The Great Outdoors

In the South Loop, an innovative architect designs an entire home around a sun-drenched atrium and puts a grassy yard right where he wants it—on the roof.

roof garden in Chicago's South Loop

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From the street, passersby could never imagine the green oasis atop this home.

It’s a classic city-boy-meets-country-girl story. Architect Kevin Fox, who grew up in River Forest, and his wife, Dawn, who spent her childhood in Peoria, were searching for the perfect home for their growing family, one that would balance his desire for a sleek urban abode with her longing for a back yard and green space.

The ideal solution presented itself in the South Loop: a two-story building with commercial tenants on the first floor, above which Kevin could carve out a three-bedroom loft with an interior atrium and a green roof complete with lush grass and trees. “I knew my wife would love the space if I could create a yard on our roof,” he says. Kevin, who holds a master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology and has his own firm, Box Design Studio, was familiar with the city’s initiatives encouraging the use of green roofs, and jumped at the chance to take advantage.

Such a highly visible rooftop yard in a dense urban area tends to attract attention. The Foxes like to play with their young son on their neat lawn, which is bordered on all sides by a waist-high fence, and which they tame with an eco-friendly battery-powered mower. The couple’s two border collies are also big fans of the space. “I’ll mow the lawn, or the dogs will chase each other around the roof, and it’s not unusual for people in the surrounding offices to come to the windows and watch in amazement,” Kevin says.

Because he was creating a green roof, the city fast-tracked the building permits for the project (they came in less than three weeks), meaning some choices were made during construction rather than planned months ahead. “I would say that 99 percent of the time it’s a bad thing to have to make a decision as you go,” says Kevin, who, with his wife, was selecting kitchen counters and fixtures even as the space was being gutted and rebuilt for the renovation. “But it’s better than not making a decision at all.”

One choice proved remarkably easy to make. A glass-walled interior atrium, open to the green roof above, provides light and air for the space and serves as the focal point of the entire home. “Even though it meant losing one-ninth of the floor space, the atrium also gave the apartment an axis,” Kevin says. “It really laid itself out once we planned the atrium, and separating public space from private space was the key.”

Surrounding the atrium, which features a striking steel sculpture by artist John Henry, is the living and dining area, which flows into an open kitchen. “My favorite room is the kitchen,” Dawn says. “Since our kitchen, dining, and living room are all open to each other, this makes being a family an interactive experience. We’re all pretty much together regardless of what we are doing.”

room in Kevin Fox's home

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Kevin Fox’s favorite room is the rooftop office, with its views of the green roof and the cityscape beyond.

On the east side of the building are the apartment’s bedrooms and master suite. A minimalist white crib and a Mies van der Rohe daybed give the baby’s room a clean, modern feel. The adjacent guest room provides space for Dawn’s mother, who visits often from Peoria. The master bedroom, just down the hall, features floor-to-ceiling windows that slide out of the way like pocket doors, opening the room to the atrium.

Of course, even the most seamless design projects offer a challenge or two. For Kevin, that challenge was designing the master bathroom, a spacious spa suite off the master bedroom. When he began laying out the apartment, he discovered that an earlier fire had taken the top four stories off the building’s original six. This change in the building’s architecture made it difficult to create a bathroom that fit properly in the same grid as the rest of the space.

“I spent the better part of a day puzzling over how to resolve this problem,” Kevin says. The solution required turning the focus of the bathroom inward by creating a dividing wall in the middle of the space, to anchor it. On one side, Kevin placed a long vanity with double sinks facing a wall of built-in wardrobes. On the other, where light from the exterior windows pours in, a deep soaking tub offers a quiet respite. Linking both sides is a large tiled shower room with a spa-style raised wood floor and doors that open to both sides of the bathroom.

Because the atrium and roof ate up so much of the project’s budget, Kevin made smart choices in the rest of the home’s materials and finishes, including plain but luxurious-looking birch slab doors painted a cool dark gray. Ornamentation was kept to a minimum, and when it came time to fill in the space with furniture and artwork, the Foxes kept the focus simple, sticking to contemporary classics in neutral tones with punches of bold red here and there.

The green space is not the only feature of the apartment that mimics suburban living. Kevin included all kinds of clever storage, including closets tucked under staircases. And in the basement of the building, he installed a European-style car lift (less expensive than purchasing parking spaces downtown) to create a two-car garage. The subterranean finished space even has a small woodworking shop.

Of all the ingenious surprises built into his urban loft, Kevin favors one above all others. It’s his rooftop office, which features views of the city and offers quiet inspiration for planning new works. “This was a fun project to design,” he says, “but it is particularly a fun project to live in.”

For information on resources, see Buyer’s Guide.

 

Photography: Nathan Kirkman

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