Steel Louise takes its name from the corrugated cladding and standing seam roofing that wrap its jaunty geometry, but it also suggests the mettle required by owner/architect Marc Manack to get it built in this transforming neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the height of the COVID pandemic.
“We acquired the lot in Belmont from one of the firm’s first clients. It was really close to Uptown, which is our downtown in Charlotte. It was 2017 and at the front end of the neighborhood’s transformation,” Marc recalls. “The original houses here had been built by the mill owner for the people who worked there. Many had become rentals; many neglected. Our house on the lot had been very neglected—and it was poorly constructed originally. We had to demolish it. That process took us about a year. Then we started to design in 2019—and then the pandemic happened.”
Having spent the previous few years since their relocation from Arkansas living—and, eventually, working remotely—in studio apartments, Marc and his wife were eager to finish the three-bedroom project. But they encountered the severe obstacles familiar to everyone whose house dreams collided with 2020 and its aftermath: major supply chain disruptions, escalating prices for building materials, and—in their case—an inflexible timeline for their bank loan.
These elements combined with life experience, an uncertain economy, and a transitioning neighborhood to encourage Marc to take (for him) a somewhat conservative path with design choices. “This is actually the second house we’ve done for ourselves,” he says. “Mood Ring was the one I built for us in Arkansas, and it was about half the cost of this one—I’m used to being extremely resourceful. For this house, we had a lot of conversations about doing something with broader appeal—something with walls and windows as part of it. We thought of this as the tame, marketable version of our last house.”
Mood Ring (named for the multicolored light schemes that illuminated different aspects of the architecture) was arranged in an upside-down plan. The first level of the T-shaped house tucked workspaces and a laundry/powder room next to the garage. The larger second level contained all the main living spaces, along with two bedrooms and baths. And, yes, doors and walls were scarce. It was, says Marc, a “way less conventional house.”
Right Side Up
Steel Louise sticks with the expected floor plan of entertaining spaces on the first level, plus a guest bedroom suite and garage. Upstairs, the main suite, an adjacent porch, and an additional bedroom slot in among the angular rooflines.
Despite its unusual geometries, the house follows the general cadence of neighboring homes, allowing it to fit in while standing out. And there are no moody lighting effects here, just a play of light and dark elements, solids and voids, and an Escher-like shift in planar relationships.
Although they certainly create architectural interest, they were not mere architectural indulgences. “The geometry bends and inflects to grow toward the light and the view,” Marc explains. “It’s almost like 3D connect the dots. But it’s not as composed as other architects might have done. We like to see what happens and then refine. We set up some parameters and constraints and then see what it looks like. Really, the roof shapes are as mundane as what we needed for drainage points.”
There are no storm sewers that serve Marc’s lot, so the house must deal with its stormwater on site. “One gutter is like a fountain that extends out. And on the other side we have a scupper that drains into a catch basin. The house is surrounded with French drains.”
The elevations’ voids are a series of porches and recessed windows that control light and views into and out of the house. They create a sense of visual drama, but they are also in keeping with the traditions of the mill housing. “There’s a strong front porch culture here in the neighborhood and in Charlotte. And the entire front porch entry sequence of our house is like the old mill houses. The geometry moves from the scale of those houses and the new houses, but keeps with first principles of design,” Marc says.
“We were aware that we are in a transforming urban neighborhood. We were interested that the house present to the street differently from new construction that follows a more suburban disposition of pulling into and out of the house by car. We wanted to help extend the neighborhood from the street. Our living space becomes like a front porch—you can see from the street to the back of the house and the yard. People walk down the street and wave.”
Even the main bedroom faces the street with a porch and a wall of glass—with optional curtains, of course. Because the exposure is western, the deep porch also serves to shade the interiors, while inviting in filtered natural light. Skylights and carefully placed windows combine with those porches and shifting ceiling planes to convey light throughout the house.
“If you look at the plan, it’s square and that motif moves out,” he explains. “It’s subdivided in fours and half of the house is living space. You transition when you enter onto an 8-foot-deep, all-black porch. All the porches are visually connected—you can see the upper porch from the lower one, and the lower one from the upper one. As you move into the living space, it becomes open and bright. All of the geometry is moving toward light and view—the way the ceiling slopes up to the top of the stair and into the skylight.”
Interior materials continue the contrasts of light and dark. “There’s a black and white farmhouse trend here in Charlotte,” says Marc. “And one of my colleagues at the university is showing what you can do with that palette—but a lot better. Instead of decorative, it’s spatial.”
In addition to the yin-yang of lights and darks, Marc’s house also contrasts smooth, refined finishes—white painted walls, honed granite and marble—with raw, textured finishes—unpolished concrete floors, plywood stairs with exposed veneers, spruce pine 1-by2s with exposed nail holes.
Despite all the bumps on the way to getting her built, Steel Louise emerged with her composure and grace intact. “We started the project in dire constraints,” Marc says. “I acted as the general contractor as well as the architect. But that enabled me to be resourceful, put in sweat equity, and pivot as needed to get it done. I think, considering all that, we achieved a high level of execution with a modest budget.”
Louise would no doubt agree she received champagne treatment on her beer budget. And best of all, longtime neighbors appreciate the house. “It’s flattering,” Marc notes, “but we feel we’re starting to see weird imitations.”
Charlotte, North Carolina
Architect: Marc Manack, principal in charge; Frank Jacobus, principal, SILO AR+D, Charlotte, North Carolina
Builder: SILO AR+D
Interior Designer: SILO AR+D
Project Size: 2,400 square feet
Site Size: 0.167 acre
Construction Cost: $210 a square foot
Photography: Keith Isaacs Photography
Cabinetry: Fine Grit (kitchen); Q&N (main bath); Ikea (guest baths)
Cladding: MBCI corrugated metal
Cooking Ventilation: Zephyr Monsoon
Counters/backsplash: absolute black granite (kitchen island); fantasy blue marble
Door hardware: Sure-Loc
Engineered Lumber/roof truss systems: Boise Cascade
Fasteners: Simpson Strong-Tie
Faucets: Grohe (kitchen), Kohler, Signature Hardware (outdoor, main), American Standard
Fireplace: Empire (outdoor)
Flooring: concrete, solid maple
Home Control: Kasa Smart
Lighting Control: Lutron
Refrigerator: Fisher & Paykel
Roofing: Deal’s Metals standing seam metal
Roof Windows: VELUX Wasco Skylights
Sinks: Ruvati (kitchen), Q&N, Ikea
Thermal/Moisture Barriers: Tyvek
Toilets: American Standard
Tub: CLARKE Products (main bath), American Standard
Underlayment/Sheathing: Huber Blue subfloors
Ventilation: CVS Series Central Ventilation Centrifugal Multi-Port Exhaust Fan, Whole House Bath Fan
Windows: Sierra Pacific Windows
Window shading: SelectBlinds
Window wall systems/sliding doors: Quartz Luxury Windows, Quaker, Fenestram