If there’s a common theme to be found within the winners of this year’s George Matsumoto Prize from North Carolina Modernist Houses, it’s the concept of merging inside with out. And four of the six winners do that mightily.
These prizes are named for the highly innovative Japanese-American architect who lived and practiced in Raleigh, teaching at N.C. State’s School of Design between 1948 and 1961. His work won more than 30 awards before his death last year. He left a legacy of 13 modernist homes across the Triangle, most of them exquisite in their simplicity.
The competition, now in its sixth year, fielded a record 17 entries during its 2017 iteration. Designed by latter-day modern masters, they hail from across the state – from Asheville to Wilmington.
Three were named winners by a six-person jury, which included Pulitzer Prize-winning Vanity Fair architecture critic Paul Goldberger and architect Curt Fentress, designer of Terminal 2 at RDU and a 1972 graduate of N.C. State’s College of Design.
Three others home designs won a “People’s Choice” award, the result of public voting.
Let’s take a look at two from each category.
Hungry Neck House by Craig Kerins
In downtown Raleigh’s Hungry Neck neighborhood, Craig Kerins of The Raleigh Architecture Co. designed and built a home for a well-known community chef. The architect placed the kitchen at the center of the first floor. It’s a double-height affair, with several skylights and plenty of windows for natural light.
“You can see the sunrise and sunsets through a lot of glass in both directions, and there are folding walls to a screen porch,” the architect says. “The kitchen spills out to the back yard, and they spent a lot of time landscaping and manicuring it.”
Aligned on an east-west axis, it turns a mostly opaque face to busy New Bern Avenue, and opens up on the kitchen side to a 100-year-old oak tree.
At 2,200 square feet, it offers three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths. It’s jam-packed with sustainable features: geothermal heating and cooling, a 10,000-gallon cistern to capture rainwater for re-use in toilets, permeable pavements for parking, and deep roof overhangs for summer shade and winter warmth.
“It’s probably the most green house we’ve ever done,” Kerins says.
It earned second place in the People’s Choice awards.
Balakrishnan House by Jason Hart
On a 3-acre site in Chapel Hill, architect Jason Hart of Cube Design has re-imagined the dogtrot homes that once dotted the agrarian landscape of rural North Carolina. This one’s articulated cleanly in the modern idiom. It’s designed around a central gathering spot for a family of four – a 20-foot-by-20-foot square that opens out to forest on one side and meadow on another, through floor-to-ceiling glass doors.
“I was trying to achieve a home fitted for the family and take advantage of indoor-outdoor living,” Hart says. “That was the core concept with the space at the center – you feel like you’re outside.”
His clients – including middle school- and high school-aged children – were heavily involved in the design. “We were constantly discussing needs like closet space, and measuring for equipment for how they cook and how they’d live at the house,” Hart says. “It was kind of detective-like.”
Also aligned on an east-west axis, the 3,100-square-foot, two-story home is set up for passive solar heating and cooling. Canopies over windows shield interiors from July’s heat, and western exposure is minimized for the least heat gain. “The western exposure is smaller than the southern exposure,” he says.
It won second place in the juried competition.
Run Ashore House by Michael Ross Kersting
Down on Figure Eight Island, a leftover lot and the clients’ desire for a rooftop pool drove the design for the Run Ashore House. The property isn’t oceanfront and was a little lower than the lots surrounding it. So the architect raised its grade, then built 35 feet up, the maximum allowed, to take advantage of views of the ocean, the sound and the Intracoastal Waterway.
“The clients had been vacationing in the Caribbean, and while they were there, they’d seen images of a house they found intriguing,” says architect Michael Ross Kersting. “It had a swimming pool on the roof, and a dedicated stair tower stitching the floors together.”
The three-story, 4,500-square-foot home rests on a steel frame mounted atop 26-foot pilings sunk 16 feet into the sand. The ground-level garage is deemed uninhabitable by FEMA, so the living space is on the second level, with the rooftop pool – and 30,000 pounds of water – on top of that.
“The top deck is appointed to feel like the deck of a boat, looking out in all directions – it’s up in space with 360-degree views around it,” Kersting says. “It’s a top-down house – it’s all about being up in the air where you can see the water.”
It won first place in the People’s Choice awards.
West Chapel House by Scott Huebner
Out on West Chapel Road in Black Mountain near Asheville, architect Scott Huebner carefully positioned a house on a 35-degree slope. He did it with steel beams and heavy timbers. And he maximized mountain views.
“We knew that when the house was finished it would sit at or above the tree canopies, with seemed like a special thing,” Huebner says. “Many of us have fond memories of our childhood tree house, but few get to live in them as adults.”
His clients, a retired couple, certainly do. Huebner put all the living areas on one level, so that they can age in place. And he didn’t hesitate to make the most of state-of-the art glazing technology.
“We also knew the house, especially in the main living spaces, was going to be more glass than wall, which furthers the connection with those trees,” he says. “Every room in the house is surrounded by a close connection or vista to nature.”
His efforts earned first place – and a prize of $3,000 in the juried competition.
Sure, North Carolina has its share of excellent traditional architecture – The Capitol Building, Memorial Hall and Biltmore come immediately to mind. But since 1948, when the School of Design was established at N.C. State, modernism has served as North Carolina’s architectural legacy. And these four Matsumoto Prize winners explore its special capacity for meeting client needs while inserting good design into the gifts of nature.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com. He is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand” (Routledge: 2015). He can be reached at email@example.com.