A contemporary gem makes its home in historic Oakwood Park, near downtown Raleigh. The Martin Residence incorporates significant elements of both contemporary and sustainable design and enlivens its street, yet it sits comfortably among its bungalow neighbors.
The four-level house sits high on its site, and a garden of native plants leads to the front door. Its large windows, concrete western wall and straightforward facades whisper of modernity, but do not shout.
Architect Tina Govan has worked and lived in Japan, and this experience has fed her design on several levels: Elements of profound beauty and use of well-considered materials exist throughout this house. The Eastern influence can be felt throughout in its sense of serenity, the easy flow of inside and outside spaces, and the efficiency of interlocking spaces. It can be seen in the carefully designed details, the choices of natural materials and the thoughtful positioning of its elements.
The site posed several challenges, but the architect and landscape designer turned these into assets. First, the lot is small - 2,700 square feet -- and has a steep sideways slope. However, the slope allowed the architect to include four levels within the area allowed by Raleigh's zoning code.
The original intent was to retain and improve the original house and a large tree in the front garden. But early investigation revealed significant structural problems in the house, and the tree could not withstand the stress of construction. Each was removed, but traces of them remain. The new house was built on the footprint of the old; a beautiful tree now grows in the same spot as the old.
A winding path moves through the native plant garden, up to the front door and the first special element: a wooden bench that appears to extend through a glass panel from the front porch into the entry hall (actually, it's built on both sides of the window).
The main level of the house is predominantly an open room with a galley kitchen that leads to a spacious living/dining room. The living room in turn opens to an outside space of matching size - a second living room - and to the garden beyond. The living area is a feast of sustainable, sensuous materials: The kitchen countertop is velvety soapstone; the solar-heated floors are sealed, ground concrete aggregate and recycled wood.
Also defining this space is a continuous western wall of poured-in-place concrete. This wall, which is washed with light from a skylight above, lends texture and interest to the room, while insulating it from the western sun. Outside, the top of this wall is a U-shaped channel that collects rainwater and funnels it to a storage cistern buried in the garden. Inside, a special niche is carved into this wall for the family piano, which would appear to be a focal point. But on this midsummer day, the living room chairs face the garden - a reflection of the compelling nature of the views.
Tucked into the southeast corner of this main floor are two bedrooms and a bathroom. Each room is of adequate size and full of natural light, and each has a connection to the outside. The bedrooms each have doors leading onto exterior decks; the bathroom has a river-pebble floor reminiscent of walking on a stone beach.
More surprises await up a generous, winding set of wooden stairs that is full of niches and shelves. This stair and an exterior stair from the ground floor courtyard meet in the parents' study. Also on this floor are a master bedroom and bath, and a loft that overlooks the bedroom. The master bathroom is tucked into the southeast corner of the house, and has an operable corner window, where the rising sun greets the owners each morning.
A place for guests
The biggest surprise, undetectable from the street and even from the first floor of the house, is a generous roof deck off the study. Here, the family enjoys morning coffee and evening wine, and their young daughter can play within bounds.
At the rear of this deck is yet one more delight: a self-contained guest room. This completely separate little house comprises one beautifully proportioned room, affording maximum privacy to guests and hosts. The path from the front door to the guest house completes the understanding of the Martin house as a village, composed of inside and outside spaces making a continuous thread of experiences.
Yet the house goes further. A lower level, made possible by the sloping site, has both internal and external access. This large, day-lit studio is surrounded by generous storage and offers the possibility of a future bathroom. A door leads into the mechanical space where the thermal heat exchange unit is accessed. This system is primarily used in peak summer months to cool the house, and in winter as a supplement to solar-heated floors.
A feeling of serenity
The overall feeling of the house is one of serenity. This is created through the exquisite use of natural materials and gentle colors; the lack of obtrusive mechanical systems; and visual and actual connections to the outside, where a lush garden and multiple gathering spaces provide evidence of the family's high-quality urban living. As it is slowly revealed, the house shows how comfortably it fits with the family's needs and rhythms. All of this was recently put to the test, when seven members of their extended family shared the house for a month, and everyone remained friends.
Robin Abrams, an architect and landscape architect, is head of the School of Architecture at N.C. State.