Out of the Box
A House for an Active Family Unites Modern Design and California Cool
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“Playful and bright” is how architect Maria Diaz-Joves of a423 Architecture and Design in Hellertown describes the house she designed for this young professional couple with two preschool-aged daughters.
Playful isn’t a word ordinarily applied to structures bigger than a tree house. Yet, even in this neighborhood on the outskirts of Allentown, with its variety of home styles—stone farmhouses, barn conversions, ‘70s ranches—this house is far from ordinary.
It rises streamlined and angled from the soft contours of the landscape. A flat roof with a deep overhang caps the center of the structure, painted a vivid spring green. Windows large and small punctuate the facade. These bold elements make for a house that is neither shy, nor retiring. It’s a house “people either like or they don’t,” owners Jack and Marcie say.
At first glance, the house appears unadorned, even sparse, but closer inspection reveals natural materials full of warmth and nuance. “This house combines the texture and color of reclaimed wood, the natural look of concrete and the strength and crispiness of steel,” Diaz-Joves says. “I like using materials that are beautiful on their own so there is no need to embellish them.”
Jack and Marcie are avid runners and cyclists, and the decision to build started with their desire for a gym. They had read “Playing With Space” in Lehigh Valley Style’s March 2013 issue, about a house Diaz-Joves designed in Bath, and liked her aesthetic. The couple first met with the architect and builder Dave East of HFS Group over a bottle of wine. Three hours later, they knew this was their design/build team.
They found a location on the outskirts of Allentown—close to their families, with lots of opportunities for outdoor pursuits. However, the 1.2-acre property had problems, enough to scare away less determined buyers. Overhead power lines that ran through the center of the triangular lot and a neighbor’s septic system had to be relocated before Diaz-Joves could start designing. It was almost 18 months before construction began.
“Not everyone has that time frame—to find a lot, go through the design process, shovel in and then a house,” Diaz-Joves says. “Most people aren’t prepared to wait that long. The homeowners were very disciplined and organized. They knew what they wanted and made decisions quickly.”
Once the lot was cleared and prepared, the process accelerated. “They gave me a lot of design freedom,” she says. “They didn’t say, ‘We want the bedroom there,’ they said, ‘We want to see the sun come up in the morning.’ They understood how they wanted to live.”
Her design is four side-by-side “boxes,” each a different material, to create depth and delineate space. The main living area and second floor are green fiber-cement panels, the kids/guest wing is clad in cedar and the foyer, office and powder room are board form concrete. Peeking from behind is a three-car garage sheathed in standing seam metal roofing. Diaz-Joves incorporated some of these materials into the interior to link indoors and out.
Adding interest and texture to the concrete walls was particularly challenging. Architect and builder decided, instead of plain concrete walls, to pour the wet concrete into a form made from lumber, so it would take on the wood’s grain and striations. Neither had tried the technique before, and they weren’t sure how it would turn out—given the inherent “unpredictability,” as Diaz-Joves likes to say, of concrete. The results were exactly what they hoped for.
The main living space includes a two-story, open concept living and dining area. The couple entertains often and wanted to maximize flow, even with a crowd. Private spaces face the backyard, while the kitchen and office look towards the road.
Off this main living area lies a large deck sheltered by a ten-foot roof overhang, allowing the family to enjoy the space in all weather. The back of the house has a southern exposure.
Diaz-Joves determined the angle of the sun when siting the house, to ensure that the overhang shades the interior in summer, keeping it cool. In winter, when the sun is lower, its warming rays spill into the house.
Diaz-Joves believes no place in a house should ever be off-limits or reserved for special occasions, and that coming home should be as pleasurable for the occupants as it is for guests. She sited the entrance from the garage near the front door, so the family enters the same space, and, therefore, has the same experience as visitors do when they arrive.
Exposed steel girders in the main living space sport orange-red paint. The owners love California, and were engaged overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. A friend brought back paint chips from the bridge, which they matched for the beams.