The master bathroom is home to a pleasing mix of clean, natural materials, from the limestone floors and porcelain tile walls to custom cherry cabinets that seem to float off the floor. Setting windows high on the wall eliminated the need for window treatments. Photo Gallery:::
It could be an ideal collaboration- or a recipe for disaster. A husband and wife, both architects, design and build their dream house. If basic kitchen renovations can strain even the happiest marriage, can a couple come through an undertaking like this unscathed?
Absolutely, says Ann Clark. A principal in the Chicago firm Nicholas Clark Architects, along with her husband, Peter Nicholas, she says their years of working together made this very personal project a breeze. The biggest benefit to working with her husband? "No client psychodrama!" Clark says, laughing. "We knew what we wanted, clean and modern but warm. It was much more straightforward working with my husband. He gets it-we speak the same language."
Clark and Nicholas were living in a traditional 1920s bungalow in Skokie when they decided they needed more space for themselves and their two sons. They liked their neighborhood and the local schools, so they bought a nearby property, tore down the old house, and built two modern homes on the lot: one for themselves, and one to sell.
"I grew up in a ranch house in Edgebrook, and Peter grew up in one in San Diego," says Clark. "We didn’t want to live in another ranch, but I think it affected us subliminally." As in a ranch, all the living spaces in their new house are oriented toward the rear. From the street, passersby get little sense of what’s inside. "It’s very private from the outside," says Clark. "You have to come in to discover it."The front door is tucked along the side of the house. Walk in, and you see only an entry hall; the rest of the house remains hidden. Once you turn toward the back, though, the space opens up: a massive kitchen, then a living room and dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows that showcase the backyard.
Because the next-door neighbors are relatively close, windows had to be strategically placed to ensure privacy. The space is bright and welcoming, thanks to a two-story, glass-walled interior courtyard that juts into the south side of the house. "The light changes constantly," says Clark. "Even on cloudy days, we don’t have to illuminate the inside." It’s also energy-efficient. Sunlight streaming through the glass warms up the surrounding spaces in the winter; in the summer, automated mesh shades keep the rooms from overheating.
On frosty nights, Clark curls up on the living room sofa, facing the fireplace. She used dark gray Pietra Bedonia limestone tiles for the custom surround to create a cool contrast to the warmth of the fire. "It’s really soothing," she says. "I could sit here for hours looking at it. "Another favorite spot for Clark and her friends is the kitchen, which has a long central island. "It doesn’t feel like a kitchen when you’re standing here for a party," she says. "It flows really well. We clear off the island and put the food right along the middle."
In designing the kitchen, she was aiming for an effect both eclectic and harmonious. To avoid monochromatic, all-matching cabinets, for example, she used two different kinds of wood: light rift-sawn ash on the upper cabinets, darker unstained walnut down below. For the backsplash, she used a relatively unfamiliar Italian marble called Brescia Sarda. "I’m done with glass tile," Clark says. "I didn’t want what everyone else has." The countertops are made of CaesarStone, a quartz composite that is stain- and heat-resistant ("I don’t care if someone puts down a glass of red wine").
CaesarStone is environmentally friendly, as are many other materials Clark and Nicholas used in the house. Ground-level floors are covered in cork; eco-friendly Flor carpet tiles were used for the bedrooms. The couple installed high-efficiency furnaces and a tankless water heater, and insulated the walls with blow-in cellulose, about 75 percent of which was made from recycled newspaper. Clark says monthly gas and electric bills are about the same as they were in their previous home, which was about half the size of this one.
Clark and Nicholas also used reclaimed material wherever possible. They saved bluestone pavers from the original house on the property and used them for the backyard patio and interior courtyard. The 100-year-old red birch wood used on their staircase had fallen off a logging barge and was salvaged from the bottom of a lake. Although the stair treads are substantial, a metal mesh railing lightens the look. "We wanted the stair to almost disappear, so the effect of the windows east and west would be highlighted," says Clark.
For the master bathroom, Clark wanted a room that looked bright but felt quiet and private. To avoid the issue of window treatments, she placed windows high on the wall above the tub, allowing natural light to flood in. The vanities are custom cherry cabinets topped with French Beauharnais limestone countertops. "I wanted a look that was clean but not all white," says Clark.
Architects working on their own home have a major advantage over the rest of us: They know the best craftsperson for each job. Everyone who worked on the house-from the man who made the kitchen cabinets to the plumbing and electrical crews-had done jobs for Clark and Nicholas before. Some have even become friends. Another bonus to being a pro: When shopping for clients, Clark sometimes is able to spot something for herself, as well. She picked up the rosewood sideboard in her dining room, for example, at a flea market outside Paris during a work trip.
Although the large public rooms can easily accommodate dozens of people, the glass-enclosed courtyard is Clark and Nicholas’s favorite spot for low-key entertaining. "We"ll have another couple over and come out here and drink a glass of wine," says Clark. She pauses, taking in the tranquility of this private oasis. "On a Saturday afternoon, I"ll sit out here and read a book,’ she says, then laughs. "When I have time!"
For information on resources, see Buyer’s Guide.
Photography: Linda Oyama Bryan