Palo Alto Residence, Palo Alto, Calif.
Palo Alto, Calif.Architect: CCS Architecture, San Francisco; Builder: K Welton Inc., Palo Alto
Architect Cass Calder Smith confesses surprise when he reports that there have been no complaints from the neighbors about this very modern house, even though it’s located in an established neighborhood on a street lined with traditional houses. Built on a corner lot with a breezeway entry that can be seen from the street, the house isn’t exactly hidden by hedgerows. But it’s that very visibility that makes the house “a tiny bit public, less introverted,” says Smith, and, in turn, more warm and approachable. “I don’t like to walk straight to a façade with a front door,” he adds. A better alternative, Smith says, are side entries, which are able to create what he refers to as “psychological warmth.”
That warm vibe continues throughout the home, which began with the idea of using rammed earth walls to provide an earthy softness. Other materials play nicely off those walls: white oak on the interior and ipe on the exterior. Smith reinforced the idea of warmth by ensuring that light would bounce off the wood surfaces.
Ample windows may provide lots of natural light during the day, but they can be cold when the sun goes down, “turning them into black holes at night,” Smith observes. He cites homes with waterfront views as posing special challenges where that’s concerned. But in this snug lot, that visual chill was avoided by making sure the landscaping was well-illuminated.
Most modern homes have open floor plans, which don’t feel as cozy as traditional homes do. But building in boundaries to delineate rooms, such as defining the ceiling planes, varying floor levels, and creating a sequence of solid and open spaces, is a way to add a sense of enclosure. In this house, visual variety enhances its warm, friendly feel.
Lake Forest Park House, Lake Forest Park, Wash.
Architect: Finne Architects, Seattle; Builder: Schultz Miller, Seattle
Nils Finne brings a woodworker’s obsession with joinery, precision, and tools to his projects, too. But there’s irony in those carefully hewn details. Though they appear to carry the artisan’s touch, “they aren’t handcrafted—they’re made with really powerful machinery,” says Finne, who adds that he’d have to be out of his mind to do otherwise. Large CNC milling machines produce intricate grid work and complex textures quickly and affordably—provided that the prototypes are worked out beforehand, to the millimeter.
Here, warmth transcends woodwork; an interplay of wood with materials such as terrazzo, glass, and steel keeps the home from looking heavy. “You never want to use too much wood,” advises Finne, who says that the contrast with cooler materials allows the wood to appear more lustrous and beautiful.
Natural light also helps the house feel inviting. Vertical clerestory windows allow light to bounce off various surfaces and they permit natural ventilation, too. As for skylights in this light-challenged part of the country? Never. Finne is adamant that they do nothing to make a home feel cozy.
Assembling individual elements so they hang together without looking crazy-busy is harder than it looks, but here, the interaction of materials defines the warmth of the house. “It’s like a family standing there,” Finne says, “where you can see differences between family members, but you can tell they’re all related.”
AB Highway Residence, West Plains, Mo.
Architect: Core10 Architecture, St. Louis; Builder: Feller Construction, West Plains
“St. Louis is a traditional, historic kind of place,” says architect Tyler Stephens, who uses A Field Guide to American Houses to help indecisive clients figure out what kind of home they want. “Ninety percent of the time, when we get to the colonial revival section, that’s it,” he says. “‘Father of the Bride’ or ‘The Philadelphia Story.’”
But the owners of AB Highway Residence were different. In an initial meeting, Stephens went through the entire guide, from stick style to Beaux Arts to Tudor. Nothing spoke to his clients. “When that happens, I turn to the back of the book—International style and California modern,” he says. “When I got to mid-century, their faces lit up. So I pulled out a book on modern architecture, and off we went.”
Given the wide open site—prairie on one side, woods on the other—the owners wanted big, long roof planes. But concerns about budget and snow loads prevented building a modern flat roof. Instead, Stephens opted for as low a slope as he could manage “without making the house look like a 1970s ranch,” he says. He designed the roof around a traditional truss that can take on different angles throughout the house but still be built inexpensively. The overhang along the southwest side is almost 6 feet—beautiful and practical protection from the sun. “Turning the soffits up was a way to make the roof lighter and get the feel of a flat roof,” he notes, while the cedar warms up what’s essentially a glass box. The house looks like it’s about to take flight; it also appears to float thanks to the cantilevered porch.
To maximize light play, walls and ceilings were painted white and concrete floors were impregnated with orange-brown tones. Even the copper rain chains—a necessity because of the roof lines and soffits—add warmth, playing off the streamlined exterior.
Osprey House, Osprey, Fla.
Architect: Sweet Sparkman Architects, Sarasota, Fla.; Builder: Michael K. Walker & Associates, Sarasota
The Florida climate adds ambient warmth, and the house is built around a courtyard, so the place opens easily to the outdoors. The owners talked of wanting to be “immersed in the landscape” and to have a deep sense of “living on the water, in the trees, and in the garden.” A covered terrace, balconies, and floor-to-ceiling windows accomplish their desires beautifully, although the reality of living in a hurricane-prone area still looms large. As a result, the entire structure is elevated on piles, per FEMA requirements.
Materials can go only so far in making a house feel warm. With a large modern home like this one, scale can make or break the friendliness factor. Sparkman broke the house down into a sequence of smaller spaces that feel human in scale. As with the best modern floor plans, the rooms flow into each other, yet carry a sense of enclosure, thanks to details such as varied ceiling heights, wood cladding, and freestanding elements that help open rooms feel more defined. Feeling crafted and contemporary is a tricky balancing act, but this home does it, while avoiding pigeonholing in any one style.