Balancing the Landscape
authors Doug Selby
The original home by David Osler Associates, built in 1963, got a lot of things right. With glass box forms that project along the rear of the home and frame a spectacular view of a hill and woods, it somehow fits perfectly into the landscape. Pronounced window boxes around all of the windows allow occupants an opportunity to displace themselves from the interior volume. The original outdoor deck, however, suffered from a lack of appeal as an exterior living space and did not create an interior connection to the outdoors. In addition, the area underneath the deck had a brick wall in front, which created a dark cave underneath that was prone to moisture and mildew. The entire area was tired and uninviting.
The vision for this project was to create and expand a comfortable and useful exterior space with a light and transparent structure, while keeping the natural debris and elements at bay so the space would be more inviting year-round, inside and out. There was also a strong desire to balance the unique exterior forms of the home. To realize these lofty goals required a thoughtful design finesse to ensure that all was in keeping with the aesthetic of this classic midcentury modern home.
The clients were interested in a minimalist structure that allowed a visual connection to the surrounding trees, in the spirit of the home itself, with materials that were exposed in their useful form—glass, steel, and light wood decking. In order to provide this relationship, the design used a steel frame to maximize spans and open space below and above the deck. Sustainability and beauty of materials were an important goal of the client.
Extending the structure into the yard works with the original design of the home and projects the outdoor space into the beautiful forested lot. Using a cantilevered design and minimal structural elements provides a well-ventilated structure that seems to float into the backyard and has just enough visual weight to create a balance between the two major exterior forms. The steel beams were left exposed for ongoing maintenance and to heighten contrast, and they create a counterweight to the glass walls and ceiling. The black of the steel frame provides a much-needed connection between the two exterior forms of the home and is a welcome facelift to the home’s rear façade. Extending past the plane of the home helps visually anchor the two wings of the home, while the glass nature of the structure does not overwhelm those forms.
Providing a cover over the upper deck achieves two major goals. The first is keeping natural debris from accumulating in the alcove, a problem for this forested lot where breezes would often sweep up the hill. The second is to create a feeling of protection and enclosure—less like a deck and more like an exterior room. A solid cover was not desirable because the lack of natural light would make the area dark and uninviting.
A normal glass covering would not be structurally sufficient and would create a heat island in the summertime. A product invented and manufactured at the University of Michigan’s A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Situmbra, is a perfect solution. A composite glass material, it is lightweight, strong, insulating and allows dappled light through. The unique Situmbra roof structure utilizes passive solar technology to maximize sunlight onto the deck while at the same time minimizing the associated solar heat gain. It also allows for protection from the rain so occupants can enjoy the deck even on rainy days. Because the Situmbra roof allows most light to penetrate while creating almost a prismatic effect, the light has a quality that enhances the mood of a transitional seating area.
Likewise, a glass railing surrounds the deck, completing the transparent effect. The light-colored decking also works with the beige and minimalist interior of the home. The material balances the dark steel and does not heat up in the summertime. Needing almost zero maintenance, the Accoya material will last for decades without significant changes.
Working perfectly to update and balance the rear exterior of the home, the new modern deck cantilevers into the backyard, creating a synchronous relationship to the original home. The stairs are the only physical connection between the living space and the yard below. The sense of floating in the trees that it affords cannot be captured entirely in photographs. An existing sliding door from the living room to the existing deck was replaced with a folding NanaWall door system that opens completely to allow a seamless transition from interior to exterior space, providing much-needed natural light in what was formerly a darkened corner of the existing home.
Modernizing a midcentury modern architectural gem is risky business. Form and function must be balanced perfectly, and challenges imposed by a Michigan climate must be factored into the design equation. Overlooking a magnificent natural view, this new cantilevered steel and glass structure has created a comfortable and compelling outdoor space that balances the existing exterior forms of the home. Cutting-edge materials and an elegant design complete this one-of-a-kind transformation of an architecturally significant home. QR
Doug Selby is a building science expert and CEO of Meadowlark, a design/build company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with an emphasis on sustainable construction. A graduate of Michigan State University’s chemistry department, Selby worked as a pharmaceutical chemist and cancer researcher before leaving the laboratory to become a builder, eventually co-founding Meadowlark in 2004. Today, the company employs 59 people, ranging from architects, designers, cabinet-makers, project managers, and carpenters to support staff.
Craig Borum, FAIA, established PLY Architecture in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1999 as a collaborative design studio. His work at PLY has received numerous AIA Honor Awards as well as an Architect Magazine R+D Award; an American Architecture Award from the Chicago Athenaeum; and most recently a citation from Architect Magazine 59th Annual P/A Awards Program. In 2007, Ply was named one of “101 of the World’s Most Exciting New Architects” by Wallpaper* Magazine. Borum was a recipient of the Architectural League of New York Young Architects Forum Award in 2006. His work has been published in numerous journals and monographs, including Architecture Magazine, Architectural Record, Metropolis and many more. Borum is from Portsmouth, Virginia, and received his architectural training from the University of Virginia. He is a professor at the University of Michigan, where he served as Director of the Master of Architecture Program from 2010-2012.