Editor’s note: Andrew Silton’s Meditations on Money Management column will no longer appear in Work & Money. The Real Deals real estate column will run in its place twice each month.
RALEIGH -- When Craig Kerins and Robby Johnston began building a cluster of modernist homes on Edenton Street a few blocks east of downtown, the architects knew they were tapping into a shift in attitudes among the homebuying public.
“The second those homes started to take shape, there was lots of market interest,” says Johnston. “We started receiving lots of phone calls.”
But the five homes – which feature large overhangs, big shared spaces filled with light from 9-by-9 windows and skylights – were all done on commission and would not be listed for sale.
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That is not the case for their latest project, a trio of similarly designed houses that are now going up on Wynne Street a block from Chavis Park.
While a small sample size, Kerins and Johnston’s work is a sign that many of the defining characteristics of modernist architecture – open plans, numerous windows, and easy accessibility from inside to outside – have become features prized by many of today’s homeowners.
“What you’re seeing is a rekindling of the spirit of modernism, in my opinion,” said Frank Harmon, an architect and professor in the N.C. State University College of Design. “The generation coming of age now that is buying houses is perhaps much more interested in things that are contemporary.”
Harmon noted that there was a very strong modernist movement in Raleigh in the 1950s, with architects such as George Matsumoto, James Fitzgibbon, Terry Waugh and Eduardo Catalano constructing modest-sized buildings that received nationwide attention.
“Most of those modernist houses were built for small business owners, associate professors,” Harmon said.
Clean, simple materials
The homes Kerins and Johnston, who are both 35, are designing near downtown Raleigh target a somewhat different clientele from much of the work they each did before forming their own company, The Raleigh Architecture Co., several years ago.
Johnston said often these types of modernist homes are tucked away in the woods on very large lots. They have tended to cost more, largely because they were not a significant segment of the homebuilding market.
“Traditionally it’s been something that cost more because it’s not the status quo,” Johnston said.
While the people who have invested in modern architecture have typically had significant means, Harmon disputes the view that the houses themselves must be expensive.
He said rarely have the modern houses he’s built over the past 25 years cost more than $350,000.
“The real point of doing these houses is it helps people live better,” he said. “If you’ve got lots of good light in your house, you can open the windows and get fresh air and have clean, simple materials. It’s a nice way to live.”
Advancements in homebuilding materials has also helped bring down the cost of constructing modern houses.
Modern houses have always made use of the newest building materials, such as plywood in the 1950s. Today they rely on engineered lumber, which allows builders to use lumber for things that would have required steel or concrete in the past. Better windows, heating and ventilation systems and insulation have also made it easier to build an open floor plan.
All the materials used in the Wynne Street homes can be found at Stock Building Supply, Johnston said.
Affordability is relative
Of course, affordability is relative. While the homes being built on Wynne Street may be modest compared with more indulgent modernist houses, they will still be significantly more expensive than anything else nearby.
Kerins and Johnston have partnered with developer Jason Queen’s firm, Monarch Property Co., on the houses. The equity partner in the project is Telegraph Road Properties, which has been involved in rehabbing dozens of homes in recent years in the blocks around downtown. Telegraph currently owns 25 lots in the area, according to Wake County property records, and has sold 17 homes since 2011 for an average price of $247,411.
The company paid $117,500 for the Wynne Street lots. The city was about to condemn the properties on the lots. Queen, who is also one of the developers involved in renovating the nearby Stone’s Warehouse, said list prices for the three Wynne Street houses have not been set.
He said they have worked to make sure the properties fit into the fabric of the neighborhood, which is rapidly gentrifying as homes get renovated and scooped up by buyers eager to live close to downtown.
The Wynne Street homes, which will be between 1,700 and 1,800 square feet, are low to the ground with front porches much like the rest of the existing housing stock nearby, but otherwise they will introduce a jolt of modernist architecture into the neighborhood.
Each has 3 bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms with the entire first floor a single space, except for a washroom and a coat closet.
“When you can share space ... you get a lot more mileage for your square footage,” Johnston said.
As for what comes next, Kerins and Johnston hope to continue to build houses near downtown in addition to the commercial and retail projects that they’ve done in the area.
“This is what we do,” Johnston said. “We’re not just hired guns. It’s not a one-off thing.”
Bracken: 919-829-4548 or email@example.com;