Historic overlays govern many neighborhoods across the country, prescribing and proscribing many characteristics of new home construction and remodels. The one that had dominion over this new urban home near Kansas City, Missouri’s Country Club Plaza district was, mercifully, a little looser than most. The gist for any new construction here was that it had to complement the traditional fabric of the area, known for its historic Tudors developed by J.C. Nichols.
Chris Fein, AIA, of FORWARD Design | Architecture embraced the challenge, because he knew he had a rare opportunity. He was commissioned to design not just one, but two side-by-side urban houses in the marquee neighborhood. “The way the neighborhood was planned, there were to be eight big houses that face a park,” he explains. “These were the last two lots in the development and they had to be developed together. Our client, a commercial architect by training who runs a construction company, had to buy both lots and build within a year. People had tried to do this in the past, but the historical overlay required full permit drawings to the city before building.”
Ready, set, go. Chris and his client hit the ground running, with the client taking on one house as his own personal home and planning the second one as a spec. “It was a three-month whirlwind to design two front exteriors,” says Chris. “Once we got approval, we just continued developing the plans. Along the way, the spec house became a bespoke house.”
The major benefit to designing both houses simultaneously manifested itself in the space between the houses. First and foremost, the two could share the required stair down to the park, saving important square footage on the tight lots. And, at every design point, both houses could be optimized for privacy outdoors and inside. Controlling fenestration on both houses elevated both plans. “There was an architecture professor who once said, ‘there’s always an ugly side to a house,’” says Chris. “Sharing the resources on both houses kept that from happening here.”
The historic overlay drove the exterior designs to an extent, but Chris and the team were free to design anything the clients wanted inside. The developer client chose an edgy modern scheme for his house, but the new buyers for this house sought a warmer aesthetic. They also asked for more outdoor space, at the ground level and on the second level. That was a trick because, although the interiors were not detailed yet, Chris had already worked out the floor plans.
“They came from a house with more outdoor space, and even though this is an urban house, they wanted more outdoor living,” Chris recalls. “So, we flipped the primary suite and swapped the service areas for the public areas.” The swaps netted two covered porches, an enlarged screened porch with a hot tub, and a patio—all blissfully private. We removed a bunch of interior square footage, but it became outdoor space. At first it bugged us, because it messed up the diagram of the house. But I’m a firm believer in restraint makes work better. Sometimes you think you know what’s best, but when you have to design with a client, it usually ends up better.”
Interiors strike a happy middle ground between modern and traditional. The exterior’s required brick comes inside at the hearth wall, but smooth, warm woods lighten the heft. Rift-sawn white oak floors, ceilings, and trim combine with white plaster walls in the double-height great room. A thermally broken, floor-to-ceiling window wall in steel is a modern nod to the drafty metal windows of midcentury neo-Tudors.
The window wall is another beneficiary of the two-fer house design. Yes, the developer’s house has windows that face it, but they are placed toward the top of a double-height space. Although the buildings are just 15 feet apart, privacy is preserved for both, even when these owners cross the second-level bridge.
From the bridge, the owners can gaze instead at the second-level gallery space, which Chris worked in to accommodate their extensive art collection. The compact great room could only squeeze in a select few pieces, and they wanted more display areas. “We redeveloped to space to give them a three-sided gallery. And it kept the great room from getting too big,” says Chris. “You can make small spaces that entertain well, and you can have a large space that doesn’t feel good.”
Pirouette in the great room and you’ll notice that no two walls are alike. For instance, Chris conquered the age-old problem of TV versus fireplace by locating them perpendicular to each other on separate walls. The TV has its own subtle niche above a custom oak credenza topped in absolute black granite and backed in FilzFelt felt for acoustics. (The credenza also conceals the air return for the room.) The fireplace and its brick hearth anchor the window wall. Other walls contain a built-in bar, built-in shelves for art display, and more—no square inch goes to waste. “It took gymnastics to make all that trim come together. There’s a triple miter fold piece at the door,” says Chris. “Every time I see it, I smile.”
The kitchen is another symphony of complicated grace notes. Breaking with current fashion, it’s placed at a discrete remove from the living area, but adjacent to the nearby dining area. “I have an aversion to putting the kitchen in the living room,” says Chris. “The kitchen is a much more intimate space, a different scale. In this case, there’s a baroque minimalism to it.”
Cabinets are a gray stained wood, topped with white Corian—including a Corian sink with integral drainboard and shelf. Corian tops the island as well, but the base is a custom steel affair with recessed stainless pulls. It holds the microwave and storage for utensils and dishes. “It is the most complex thing we’ve ever designed,” says the architect. “It went through the Corian fabricator, the cabinet shop, and the metal shop.” And, yes, it contains triple miters, too.
“The development of the interiors really became like custom furniture,” Chris concludes. And thus the spec house became a truly bespoke home.
Kansas City, Missouri
Architect: Christopher Fein, AIA, principal in charge, FORWARD Design | Architecture, Kansas City, Missouri
Builder: Centric Construction, Kansas City
Interior Designer: Alan Karlin, Kansas City
Landscape Architect: Joann Schwarberg, J. Schwarberg Landscape Architecture, Prairie Village, Kansas
Other Trades: Metal One (fabrication); Bootlace Design Cabinetry
Project Size: 7,084 square feet
Site Size: 0.11 acre
Construction Cost: $500 a square foot
Acoustic Fabric: FilzFelt
Cladding: Glen-Gery brick, Heath tile
Cooking Appliances: Fisher & Paykel
Cooking Ventilation: Best
Counters, Surfacing: Corian; granite
Door, Cabinet Hardware: Emtek
Faucets, sinks, toilets, tubs: Kohler
Hot Tub: Diamond Spas
Kitchen Faucet: Grohe
Lighting Control, Home Control: Crestron SIMPL
Paints, Stains, Coatings: Benjamin Moore
Radiant Heating: WarmZone
Refrigerator/Freezer, Icemaker, Microwave: Sub-Zero
Windows: Andersen; Metro Steel
Wine Refrigerator: U-Line