BY BRIAN LIBBY
Recently in The New York Times, I had the opportunity to write about a unique approach to expanding an old house.
David and Sarah Altman almost did what many other new homeowners in Portland have done: tear down an old house on a large lot in order to build something new and modern. They even hired one of Portland's best firms, Lever Architecture, to come up with a design. But budget concerns got in the way, and so they instead bought a classic early 20th Century house, an American foursquare, dating to 1910. The intent was to do a "light remodel," as they put it, and sell at a profit in order to build the new house; they'd even kept the other lot and small house, renting it out.
But as the couple explored with Lever how best to expand the foursquare (as they sought a family room-like space), the firm offered a bold kind of addition that would blend their desire for modern architecture and their burgeoning love of this old house: a modern cube that would be built in the old attic space and essentially become a new third floor. Instead of trying to blend in with the existing early 20th Century style of the foursquare, the new addition would be juxtaposed against it.
“When we came up with this idea in the studio, everyone liked it,” Lever's Thomas Robinson told me. “I was thinking, ‘Their neighbors are going to hate them — and the historic people are going to think we’ve desecrated this little iconic house.’ But it was intriguing.”
The house will be part of this Saturday's 2015 Homes Tour, put on by the Portland chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
As is often the case, in writing a relatively short feature (about 650 words) one accrues lots of interview text that can't be used in the story. So I thought I would pass on the comments of Thomas Robinson and the Altmans here.
When we began the interview, I asked Robinson about the challenge of doing a single-family house. After all, Lever is best known for a series of mixed-use and commercial spaces at larger scales, such as the ArtHouse residence hall for the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Union Way shopping complex in recent years, as well as upcoming office buildings in the Zidell Yards and the Pearl District.
But Robinson said that as he began his career, houses were what he was most interested in. "I’d done a lot of work on houses for Joseph Esherick when I worked in the Bay Area," he recalled. "Actually when I was there, I started on big aquariums, and I worked my way down because I really wanted to work with Joe Esherick. All he did at that time—he was in his 80s— was houses." And since founding Lever a few years ago, Robinson added talent with the form, including Scott Miller, who came from Allied Works and had worked on a lot of Brad Cloepfil's acclaimed residential designs.
Although the cube makes a bold and unexpected addition to the Altman residence, Lever's intent was to honor the integrity of the original foursquare: not to gut the interior into wide-open great rooms but to retain its sense of partition.
"I think the foursquare, it’s a really iconic building type within Portland," Robinson said. "If you say, ‘I live in a foursquare,’ in Portland everyone knows exactly what you live in, and they have, I think, an image of what it is. It’s probably Portland’s most prevalent single-family housing type, within the city proper. The thing that’s not so great about them is they just divide the space in a way where there’s no hierarchy and there’s no sense of generosity in any of the rooms on any of the floors. There are a lot of examples where people have taken a traditional house like a foursquare and then they’ve added so much onto the back of it or altered it in such a way where you lose what it is." Even so, he added, "You can’t just fight that. Because otherwise you just have to rip down the whole house and rebuild it. How do you leverage the fact that that’s what it is and try to open it up? We actually thickened the division but then punched holes through it."
Standing in the combined kitchen and dining area, for example, they were still separated by a wall, but the doorway had been expanded so widely that the division almost disappeared. Yet inside these room divisions, Lever thickened the partitions to allow added storage.
Approaching the question of the upstairs expansion, David Altman explained: "We started talking about the attic space. It was just a normal foursquare attic. It wasn’t really used. And we said, ‘Well, we should really try to use the attic space,’ both from a program basis and from a value basis to add some square footage. We could just throw a dormer out the back." And indeed, Lever produced several design options including just expanding out the back. But the clients were curious about what else Lever could do there. "We came in one day and said, ‘Well, you know how much we’d obviously love for you guys to do modern stuff. Come up with something cool,’" Altman recalled. "And that’s how we got to here."
"We said, ‘Let’s put this studio, glass box that really just sits on the top,’ because it has great views of the neighborhood," Robinson said. "We were playing around with it, guys in my office, and we said, ‘Okay, what if we just moved it in a way just to play with the idea of this other box or this other square coming out of the foursquare. And when we came up with this idea we all liked it, but internally I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god.'" He worried about the response. "I remember coming in and saying, ‘Here’s the two options.’ And they said, ‘We really like that one.’ And I said, ‘Are you sure? Because we like it too. But you’ve really got to own this one. Because you’re going to get some blow-back.’ And they were like, ‘Okay, we’re going to go for it.’ And that was the thing."
"And then I remember playing with the design a little bit," Robinson added. "We were looking at where to put the stair and trying to figure that out. What I realized we could actually do was by actually twisting the box it allowed us to transform the experience of the upstairs of the foursquare, in a way that this wall and this punch transforms the downstairs. What I think is most interesting about what it does is it actually opens up the second floor in a way that you will never experience in any other foursquare. And by putting the stair where we put it, we actually could create just a very unique spatial experience, which I think for us is probably the most important thing, and then bring daylight into a part of a foursquare that never gets daylight, and then also tuck that into where the closet is. It made sense from a design point of view on the second floor."
"We changed our priority when we saw what this really could be," David Altman said. "We kind of were like, ‘This could be our house. We don’t need to do anything else if we don’t want.’ This was going to be our dream house."
"I was probably more worried than you guys were," Robinson said to the Altmans during our interview. "I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ I was really pushing back, because I was really worried about it. And now I’m not worried about it at all. Because I see really crappy speculative modern houses selling for a million that are not near as nice as this."
Though the third-floor cube certainly stands out, especially in back, it's also nestled into the roofline of the foursquare in an interesting way. That's especially noticeable standing inside the cube, where its tall windows are shaped almost like a mountain range on the bottom, because they are "completely defined by the existing geometry of the roof," Robinson explained.
"The stairway to the box is like a sculpture," Sarah Altman added. "We walk up there and it’s just jaw-dropping. You walk up the stairs and you don’t expect it, and in fact it’s right in the place where an old unused second chimney was. So talk about closed-off, dark space. No light got into that realm, and now it’s this beautiful sculpture with this unusual glass and this curvy stairway. So I think our first impression was like, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ We love modern architecture and we love these guys, so why wouldn’t we be a little creative with a space that we absolutely love that adds something to it?’
Robinson also talked about how his experience living and working in Europe in past years, for the internationally renowned firm Herzog & DeMeuron, shaped his thinking. "I think having a romantic vision of these beautiful old European houses and great design when I was there, but then also having the experience of having these Swiss architects come with me to LA, for a project, and driving down this strip-mall street with all these palm trees and hearing them go, ‘Wow, this is so cool!’ It was refreshing to see them excited about all this ticky-tacky architecture. Coming back to the US it gives you a new appreciation for the kind of plain, simple fabric of a city like Portland. You could actually take that and leverage that and make it interesting and take care of it but also play against it. I think we’re always interested in that interplay of old and new, and not saying, ‘It’s all old here, and it’s all new here.’ You don’t have to compartmentalize. You can mix it up a little bit. But it is actually a lot harder to do that, to be honest with you, and have it feel okay, than actually just going all new. You’re a little bit in the gray zone. You could ask, ‘What windows in here are old and which are new?’ You’re playing a little bit of a game. You’re saying, 'That’s part of the old even though we’re moving it. And this is the new even though the old is inside of it.' But I think the driving thing for us is what is the overall experience and feel of each space, and then the details and decisions come out of that decision."
The Altmans have received mostly positive responses from the neighbors. "People thought we were building a real third story that was going to tower over everything," David Altman said. "There were questions, and people had their own opinions. Some are going to like it and some aren’t. But it’s so well done, and it’s pretty subtle from the street." It's a reminder that architecture is about scale as much as it's about style. Regardless of the question of modern and traditional and how they interact, the cube is simply smaller than a regular third-floor addition, and it makes the Fivesquare house, as it's called, still more slender than some of the completely new but faux-historic styled builder homes that are going up all over town.
"It feels like one house," David Altman added. "You’re walking through it and it feels like one house. There’s juxtaposition, obviously, but it doesn’t feel different. It feels like one really beautiful house."
"I think about all the teardowns happening the city, and it’s this black or white issue: you either tear it down, or you don’t," Sarah Altman said. "And I don’t think that’s the question. I’m not for tearing everything down, but some could be better or more creative. It’s too bad there’s such a dichotomy: tear down and build something icky, or don’t. But we have all sorts of choices to add more creativity in the world."