Studio Gang transforms a former stable on a tight Chicago lot into the Brick-weave House.
It is not often that a firm will have a skyscraper and a two-bedroom house under way simultaneously. But such was the case in the office of Chicago-based Studio Gang, where for a time architects were working on both the 82-story Aqua, a mixed-use tower now almost topped out in the downtown Loop, and a just-completed house for two advertising executives in the city’s West Town community area.
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For the architects, the attraction to the smaller project was the opportunity to think about materiality at an intimate scale, along with the challenge of working with an existing structure, says Studio Gang principal Jeanne Gang, FAIA. The house, which sits on a dense urban block with a pleasing jumble of one-, two-, and three-story homes built in different eras, incorporates parts of a late-19th-century former horse stable.
David Hernandez, who lives in Gang’s radical reinvention of the original brick-and-timber structure with his wife, Tereasa Surratt, bought the property in the mid-1990s while he was still single. He had plans to one day rehabilitate the dilapidated two-story building, but when he and his wife seriously began to consider major construction about 10 years later, they discovered that restoration was unrealistic. The original facade had been damaged by the installation of a veneer of cast stone decades earlier, and the building suffered from water infiltration and general neglect.
Surratt and Hernandez ruled out re-creating the old building as “Disneyland-like,” but they hoped to reuse much of the original structure, in large part to preserve its generous, almost-zero-lot-line footprint. If they had completely demolished the stable, they would have had to comply with zoning regulations requiring a setback from the street, explains Hernandez.
Gang saw the old stable’s volume as the starting point for the project. However, she envisioned replacing its street facade with a small garden surrounded by a “brick-weave” screen on two sides, in order “to lighten its presence,” she says.
For the house proper, Gang and her team developed a scheme that would incorporate about 30 percent of its perimeter walls. The architects had at first planned to make use of more of the original structure, but during construction, they encountered unexpected deficiencies, including previously hidden, charred roof joists and walls without foundations.
With a construction budget of only $140 per square foot, Surratt and Hernandez sometimes had to make tough decisions, choosing, for example, to forgo expensive finishes and make a 44-foot-long storage wall from Ikea cabinets instead of custom millwork. The strategy allowed them to invest in more important elements, such as the front facade’s meticulously detailed masonry veil. The single-withe screen wall, which is given lateral stability by a steel frame and a custom-designed anchor system, shades the floor-to-ceiling window walls beyond and also provides visual privacy. Within the garden and on the adjacent exposed concrete floor of the house’s interior, the screen creates a constantly changing play of light and shadow.
Behind the brick screen, Gang amplified the vertical spaces of the long, linear, 3,250-square-foot dwelling by manipulating ceiling heights and floor levels. For instance, a compressed hallway, which doubles as a simple kitchen, leads from the dining area at the front of the house and dramatically opens to a double-story, daylight-filled living room at the rear.
From the living room, already a few risers up from the rest of the ground floor, a set of steps leads to an open loft and a guest bedroom. A second short flight connects these spaces to the master bedroom, which overlooks the walled garden. Skylights, windows, and clerestories illuminate the upper levels, “grabbing” sunlight from different directions, explains Gang.
This sensitive handling of daylight, especially notable given the tight urban lot, along with the positioning of openings and the control of the sequence of rooms, gives occupants an awareness of multiple spaces from almost every location in the house. According to Gang, these strategies “create opportunities for the eye to escape.” But they also endow the house with a spatial richness and expansive quality that belie the building’s humble origins.
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