Contempo casual: A modern house in the woods makes living easy

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Photo: Andrea Hubbell Photo: Andrea Hubbell

One advantage to moving around a lot? You figure out what you want.

By the time Mark and Ellen Jackson approached Bushman Dreyfus Architects several years ago about designing a house, they’d lived in enough places—New Jersey, London, Chicago—to develop a detailed list of wants. These began with broad strokes: The house, destined to sit on a 50-acre wooded plot in southern Albemarle, should embrace the outdoors. And it should look contemporary. “The Chicago house was more modern,” said Mark. “It was our favorite home over the years.”

The couple had appreciated that house’s complex floor plan, reminiscent of “an S or zigzag,” which allowed views that crossed outdoor spaces and back into the house. “I liked these kinds of visual stimuli,” said Mark. The complexity of the house that Bushman Dreyfus eventually designed for the Jacksons is evoked by its name: Origami House. Like a creature made from folded paper, the house has nooks and crannies inside and out —surprising spaces that enter one’s sightlines and invite exploration.

Cherry-stained cabinets warm up the modern kitchen. Photo: Andrea Hubbell
Cherry-stained cabinets warm up the modern kitchen. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Yet this isn’t a monument to architectural vanity. The Jacksons were set on having an extremely practical home: something low-maintenance, energy-efficient, and designed for maximum convenience. They asked for room to pursue their interests and support their lifestyle in very specific ways.

One small example: the wine room, which can store up to 750 bottles. “In our last house, the wine was down in the basement,” said Mark. “Here, the wine storage is right off the pantry. It’s 20 steps to bring a case of wine into the room.”

Self-proclaimed "book people," the Jacksons made sure their shelves were conveniently located, so they walk by them every day. Photo: Andrea Hubbell
Self-proclaimed “book people,” the Jacksons made sure their shelves were conveniently located, so they walk by them every day. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Ultimate ease

That kind of accessibility informs the design at every turn. Coming home at the end of the day, the Jacksons can pull into a covered breezeway between house and garage to unload a car while protected from weather. Mail gets dropped on a desk just inside the door; groceries travel a few steps further to the kitchen. The laundry room waits near the bedrooms.

If Mark, who plays guitar, bass, and mandolin, has friends coming by to rehearse, they can enter his dedicated music room through a separate, extra-wide door, and the sound of their playing stays within the room’s soundproofed walls.

Mark, who plays guitar, bass, and mandolin, has a dedicated music room with soundproofed walls. Photo: Andrea Hubbell
Mark, who plays guitar, bass, and mandolin, has a dedicated music room with soundproofed walls. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

“We’re book people,” said Ellen, “and we wanted the book storage in one spot.” The narrow hallway to their bedroom runs past a large bookcase consolidating all their volumes. “We’ve had houses where there were books upstairs in an office or bedroom, and they become forgotten,” Mark said. “Here, we walk by our books every day.”

Feast for the senses

The house has a fairly basic organizing principle. When one enters the two-story foyer, private spaces are to the right. Common rooms are to the left, and the natural tendency is to head in that direction, toward high ceilings and big windows.

The details are what make Origami House shine. Take, for example, the ceiling of the living area. A level white section runs down the center. On either side are higher, tongue-and-groove wood areas which warm up the space and reveal the slope of the roof.

Sitting in this room, one basks in light from a south wall full of glass, even while looking toward the kitchen—drawn by ceiling heights that step down, warm cherry-stained cabinets, and the texture of glass tiles over the cooktop. Between living room and kitchen, glass globe pendant lights announce the dining area, where the table is exactly aligned with the spacious entry.

Given all that open space, “I can add tables and seat 30 people,” said Ellen.

A fun parlor game would be for each of the 30 to identify a different detail that enlivens the architecture: a high window here, a custom-designed outdoor sconce there. Guests could find themselves in small outdoor niches created by the house’s many-sided footprint, perhaps checking out the rain chain (for rainwater collection) or a Cor-Ten steel sculpture designed by Bushman Dreyfus. Or they might notice the way the complex rooflines create a unique ceiling form in the upstairs guest room.

A wall of glass on the south side of the living room lets in light and affords a view of the woods. Photo: Andrea Hubbell
A wall of glass on the south side of the living room lets in light and affords a view of the woods. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

What’s more likely is that visitors would simply enjoy the feel of the space, which is—as the Jacksons had hoped—comfortable and inviting. That’s due in large part to the way the secluded setting makes itself a presence indoors. “There’s a flow that’s almost transparent,” Mark said.

In the mornings, the Jacksons awake to soft light from large windows opposite their bed, and they can shower in a glass stall near more big windows. Even the two types of exterior siding encourage awareness of the outdoors. Cor-Ten steel “develops this rusty patina,” said Mark. “You see all these patterns in the steel, and you hear the steel talking to you” as it warms and cools. Cement board siding responds to the play of light. “As the sun travels, all kinds of shadows and shading occur.”

Having moved in only last November, the Jacksons hope to appreciate such subtleties for years to come. “We see this home as where we’re going to stay,” said Ellen.

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