taken with the one at the corner of Damen and Ohio. At 25 by 75 feet, it was small (average city lots are about 25 by 125 feet). But it felt right.

Painting by Lisa Kowalski
A bold modern painting by Lisa Kowalski visually connects the kitchen/dining area to the living room.  Photo Gallery »

“A corner lot is nice—it offers more exposure to the south,” says Chris. Yet its size and many zoning restrictions meant challenges galore, particularly given the four-bedroom house the Talsmas wanted. Walking through the finished product and seeing how Chris pulled it off on a $350,000 budget is a lesson in creative building.

His tricks were many. Eliminating masonry and building the house on a wood frame cut down on the number of tradespeople on the job, for starters. He then used relatively inexpensive and durable fiber-cement siding on most of the house, with more expensive cedar clapboard elsewhere, including the entire façade, “to add some richness and texture.” Inside, he merged the living room, dining room, and kitchen into one great room, and opted for a Knoll dining table instead of an island. He chose to “control the space with light” instead of with walls; giving the fixture over the table its own switch means kitchen mess can be banished to the shadows during dinner with friends.

Between discounted materials (Chris bought the Unico kitchen off the floor when the showroom was being remodeled) and minimal furnishings, most purchased at a Design Within Reach warehouse sale, “everything was done on a tight budget,” says Sara. The beauty of it is that no one would ever guess.

 

Photograph: Eric Hausman
Styling: Diane Ewing

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