Eye to the Future

Approximately 10 miles outside Madison, Wis., the design of one residence is challenging assumptions with spaces that are not only welcoming and functional but also easily adjustable. “We are building a house of the future—one that will remain suitable as needs shift and technology evolves,” explains Robin Pharo, president of Healthy Homes, a green-building-consulting firm in Madison. Pharo is collaborating on the design and will occupy the home once it is complete. “The house is really cutting-edge, but it comes down to simple decisions that many don’t consider. In reality, these are things that everybody should be doing.”

For example, the flooring system will be engineered lumber open web trusses because the spaces in the flooring joists will better accommodate changes in wiring for equipment and lighting upgrades. Rather than default to drywall, the project team is considering installing cork flooring as a wall covering because it clicks together and comes apart quickly.

The 3,867-square-foot home’s overall shape is a simple rectangle, and its roof loads can be carried by the trusses alone or by a single ridge beam. Because there are fewer structural supports and a clearer building footprint than homes with more complex geometry, interior walls can be moved as needed allowing for easier space reconfigurations in the future. Radiant-floor heating eliminates the majority of ductwork to facilitate changing walls, and flexible ventilation ductwork can be easily moved if rooms are rearranged. In the kitchen, sparse use of custom cabinets and creative wall placement open possibilities for future modifications.

Residential architect Jim Gempeler, partner at Madison-based GMK Architecture, designed the house with an angled wall that runs through the center to demarcate the home’s public and private spaces. The wall is punctuated with passageways where spaces and functions overlap and connect, such as kitchen/dining and connecting hallways. “By separating private and social functions, the two can coexist without infringing on others in the home,” Gempeler says. “When you combine this with the ability for adaptation as a family’s needs change, you create better spaces.”

Kitchen Reinvention

Perhaps it’s an ingrained notion of gathering around the hearth, a desire to chat with the chef, or the enticing smell of cooking food, but the kitchen is the unmistakable center of a home. Recognizing this popular draw, more finesse has gone into kitchen design in recent decades with custom cabinets, built-in appliances and open plans that include gathering areas. While kitchens have become the biggest expense in most homes, they also are the least flexible.
The kitchen’s plan offers three distinct spaces that divide food storage, preparation and service. Shaped loosely like a “Z,” the working side of the kitchen runs down the center length. The top leg is a gathering/entertaining area with spaces for dining, and the bottom leg is a pantry that opens to the main kitchen.

The team added some custom cabinetry in the social-gathering section to give the space an elegant, finished look. Seated at the dining table or at the breakfast island that includes a small sink, family and guests can converse with the cook while meals are being prepared. But unlike the standard open kitchen, the angled wall keeps the main cooking area around a corner and out of view. A doorway in the angled wall will allow anyone to access the refrigerator from the dining or living room without disturbing the cook.

In the cooking area, open shelving replaces custom cabinets. If smart-grid technology is implemented and new appliances are purchased or the owner wants to remodel, no cabinetry will need to be cut or torn down to make way. The team decided against inserting a beam into the kitchen’s privacy wall to prevent it from being a load-bearing feature, so it can be removed, as well.

At the bottom leg, the adjacent pantry will be a spacious room filled with open shelves that could accommodate items, like a freezer. Some shelving might be on rollers so the cook could wheel just the items needed—like baking supplies for making cookies—into the kitchen’s main area. The pantry also is positioned for easy access from the garage and main entry for handy grocery storage.

The home’s builder, Chad Wuebben, president of Madison-based Encore Construction, was surprised when he saw the kitchen plan. “This design really breaks the mold of the typical kitchen triangle, but the ideas behind it make a lot of sense. Good, timeless design eliminates having to redo a lot of things later,” Wuebben asserts. “We don’t know what the future holds, but this house makes major modifications possible without great expense.”

Added Designs

The bathroom in the basement level also follows Gempeler’s philosophy of separating functions to allow multiple uses to coexist. A semi-private sink area acts as a hub providing access to bathroom functions separated by sliding doors. One space offers a tub/shower and the other leads to toilet facilities. This concept can be expanded to include a sauna, steam room, or separate tub and shower rooms. The sliding doors allow more than one person to use the facilities and still maintain privacy without limiting access to others.

The house also incorporates universal-design principles with one no-barrier entry that can accommodate accessibility devices and larger bathrooms that provide a sense of openness and easily can be altered to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

Another design goal was to connect the house to nature, and the geometry of the angled interior wall continues outside creating a main entry bridge in the front and a patio in the back that extends to a prominent rock outcropping. Pharo sees the use of recycled and natural materials as another way to connect to nature. Although the kitchen countertop material is still under consideration, she’s investigating options that make use of local resources.

“By bringing local and natural stone into the countertops that duplicate the sandstone color of the rock outcropping, it could provide a seamless transition from the interior to the outside. Recycled glass countertops would also be a nice attribute to complement the home’s design and maintain a natural feel,” Pharo says.

Gempeler also organized the house so sightlines in one room share the outside views of another. From the kitchen nook, residents can see through the glass windows in the dining room, kitchen and part of the master bedroom.
Although Pharo will occupy the home, it will serve as a project show house where suppliers and manufacturers who donated products and provided discounted pricing can host events to illustrate their products. Post-occupancy monitoring and testing of systems, equipment and appliances will provide manufacturers with real-life usage data. Enhanced by technology, the whole house can be run by an iPad, so Pharo can warm up the radiant floor or preheat her oven on the drive home among other things.

“We wanted to make a statement about a house that uses less energy, connects to the landscape and makes future alterations possible,” Gempeler explains. “We hope this home proves to people that it can be accomplished in a stimulating way.”

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