Case Study: Hillside Residence by Robert M. Cain Architect

It’s not an easy decision to tear down your parents’ house—the one you grew up in—even when it has a Mansard roof, Tennessee crab orchard flooring, and orange shag carpet. The deep memory of home is a powerful, beckoning force, and it requires an equally potent force to quiet its call and move on. 

Usually, it’s a slow process of coming to terms with the inevitable—a winding trip through the stages of grief. At first, everyone thinks it might be possible to renovate. But the arguments were myriad for at least a partial teardown of the existing house on this hillside in Marietta, Ga., just across the Chattahoochee River from Atlanta. 

The house was stylistically and functionally obsolete, and it had suffered considerable neglect while sitting unoccupied for 10 years. What eventually hardened everyone’s resolve was when the team discovered asbestos in the house—lots of it. “We thought it might be a good idea to use some of the materials from the original house,” recalls project architect Carmen Stan, “but then we saw the asbestos.” 

Once the decision was made to start anew, the firm of Robert M. Cain Architect was free to reimagine a house that would make the best use of the stellar 1.4-acre site overlooking the Atlanta Country Club golf course. Originally, the client (a real estate attorney who works in the same office building in Atlanta as the firm does) had approached them to design a house just for him—a single bachelor—and his many visiting relatives. Life, however, rarely remains static. 

The project, which began in 2008, progressed by fits and starts for the next decade. It was put on hold for a time during the recession and then reignited a couple of years ago when the real estate market looked solid again. Now the market is on fire, and even the best architects and builders are having a difficult time getting subs to wrap up all the punch list items.

The client moved in last Thanksgiving, cramming into the home’s guest quarters with his wife and two young children and suffering through another six months of construction hiccups. The house was completed this summer in a photo finish to get it ready for Atlanta’s incredibly popular tour of modern homes. It was a nail-biter. 

Over the years since the house was first conceived, the client had succeeded in building a family, and the bachelor pad had evolved into a forever family home. 

Trees of Lebanon

During the design phase, principal-in-charge Bob Cain and Carmen worked diligently to learn what the client loved most about the original house and what he wanted brought forward into the new building. As it turns out, his strongest memory points were outside the house—in a series of trees his Lebanese mother had planted on the property.

The team took pains to keep as many of those trees as it could, and ones that had to be removed were preserved as cuttings to re-establish in more felicitous locations. One tree in particular, a showpiece silver maple at the front of the property, became the pivot of the entire design, dictating the footprint and, in part, the floorplan as well. The house surrounds the tree in an L-shaped embrace. At the crook of the L, the architects designed a small covered patio. Here, their client can escape the wailing of small children and sip his coffee in the privacy and shade of its leafy, muscular branches. 

The shorter run of the L contains a three-car garage and storage area. It spans the motor court and entrance serving the family on the kitchen side of the house and the guest motor court at the front of the house. Above the garage are the guest quarters, designed for long-term stays, with a kitchenette, washer/dryer, sitting area and a private deck. A separate stair allows them to come and go without entering the main house, although there is also a door from the deck that connects to the children’s wing. 

The children’s wing connects to the parents’ suite across a bridge over the double-height living room. A clerestory band of windows illuminates the passage and ushers light into the living area below and, through a corner interior clerestory, into one child’s bedroom. 

All corridors terminate in floor-to-ceiling windows, bringing in even more light and glimpses of the outdoors. “There’s an axis in every direction,” Bob explains. “And corridors to the left and right. Axial views bring the whole outside in and are critical to reducing the apparent size of the house. They help bring in views while maintaining the privacy the clients wanted.” 

The team placed service areas at the front of the house to preserve the best views at the back for bedrooms and the children’s playroom. No family areas are in the basement, except for a small hobby room and exercise room. “Basements are where toys go to die,” Carmen quips. 

The firm designed all the custom furniture and storage walls for the master bedroom and walk-in closet. A floating bed is the main event, lifting occupants up and into the view provided by a broad wall of windows. The master bathroom is on full display at the front of the house, so the team installed power shades that can be activated by buttons on each side of the bed before the clients enter the bath or set to function on a timer.

Twice as Nice

Although the house feels very open with window walls all across the back and at its corners, the plan is more traditional than many modern houses. “Our client entertains family from Lebanon and has multiple gatherings for extended family, so they wanted a more formal plan than we typically design,” Bob explains. That meant “two of everything,” Carmen adds. “Two dining rooms and two living rooms.” 

This is how a program swells to almost 7,000 square feet. “The home was smaller when we started, but it got larger by adding the in-law guest suite and a first-floor bedroom,” says Carmen. The couple added the bedroom as they came to realize this was likely their forever home, and they wanted to age in place. 

The house is certainly large, but very much in keeping with the size of typical homes in Atlanta’s affluent areas. What’s unusual is that the team designed it to minimize the scale of its appearance. Most of the area’s “estate homes” or “executive homes,” as they are called, strut their size as much as possible.

The house next door, built around the same time, is a case in point. It makes the most of its mega-mansion bloat for purposes of shock and awe. “What gets me,” says Carmen, “is that it has the same fantastic view we do, but they only have one set of French doors and a couple of windows to take it in. And you have to go down a giant flight of stairs just to get to the backyard. For us, it’s very important to connect well to the outdoors.”

That’s not easy with Atlanta’s high Piedmont topography, nor with the market’s predilection for a sprawling “terrace” level that must reside at least partially above ground and provide walk-out access to the yard. The result is that only the basement (let’s call it what it is) really connects to the site, and the main level is left marooned aloft, linked only by a dizzying Escher-like series of stairs to the ground.  

Freed from the obligation of the terrace level, Bob and Carmen were able to deploy decks, retaining walls for pool and patio, and short runs of wide stairs to ease the descent to the backyard. The journey and the destination meld into a single, progressive experience.

Down to Size

Breaking up the building’s mass into two wings reduces its apparent size, as do all those windows. Its long, low-slung roofline helps as well. Next door, a colliding array of ski-slope roof projections attempt in vain to enliven an otherwise great big, looming box. Here, tightly composed structure and materials activate the elevations. The house never sheds its human scale, feeling at once comfortable in and open to nature. 

“The house doesn’t read that big because we didn’t put enough gables on it,” Bob jokes. “And we didn’t use enough different materials.” That’s a joke, too, but it’s also true. Bob and Carmen trimmed the palette to just a few materials and colors and a deft balance of dark and light elements. 

The exterior siding is thermally modified poplar, says Bob. “I first used it on a property I own in North Georgia about five years ago. They heat the wood to about 180 or 190 degrees. That changes the composition to be more resistant to insects. It’s much more durable than untreated wood. If you leave it as is, it will gray out. And you don’t need to stain or treat it.”

“You can oil it, though, so it keeps its rich, brown color,” says Carmen. “And that’s what the client has chosen to do.” The mustard-hued inserts are fiber cement panels with a speciallyformulated paint color. 

Trim around the siding is aluminum, and the eaves, supported by dark-stained glulam beams, are a light-colored pine decking. Blue stone was used around the pool, along with Garapa wood decking and blue orchard stacked stone for the retaining walls and other stone elements, harkening back to the crab orchard floors in the original house. 

The interiors are a similar combination of light and dark elements. Floors are reclaimed long leaf heart pine. And much of the cabinetry is dark-stained cherry, because it was relatively affordable. Window trim is dark-stained as well. 

The firm designed a number of custom pieces for the main floor, including dining tables, a sofa table, office furniture, and more. The centerpiece of the living room, however, is the floating, double-sided stone-and-steel fireplace. It divides the formal living room from the formal dining room. Similarly, walls of custom cabinetry divide the dining room from the kitchen and family room, providing separation while still maintaining visual connection and openness among the spaces.

Staying Power

The owners wanted a large, commodious house to share with family and friends, but they were concerned with making it as energy efficient as possible. Bob’s office specializes in designing for the region’s hot, humid climate. Multiple sun studies resulted in meticulously placed screening and overhangs, which also eliminated the need for gutters. 

Additionally, there’s a geothermal system that cools and heats the house and warms the pool. Photovoltaic conduit is in place, so that a PV system can top the roof at some point. Right now, says Bob, it doesn’t really make sense to install one. “In Georgia, you’re still required to sell the power you generate to Georgia Power. They sell it at a premium as green power, and then you use their coal-powered energy.”  

Heating is not a big burden in Atlanta’s moderate climate, but cooling is. And that’s where Bob’s siting strategies for passive solar are really the best defense. Luckily, the back of the house and its prime views face east. The street side bears the brunt of the hot western sun and is therefore much stingier with glazing. Those second-floor clerestory windows are tucked under generous overhangs. Deep overhangs also shade glazing from the south sun in summer months but allow it to penetrate principal rooms in winter. 

Unlike its predecessor, this is the family house that can pass to the next generation without suffering stylistic and functional obsolescence. The majestic silver maple will reach its broad branches from parents to children and to their children to come, holding everyone in a warm, protective embrace, roots planted lovingly and firmly in this solid ground.

Project Credits

Hillside House

Marietta, Ga.

Architect: Robert M. Cain, FAIA, principal in charge; Carmen P. Stan, AIA, project architect, Robert M. Cain Architect, Atlanta

Builder: Robert Soens, Pinnacle Custom Builders, Decatur, Ga. 

Landscape architect: Peter Frawley, Frawley Associates LLC, Atlanta

Structural engineering: Michael Quinn, P.E., Michael Quinn & Associates, P.C., Norcross, Ga.; and Jack L. Bell, P.E., Alpharetta, Ga. 

Mechanical engineering: Don Easson, P.E., CoastalGEO, Bluffton, S.C. 

Project size: 6,950 square feet

Site size: 1.4 acres

Construction cost: Withheld

Photography: Fredrik Brauer, Artem Akimov

Key Products

Windows: Quantum Windows & Doors (custom hardware designed by Robert M. Cain Architect)

Cladding: Thermally modified Cambia Wood

Roofing: TPO

Roof windows: Velux

Thermal/moisture barriers/underlayment/sheathing: ZIP System, AdvanTech subfloor

HVAC: ClimateMaster Geothermal Heating and Cooling System, Unico System 

Ventilation: RenewAire ERVs (kitchen and bathrooms)

Kitchen counters: Silestone

Tile: Porcelanosa

Hardware, Passage Door and Cabinetry: Linnea

Kitchen appliances: Thermador

Built-In Coffee Maker: Bosch

Water filtration: Pentair Everpure

Outdoor appliances: DCS grill, Uline undercounter refrigerator

Faucets: Hansgrohe, Kohler, Duravit

Lighting: Bega, Edge, Dabmar, Lithonia, Swivelier

Lighting and shade control: Lutron

Sauna: Finlandia

Paints/Stains: Sherwin-Williams, Minwax, Messmer’s, Sikkens

Plans and Drawings

Additional Photography

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