Tight Fit, Creative Solution

It’s not easy pleasing a zoning board that oversees a community which includes architectural styles of 100 years ago, as well as styles from today. This doesn’t mean the zoning board in Birmingham, Mich., is difficult to work with, rather, it’s one of those communities that wants everything to blend together.

Zoning ordinances here place great emphasis on design, trying to maintain control while remaining open to other architectural styles. The style of this home in Birmingham, Mich., is English Tudor, “…with a tiny bit of eclecticism going on,” says J.R. Ruthig, managing designer, Dominick Tringali Architect in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Ruthig has worked many times with this style, which is one of the most popular styles in the area. “I’ve been with this firm for 15 years and have worked on 30 projects in this town, the majority of which are this style.”

After satisfying the zoning board, the next challenge was working with the lot. Securing variances was step one, a process credited to Doug Derocher, the builder. It was a show home for three months in spring 2009.

“The builder, [Custom Homes by Derocher [in Royal Oaks, Mich.] who also was the client, owned several lots in Birmingham. He took this one — a challenging lot — and decided to get an architect involved to share his vision. The lot was constrictive and the city deemed it unbuildable for a reasonable size home. Doug asked the city for setback variances which they granted,” Ruthig explains.

The larger hurdles included being on a corner with double exposure to two streets, not enough room for parking, a driveway or a back yard, all which make it difficult to sell in this neighborhood. Other difficulties include a tight lot line and being backed up to two other houses that used all their space. The result was less-than-desirable views, with the best ones looking out front into a park. “We had to generate a floor plan that would appeal to the public, but also would take advantage of the lot. So we didn’t just design a floor plan, we designed the lot as part of the floor plan,” Ruthig says.

The big plan

To overcome the obstacles of the challenging lot, a few actions were taken. First, the home was sited with the main entrance at the end of the street that leads to it. This establishes a presence from a block away, and allows approaching visitors to view it the full length of the block. The entrance is traditional and anchors the facing street to the property.

Another key action took place in the family room, which is the only room in which the Tringali team wanted to place windows on every wall because it looked out at a park and both bordering streets. “It’s the only space you can look out toward the back without looking at the neighbor’s house.”

“We get the light we want throughout the entire home without losing any wall space”

Perhaps the most creative use of space in this home is the indoor courtyard and conservatory. “Traditionally conservatories are added to the back of a home, but this one is incorporated into the middle of it. We get the light we want throughout the entire home without losing any wall space,” Ruthig says.

A caveat with the sunroom is an old tree with winding vines around the trunk, which sits on the property line. “We used that tree as a centering element for the conservatory, so people are looking right out at this tree almost like it’s a piece of art. We didn’t want that tree destroyed.”

Technically the sunroom is on the back wall, but rather than adding onto the house the sunroom was slid into a cut-out section of the home’s rectangular footprint. “So it’s not really an appendage. And, we were able to include a glass ceiling, so the room draws light into four other areas of the home’s interior,” Ruthig says.on display

After completion, the home was part of a three-month show in partnership with a local mall, which furnished the home. Tour profits went to charity. In the middle of 2009 in a struggling economy, the builder, Custom Homes by Derocher, wanted to show people that if they’re sitting on the fence about buying a home, this is how you can build a home creatively and with efficiency in mind.

Common-sense green

Green begin on the outside of this home by covering it with brick, which Ruthig refers to as a low-maintenance, 100-year-old material. A slate roof provides another low-maintenance material to complete the home’s shell. All windows feature low-E glass, while spray-foam covers the back side of the exterior walls. “It’s very efficient, with true R values. And another green element on the exterior of the home is the landscaping. The only grass or lawn on the property is used to separate the sidewalk from the street. The rest of the lot is covered with low-water vegetation, and all gutters collect water in barrels for re-use on the property. Mulch beds are designed to hold water and not let it run off,” he explains.

Moving inside, a heat pump combined with radiant floor heating provide comfort and financial payback. What looks like painted walls is a Venitian plaster made from only rock or stone that has fallen free from the earth. The point is, it’s not quarried. It’s a durable finish and requires no paint; its pigment is mixed into that material to achieve the final color. LED lighting fixtures save energy, plus they’re programmed to never move beyond 90 percent illumination.

Low-flow plumbing fixtures finish off the interior.

“The goal never was to build a zero-energy home. Not at all. We simply wanted to show that we could design and build a beautiful home on a challenging lot in a way that will save energy and be respectful of the environment. A challenge in this neighborhood is selling high-end product in a desirable city. Some people would tell you that you can’t have fancy showers and be green, but you must have it for this market. And, they’re still low-flow products.”

The response to the luxurious nature of the home and its features was skepticism from many who saw it, but Ruthig points out that we as humans are consumers, as are the homes we live in. “Any house will have an effect on the environment. The idea here was to make this larger home as efficient as possible, with the least impact on the environment, and to use energy in resourceful way.”

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