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Dream Houses: When architects design their own homes

Grace Shackman

A house without a doorbell? A bathtub sticking up in the middle of a room? A window instead of a mirror above a bathroom sink? Who would design houses like these? The answer is: architects, for their own homes.

Freed from constraints of clients and their families, architects can give free rein to their own needs and tastes. The local architects interviewed for this article have designed unique houses, personal statements of how they want to live. The oldest house is nearly sixty years old, but all turned out so well that the architects are still happily living in them.

The two local giants of the post-war Mid-Century Modern building era, Bob Metcalf and David Osler, both designed their own homes early in their careers, and both for practical reasons: Metcalf to showcase what he could do for future clients (see "Metcalf Modern," April 2011), and Osler to build a house for his growing family within the limits of what the bank would loan him.

Osler's house, at 3081 Glazier Way, was actually his second try building for himself. He grew up on a farm east of today's Huron Parkway. His father was the county agricultural agent. Early in his career Osler built an apartment in his parents' barn for himself and his wife, Connie. "We lived there until I thought I had enough practice to build a house," he says, explaining why he waited until 1961, when they had three children, to design his own home. He chose another site on a corner of his parents' land. (Much of the rest of the property was later developed as the Osler-designed Oslund condominiums.)

Osler designed a simple rectangular two-story house and hired builder Dick Wagner to put it up. Although clearly in the Modern style, Osler's house was practical. Before opening his own office in 1958, Osler had worked for several other architects. The one he admired most was Douglas "Pete" Loree, from whom, he says, he learned that "solving a problem for the family was more important than interesting shapes." For Osler's family, the challenge was to maximize useful space within a limited budget.

The house is entered from the narrow end, with the main living area half a story up and bedrooms half a story down. The entry and dining room are in the center, with the living room and family room off to the right, and kitchen and study to the left. "It's open, but each room has an identity," he explains. "Every inch is working. There is no wasted space."

Friends who, like him, were just starting careers and had limited means, admired the house and became early clients.

Since the home was built, Osler has added bays and an upstairs screen porch and moved bedroom walls. "I've played with it over the years, but it's basically the same," he says. Now in his nineties, he never thought when he was building it that he might one day prefer to live in a one-floor house without stairs, but he has no intention of moving.

Kingsbury Marzolf describes his house at 1420 Granger as a "Scandinavian row house." His wife Marian's maternal grandparents came from Sweden, and the couple has visited Scandinavia many times. Marzolf designed the house before moving to Ann Arbor to teach at the architecture school, but didn't build until 1967, when he found a suitable site—a narrow lot that had been the side yard of an older house. It worked perfectly: Marzolf's plan was for a narrow part facing the street and most of the windows on the front and back.

Although the house is clearly Modern, with a wooden front and brick sides, Marzolf made sure it would fit in the neighborhood by raising it to the height of the other houses and eschewing the flat roof often found in this style. "I like houses to have caps," he explains. Marzolf hired Calvin Hoeft to build the house but closely watched the progress. "I must have taught because I got paid, but I don't remember. I just remember coming over twice a day and taking pictures," he says. He often used it as a case study for his classes.

From the front door, one can see all the way back to the living room, and beyond that, through floor-to-ceiling windows, a secluded back yard. "Seeing all the way through makes the house seem bigger," explains Marzolf. The kitchen is in the front, with the stove next to a window facing the street, divided from the dining area by cabinets with sliding panels.

Marzolf regularly invited his U-M architecture students to his house. They called his living room "a 1950s Scandinavian furniture museum" with its Swedish rugs, chairs by Finland's Alvar Aalto, a papa bear chair by Danish designer Hans Wegner, and a Le Corbusier chrome frame black sofa.

Though Marzolf did commercial and apartment work before returning to the U-M to teach, his own house is the only one he ever designed. The only major work he's done to it was in 1997, when he called Hoeft back to replace the living room windows because their wooden frames were rotting out near the ground. Now in his eighties, Marzolf is still happy here: "I've never considered moving to Florida."

When the Modern architects were making their mark in the 1950s and 1960s, subdivisions were sprouting all around Ann Arbor's historic core. The generation that followed in the 1970s and 1980s rediscovered the joys and headaches of older buildings.

Gene Hopkins' first Ann Arbor home was a condemned house on the Old West Side. He and other designer-rehabbers, including Dave Evans of Quinn Evans and landscape architect Clarence Roy of JJR, shared a van to haul their trash and building supplies.

Hopkins, like Evans, went on to build a national reputation in historic preservation, working on such gems as the Michigan State Capitol and Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel. Most of his residential work has been restoring old houses or building new ones that fit into historic areas, including several he's now designing on Mackinac. However, when he built his own house at 4709 N. Delhi Rd. in 1985, he didn't have to worry about fitting into a neighborhood: he and his wife, Jane, chose to build on eight acres in Webster Township, leaving him free to choose elements he liked. The house features such historic touches as pointed gables, front door sidelights, and a set of three Palladian windows with the middle one taller. The house is clad in cedar shakes, alternating shell patterns with rectangles, which "softens how the house sits on the site," as Hopkins puts it.

On the inside, a modern open floor plan is paired with historic references such as woodwork with bull's-eye patterns and old-time hardware. Large windows on the north and west sides, decks three-quarters of the way around, and multiple exits go with the Modern precept of blurring the definition of inside and outside. "We like the traditional character-defining features but are not restricted by the Victorian lifestyle," Hopkins explains.

Building the house was a family project. Hopkins' dad, just retired, moved in with them for awhile so he could help. Hopkins' two brothers came on weekends. The Hopkins' daughter, Brie, then in kindergarten, was given jobs such as picking up nails. She picked out her own room and made all the decisions about it. Now grown, Brie and her husband recently returned from New England. Hopkins is fixing up the old farm house next door for them, where they plan to operate an organic farm.

In furnishings, the family enjoys what Hopkins calls "the design tension with antique and contemporary." Mixed in with modern furniture are antiques that Jane enjoys collecting. The lamp above the kitchen table is from the one-room school that Gene, who grew up on a dairy farm, attended near Belding in Ionia County.

The house still meets their needs. The biggest change has been in the walkout basement. Originally left unfinished, it was fixed up for Brie to entertain her teenage friends, then used as a family room, and is now the office of HopkinsBurns Design Studio, housing Hopkins, partner Tamara Burns, and their three-person staff. The floor-to-ceiling windows on the north side look out onto a patio where they hold staff meetings in good weather, and beyond that to a pond that Hopkins built using natural springs on the property.

Russell Serbay works at Hobbs and Black, where he specializes in commercial architecture. Although his residential work has been limited to designing a few additions for friends, he created a totally unique house for himself at 1625 Leaird Dr. in 1989.

Serbay wanted to live in an established neighborhood and found an oddly shaped lot no one else had built on. That wasn't a problem for him, he explains, because "I didn't want to reshape the land to fit the house but to design the house to fit the land." He sited the house on the highest point of the lot, with the front door and garage on a street side and the east side windowless for privacy from the house next door.

The most exciting part is inside. The front hall, which can be entered from the front door or the garage, leads past the stairway to a step-down living room, following the contour of the land. The large windows on the west and north face his back and side yards and a spectacular view all the way across town to the steeple of Zion Lutheran Church on W. Liberty.

Serbay compares his design to a pinwheel, the center being the stairwell and the three spokes being the entry hall, the living room, and a wing with the dining room and kitchen. "No space is wasted, and the only door is to the powder room," he explains.

Upstairs there are two bedrooms, with a loft in the guest bedroom. His friends warned him that his house was not marketable, to which he responded "Why build someone else's house for me?"

He did most of the work, hiring subcontractors only when necessary. Acting on advice from Hobbs and Black's interior decorators, he installed commercial-grade blue-gray carpet and matching porcelain ceramic tile, both of which still look new.

Serbay says the experience of building his own house helps on his job. "Now when they say they can't do something, I can say 'Yes, you can.'"

Serbay doesn't have a doorbell because he's never liked them. "The house is small enough that if someone raps on the door and I'm awake, I'll hear it," he explains.

Damian Farrell has built houses in fourteen states in the twenty-five years since he moved here from South Africa, but none is like the house he built for himself in 2000 in Scio Township at 4930 High Meadow, off Knight Rd. The lot is in a small subdivision. Knight's Farm, which he laid out as an investment before deciding, at the suggestion of his wife, Katherine, to build their own house there. (Counting his own, he designed four of the six houses on the street.) The garage is perpendicular to the house, thus avoiding his pet peeve, snout-nosed garages that stick out from the front of the house.

The house has a front inspired by Charles Voysey (an English Arts and Crafts architect who lived from 1857 to 1941) and a South African layout. The outside has repetitive elements, such as pointed gables and square windows, but is not perfectly symmetrical.

Inside Farrell leaves Voysey behind, eschewing small rooms and low wood- beamed ceilings for a much more open and flowing space, with cathedral ceilings in the living and family rooms. Coming from a sunnier climate, Farrell has worked to maximize the Michigan light with large windows throughout the house, even from north-facing windows, which he says create a softer light.

A central corridor runs the length of the house so "you pass every room every time you pass through the house. All the rooms are engaged in everyday life," Farrell explains. The house has a T shape: a wing in front crosses the main corridor and contains the master bedroom and the stairs to the second floor.

The first room along the main corridor is the living room to the left. A formal dining room, across the hall from the living room, is like ones that Farrell grew up with in South Africa. He enjoys having an eating space large enough to seat their three own children and three grandchildren. The dining room table is from South Africa, as are most of the decorative items on built-in shelves.

The kitchen, midway down the central corridor, is the heart of the house. Katherine, who owns Katherine's Catering, loves to cook, and the two of them like to entertain, so the kitchen was designed to take lots of wear and to be very usable.

The most telling feature of Farrell's South African roots are the ten outdoor exits—eight sets of French doors plus the front and back doors, which "extend living to outside." A patio on the east side, with a croquet lawn beyond, and a wisteria-covered veranda on the other side, allow the Farrells to have more guests in the summer. A big meadow behind the house, which they’ve deeded to a conservancy, creates a wonderful view in all seasons.

Because Katherine loves to take baths, her husband bought her the deepest tub he could find and put it smack in the middle of the bathroom. They also have an unusual outdoor bathroom extension with a shower and hot tub. In warm weather they can step outside and take an outdoor shower as if they lived in the tropics. "It's like an early morning vacation," says Farrell.

Mark and Jenny Melchi, who since 2001 have lived at 1471 Ardmoor, didn't plan on building their own house. While house hunting in the city, they were becoming discouraged by what they found in their price range, when their Realtor casually mentioned that the lot next door to a house they were shown on Ardmoor was also for sale. "It dawned on us: 'Why don't we try it, we can do it,'" says Jenny.

They each grew up in Midland and were used to seeing architect-designed houses, especially those of Alden Dow (who also designed Ann Arbor's City Hall and downtown library). Since Ardmoor was filled with established homes, Mark designed a modern version of an American four square, which he describes as "a new but old house that fits in the neighborhood and looks like it's been here all the time." Four squares, modeled on the nineteenth-century Italian cubes, were popular in the early twentieth century. They were practical for large families, giving maximum square footage for their footprint with straight vertical lines and hip roofs and no wasted space. The Melchis' house has the classic box shape but is also clearly Modern with cleaner lines and added features, such as a balcony off the master bedroom, several bump-outs including one for the stairs, and bay windows.

Inside, the house is totally Modern with rooms that flow into one another. There are no walls dividing the front entry, living room, dining room, sunroom, and kitchen. Instead the rooms are subtly differentiated by the ceiling soffits. Wanting the maximum amount of light, Melchi didn't connect the garage with the house, so all the walls could have windows.

The Melchis did much of the work themselves—installing hardwood floors and built-in bookcases and doing trim work, painting, tiling, and outside grading. They also saved money by being their own protect manager. At that time Mark was head of his own company, Archetype (since merged with Mike Vlasic's MAVDevelopment), so he could get away from his office whenever he needed to.

They included lots of little touches, such as a laundry on the second floor, a Murphy bed in the basement, and a library nook in the upstairs hall. The newel post on the stairs replicates the one they liked in their previous house. The kids' bathroom has a round window above the sink instead of a mirror. There's a mirror on another wall.

While all the architects' houses are different, certain elements are similar. The most noticeable is that they all rejected four-walled rooms in favor of free-flowing space, except in the private areas. All of them paid careful attention to the light coming in.

The exteriors are all Modernist, either totally with the straight vertical lines that define the style as in the Osler, Marzolf, and Serbay houses, or with references to earlier styles used by Hopkins, Farrell, and Melchi.

Many of the architects took the opportunity to try new materials and technologies. Melchi used plumbing pipe for his porch pillars. Hopkins was the first architect in the area to install geothermal heating. Serbay used a Canadian construction method he had read about, with a thicker outer wall for insulation, and a conventional inner one for wiring, plumbing, and heating ducts.

With all these advantages, the bigger question is why more architects don't build their own homes. Local architect Marc Rueter points out that the high costs of city lots makes the endeavor very expensive. Today, buying an existing house and changing it incrementally as time and money allow is usually a more viable alternative for young architects.

Even if one can pay for a city lot, they are hard to find. Both Metcalf and Osler built at what was then the edge of town, while Marzolf and Melchi were lucky to find side yards that were being separated into new lots. Serbay looked for years before he found his lot. Its unusual shape, which he used to his advantage, probably deterred others from buying it. Hopkins and Farrell built outside the city.

Another problem is that it's hard to de sign for oneself. "Being your own client, that's the toughest client you can come up with," says Serbay, who drew three plans before settling on the one he used. Some compare it to a doctor treating him- or herself. An out-of-town architect shudders at the thought. "If I wanted a house, I'd have one of my colleagues do it. If I tried, I would never stop fiddling with it,” he explains.

Rueter also thinks the trend has changed. In the 1950s forward-thinking architects believed in building Modernist homes, while today they are more into buying an old house or condo in the city and fixing it up. Doug Kelbaugh, U-M professor of architecture and urban planning, is a perfect example of this. When he was a young architect starting out in the 1970s, he built his own Modernist solar house in New Jersey. When he came to the U-M, he designed the interior of his condo in the newly converted Armory Building downtown.

When Wells Bennett became dean of the U-M architecture school in 1937, he worked at hiring architects who were Modernists, such as Tee Larson, William Muschenheim, Joe Albano, Walter Sanders, and Joe Lee, all of whom also designed and built their own houses, as did Wells Bennett himself. Looking at a list of his colleagues, Kelbaugh could find no one who had built his or her own home, although many of them had done major remodeling or big additions on existing homes.

Asked why things changed, Kelbaugh replies that the earlier professors wanted and could afford to make a design statement. "In Metcalf's day, simple Modernism was cutting- edge. Today you have to be more avant-garde, like Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid," architects whose freeform shapes and exotic materials are far too expensive for academic architects.

Kelbaugh also points out that the study of architecture has become more academic less practical (although he's hoping that it is swinging back from high theory to more emphasis on construction, affordability, and sustainability). "Where once building your own house might have helped get tenure, it is less likely to now,” he says.

However they do it, most people work at making houses personal to them, but architects designing their own homes can ratchet up the personal many notches. As Hopkins says, "A home is not a home unless it’s about you; otherwise, it’s just a house.”

[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Top) Gene Hopkins made his name in historic preservation, but mixed traditional and modern elements when he built his own home. (Above) David and Connie Osler maximized useful space on a limited budget

[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Above) The ten entrances to Damian Farrell's Scio Township home recall his South African roots. (Below) Russell Serbay didn't mind that the lot he found was oddly shaped: "I didn't want to reshape the land to fit the house, but to design the house to fit the land."

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Kingsbury Marzolf calls the narrow home he built on what had been another house's side yard a "Scandinavian row house." His students joke that it's also "a 1950s Scandinavian furniture museum."

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Mark and Jennifer Melchi (with Nicholas, Jacob, and Blu) did much of the work on their home themselves, including installing hardwood floors and built-in bookcases.

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Grace Shackman


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