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Lab Partners

Love and modern sustainable design bloom in Bridgeport.

Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp
Martin Felson and Sarah Dunn of UrbanLab

If you need evidence that Sarah Dunn and her partner, Martin Felsen, are two of the city’s most promising new design talents, consider the case of Hannah’s Bretzel. For the restaurant’s second location, in Illinois Center, the architects chose materials as crunchy as the menu’s organic fare. “We used woods actually made of multigrain wheat, so the walls will look just like bread,” says Dunn.

She traces her passion for urban planning and design to a childhood growing up in New York, Tokyo, and Singapore. “I told my mom I wanted to be an architect when I was five,” she says with a grin. While studying architecture at Columbia University’s graduate school, she met Felsen, a D.C. native. He ultimately headed for Chicago, and she went to the Netherlands to work for Rem Koolhaas. In 2000, she joined Felsen in Chicago, and they founded their own firm, UrbanLab.

This fall, UrbanLab surfaces in two high-profile museum shows. For its multidisciplinary exhibition Young Chicago, opening November 18th, Art Institute of Chicago curator Joseph Rosa selected Dunn and Felsen’s futuristic proposal for a visitor center, complete with an undulating video façade right out of Blade Runner. Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art is featuring a blueprint for the city of Aurora that embodies the pair’s passion for sustainable, green design. “Chicago is a great model for how to build, but our suburban sprawl is bad,” says Felsen. “We’re using up too many valuable land resources.”

Dunn and Felsen, who are both 38, have experimented with green principles in their prefab glass-and-steel loft in Bridgeport, which serves as their home and UrbanLab’s office. To build it, they knocked down an old grocery store and used the resulting debris to create a mound of prairie grass, which rises to meet the second-floor residence. Other eco-strategies include a green roof of succulents over the office, radiant heating in floors, and a rotating suspended fireplace.

It was in the middle of building the loft, in 2004, that the pair married in an impromptu ceremony. “We realized we’d have one week free during a slow spot in construction,” says Dunn, “so we called our parents and told them we were getting married next Saturday.” Not surprisingly, the forward-thinking duo have since stayed busy. They haven’t yet found time to take a honeymoon.

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