New Southern Modernism Blends Tradition, Environmental Concerns

October 2007, By Diane Lea

There is a point just north of Chapel Hill where Homestead Road crosses Bolin Creek. If you walk along a creek a few hundred yards — sheltered beneath a canopy of spreading sycamore and oak — you could almost imagine it was 50 years ago. No suburbs. No sprawling residential development — just rolling North Carolina countryside: lush, rustic and soothingly pastoral.

“I grew up on a creek like this one,” says Chapel Hill architect, Philip Szostak. “Now our kids and their friends run up and down these muddy creek banks, hunting crawdads just like I used to.”

For Szostak, wife Rhonda and their three children, this four-acre wooded glen has become the setting for their new stunningly contemporary Southern home, one that Szostak has dubbed the “Metro House.”

Why “Metro”?

“Well, there is at least one connection to Metro Magazine,” admits Szostak. “Bernie Reeves, Metro’s founder, has been a good friend and a long-time supporter of modern architecture in North Carolina. But more importantly, I’m a product of the College of Architecture at North Carolina State University where, like a lot of Triangle architects, I was educated in the modernist movement by the College’s founding dean, Henry Kamphoefner. And since our region is now definitely metropolitan, the name Metro House worked on a number of levels.”

But why place so contemporary a home here, in a secluded natural setting where you would more likely expect to see a rustic farmstead or abandoned tobacco barns?

“Out of respect for the landscape,” Szostak says without hesitation. “A house is a house. Nature is nature. They are two entirely different things. In the Metro House, we tried to make this distinction very clear.”

This idea is not as counterintuitive as it might sound at first. There is a long tradition of designing country homes that respect the natural world precisely by refusing to mimic it. Szostak notes that this was the strategy of 16th century Italian architect Andreas Palladio when he designed the Villa Rotunda.

“You can see the same idea in Antebellum-era houses here in the South,” he continues. “One way to preserve the landscape is by respecting the boundary between the natural world and the built environment. And besides,” says Szostak, “this is actually a very traditional Southern home, despite its appearance.”

New Regional Architecture

Szostak describes the Metro House as an example of a new regional architecture, which draws as much upon historic precedent as it does the tenets of Modernism.

“The house has all the elements associated with historic Southern architecture,” says Szostak, who knows something of the tradition. His family’s former home was an 1840s farmhouse on the edge of Carrboro. “Historic Southern homes were designed to take advantage of prevailing breezes for ventilation and shade for cooling. And they were productive working environments, too, with spaces for gardens, orchards and other necessities of a self-sufficient rural household.”

True to Southern tradition, the Metro House is a highly productive work environment. The Szostaks keep a variety of small livestock out back — mostly chickens, and Rhonda has taken up bee keeping.

“She’s been phenomenally successful,” says Szostak. “We gathered 60 pounds of honey from our bee hives last year.”

The approach to the house is also rooted in rural tradition; an unassuming gravel road, flanked by an ally of sycamore trees. The beauty of these shaggy-barked trees and their shapely leaves is accented by a low, white brick retaining wall running parallel to the road. The gravel path leads to a small auto court just north of the house. From here, visitors can slip into the home’s “back” door — another time-honored rural tradition — through a handsomely landscaped courtyard. The space is delineated by a gently curving white brick wall set with maple trees that echoes the white retaining wall of the entry drive. To one side, a cooling pond filled with water lilies marks the home’s entry, sheltered beneath a brilliantly white, steel-framed canopy.

The use of white is a predominant theme for the Metro House. “In the South,” says Szostak, “houses were often painted white, whether it was a humble clapboard farmstead or a sprawling country estate. And, the use of white is another way of drawing a clear distinction between nature and building. A white building set in the landscape intensifies your perception of the natural world,” says Szostak.

The use of white is also a nod to Szostak’s modernist training. He readily admits to the influence of a number of contemporary architects, including Charles Gwathmey and Richard Meier, whose residential projects were always powerfully abstract, geometric compositions, sheathed in stunning white claddings.

The Metro House is similarly constructed of white brick and stucco panels, punctuated by expansive commercial grade windows. On the southern and northern façades, spacious terraces are overhung with cantilevered canopies of steel beams, tubes and rods. Despite this very contemporary look, Szostak contends the house remains faithfully Southern in its layout and planning.

“When you enter the front doors,” says Szostak, “you have a central hall, which passes straight through the house to the southern terrace. It’s a traditional device for providing good cross ventilation. To the left of this hall is the dining room, and to the right is the living room, also classic floor plan arrangement.”

The overall organizing element of the U-shaped home’s interior is a spacious gallery that offers access to all parts of the house without passing through any of the home’s more private spaces. This free-flowing gallery gives the Metro House an evident sense of order, and creates a distinctive architectural rhythm further articulated by the similar size and shape of the home’s rooms — another characteristic of historic homes.

Szostak explains, “The house is 24 feet across, and all the rooms tend to be more or less square.”

Every room’s individuality comes from their variation in size, the height of their ceilings and distinctive built-in details, like the projecting fireplaces in the living room, gathering room and master bedroom, and built-in counters, which function as furnishings in the dining room and side hall. In the kitchen, a built-in center island gracefully divides the gathering room into two spaces, providing a workplace for family activities and a setting for informal entertaining.

Materials used in the Metro House are characterized by subtle textures and colors that add to the impact of the layering of details and the extensive use of glass, providing an interplay with nature in virtually every room. Szostak also points out the essential economy of the home’s material palette.

“Every countertop in the kitchen, mudroom, dining room and all the baths are cut from the same piece of Carrera marble, which proved to be an enormous cost savings.”

The floors throughout the house, even in the closets, are all of a pale mossy green slate, also purchased in bulk directly from the quarry, again at a cost far below market.

“We worked very hard,” says Szostak, “to make the house affordable without sacrificing quality.”

Szostak’s appreciation for value is equally evident in the Metro House’s commitment to sustainable design and energy efficiency.

“The roof of the house looks flat, but it is actually sloped within the parapet,” says Szostak. “The purpose is to allow rainwater to drain into a collector for our gardens. We also use solar panels to heat our hot water, and we circulate hot water in pipes under the floors to warm them in winter.”

Carbon Zero

This commitment to the environment and energy-efficient building is reflected in Szostak’s professional life. His firm, Szostak Design Inc. is presently designing one of Chapel Hills’ first “carbon zero” residential projects at Columbia Street and Hwy15-501. The definition of carbon zero is that a building’s carbon footprint is offset by its use of non-polluting energy sources. When the firm couldn’t attract a private developer to build this 32-unit, live-work office and studio complex, they took it on themselves.

“We are also the architects for a major sustainable project in downtown Durham,” says Szostak. “The Durham Performing Arts Center will be a LEED Gold design project, which means it complies with national standards established to encourage energy efficiency, ‘green’ building materials and construction methods. It is the first public building in the area which is totally green.”

The son of a structural engineer, Szostak grew up in Greensboro and started learning about construction and engineering at his father’s side. That early training and a career including a stint with NBBJ, a large national architectural firm — where he was involved with designing the International Horse Park in Atlanta, and the $60 million East Carolina University Science Center in Greenville — gave Szostak a broad perspective on his profession.

“I’m happiest when I can do a variety of different things — residential, commercial, furniture design, mentoring and just thinking about what architecture means,” says Szostak.

Szostak often teaches design classes at his alma mater, NC State’s College of Design. He is active in the American Institute of Architects and is a founder and participant in the Triangle Architects Design Society (TADS), a collaborative group of area architects interested in advancing the architectural profession.

“I’m particularly pleased that we have been able to keep TADS going,” says Szostak. “We meet monthly to dissect our most recent projects and share information about design. It’s not something many architects usually do, but we think it keeps us honest and improves our skills.”

When asked about the genesis of his design philosophy and style, Szostak smiles and harkens back to his last year in the architecture program at NC State.

“I spent the first part of my training pretty much taking in everything like a good student,” he says. “Then in my last year, I had a class with several senior professors including Roger Clark and the late Bob Burns. They introduced me to the work of Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk and Michael Graves. These architects were tracing their ideas about autonomous architecture, and Meier, in particular, was re-examining the spatial and stylistic principles of Le Corbusier. That taught me to question everything, not just accept it.”

The art of “questioning everything” remains central to Szostak’s present-day work, an instinct brought to fruition in the Metro House. Comfortably seated in his home’s light-filled dining room with its gleaming white walls, white trestle table — also a Szostak creation — and a single Maud Gatewood painting of a stand of bamboo in shades of green, Szostak reflected on his new home.

“We wanted to create a place where the kids could grow up appreciating nature and learning some of its secrets. We wanted a comfortable house, rooted in the heritage of this region, but also one which reflected our lives in a modern world. And, we wanted to be good stewards of the environment.”

As the light from the lowering sun suddenly transformed the room and its objects with a golden light, it is abundantly clear Philip Szostak has accomplished his goal.

 

REFURBISHED BRADLEY HOUSE ENHANCES HISTORIC BEAUFORT

by Diane Lea

Beaufort’s Bradley House was built in 1992 by Duke University as a residence for students and faculty working in the school’s Marine Lab Facility on nearby Piver’s Island. Duke sold the property in 2006 to Raleigh’s Beacon Street Development Company. Jim Wiley, Beacon Street president and an enthusiastic Beaufort fan, said, “Beaufort, in my mind’s eye is the Nantucket of North Carolina. The purchase of the Bradley House gave us the opportunity to refurbish and expand the property to a level consistent with the increasingly upscale, renovated historic homes that line the streets of Beaufort’s historic district. It also allowed us to provide condominiums in the historic area, until now an almost non-existent housing option.”

Beacon Street’s task was to refurbish and enhance the seven condominiums that had been designed as four buildings around a huge live oak tree. They renovated the structures and added multiple porches and landscaping to reflect the town’s historic character. The process required approval by the Historic District Commission that approved the entire package, including historically designed fencing and almost 500 square feet per unit of outdoor porch space. “We also added a large central courtyard area where owners can meet and relax,” says Wiley.

To date, five of the seven condominium units have been sold to owners who customized the interior spaces for their particular needs. Each of the five two-bedroom homes comprises about 1000 square feet.

“Bradley House is within walking distance of Beaufort’s historic marina and boardwalk and the commercial area with restaurants, shops and entertainment opportunities,” says Wiley. History buffs can visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum, with its evolving exhibits and collection of artifacts from the salvage of Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

(Used by permission of METRO Magazine)