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Reinventing the Suburbs

A concrete path leads along the side of the home to the main entry, denoted by wood decking.

A pair of architects convert a tiny Tempe ranch into an unconventional, transformable courtyard abode.

By Shannon Severson | Photography by Mark Boisclair and Bill Timmerman

What gives a structure the feeling of home? Whether it’s a new build or a thoughtful redesign, there are basic elements that strike a response deep in our core, one that is hardwired into our psyches. We want refuge, comfort and connection, with our loved ones and with nature—notions that, it turns out, are the foundation for biophilic design, which incorporates natural materials, light, vegetation and views into the modern built environment.

Architects and husband-and-wife team Matthew and Maria Salenger took these ideas and applied them to a 1,150 square-foot 1954 cinder-block ranch house in an unassuming neighborhood in Tempe. While Matthew is particularly passionate about biophilic design these days thanks to recent studies, he wasn’t aware of the concept at the time. Looking back, the principles of this evidence-based design style were employed instinctively and greatly contribute to the overall feeling of well-being in the space.

Although the renovated house is decidedly contemporary, the ideas implemented over the course of its 10-year development can be used by homeowners in nearly any footprint or style, whether the budget is large or small.

“When we bought the home in 2000, we had been looking for an untouched property, a blank slate,” says Maria. “We wanted something that we could transform as our own project over time.”

1. From the exterior, the 1954 ranch is nearly indistinguishable from its neighbors. Native plants fill the front yard, while a rusted-steel tandem garage hints at changes found beyond the entrance. 2. The repurposed entry doors were originally used as bedroom doors in the couple’s 2001 sleeping pod project. The reveal of the courtyard is definitely an “ah-ha” moment. “There is great impact in the unexpected,” says Matthew. 3. The lush, grassy lawn fulfills Matthew’s need for green. He grew up in a Chinese-style courtyard home, and this property’s large, flood-irrigated yard in a neighborhood with plenty of mature trees was a prime factor in its appeal.

The resulting residence is actually two buildings on the same lot. Sleeping quarters are in the original ranch house at the front of the property, while a second structure in the backyard incorporates the kitchen, living and work spaces for the couple and their 10-year-old son, Oscar. Covered, open-air walkways lined with tempered, tinted glass connect the two.

“The aspect of surprise or mystery is really appealing and increases the pleasure people find in the space.”

Matthew Salenger, architect and homeowner

1. Architects and homeowners Matthew and Maria Salenger transformed their traditional midcentury ranch house, seen on the left, into a private courtyard paradise. 2. In the evening, the translucent polycarbonate panels are raised vertically, letting the maximum amount of light into the interior and gently illuminating the courtyard.

So why not just buy a bigger house from the start?

“From the standpoints of both finance and sustainability, it didn’t make sense to pay a higher price for renovation work that wasn’t our style,” says Matthew. “Every home in our price range was renovated in the same manner. They’d been flipped with cheap materials that were brand new but useless to us.”

Shortly after purchasing the home, the couple had decades of paint layers sandblasted from the its exterior, and every wall that could be removed from the inside was demolished. The previously cramped space, divided by multiple small rooms was now open and replete with possibility.

“It’s not so much about square footage as it is about the quality of space,” says Maria. “If you have the right quality of space, you can live well within a smaller footprint. Once we opened up that house, we had dinner parties with 40 people. It was more usable for our purposes.”

1. The glass-fronted addition serves as the living, dining and work space for the family. “We designed the house around the idea of flexibility,” says Matthew. “Everything in the space except the kitchen peninsula is mobile.” 2. The sleek kitchen at the far end of the open room allows the Salengers to cook or wash dishes while interacting with guests or watching young Oscar at play.

Initially, the couple added a pair of elevated steel-framed sleeping pods surrounded by translucent corrugated fiberglass panels to the house. Each pod contained a bedroom, outdoor deck and garden area, viewed through the bedroom’s large glass doors. Living with a thin layer between indoors and out allowed them to become thoroughly acquainted with the movement of the sun and became the basis for the permanent structure that comprises their daytime living quarters today.

But with baby Oscar toddling about and Matthew operating his architectural business out of the house, the couple realized they needed to move or expand, but doubling the size of the original ranch would have been extremely costly, and the existing structure wouldn’t support the broad, open living space they wanted. Then there was the fact that the remodeled, borderless, experimental iteration of their 1950s home was essentially unsellable.

Covered entirely in mirrors, except for a low-set window above the vanity, the living structure’s small wet-room style bathroom makes a huge impact. A skylight illuminates the room and is a practical, cost-effective way of bringing the outdoors in.

“By removing the bedrooms and the walls, we had taken a perfectly good $120,000 house and made it worth maybe $60,000,” says Matthew, noting that turning a three-bedroom house into a no-bedroom house makes it impossible to value because appraisers don’t have anything to compare it to. “We realized that we had to fix the situation we’d created. We set ourselves to the task of living unconventionally in an expanded space while keeping an eye on resale value.”

1. Most of the family’s waking hours are spent in the new structure at the back of the property. Clerestory windows allow light to enter while avoiding views of the alleyway behind the home. The rear wall serves as an art gallery for the family’s collection. 2. The couple’s architectural business occupies about one-third of the structure’s space. With a floating work station on castors, the area can be expanded, reduced or eliminated entirely in a matter of minutes.

With many decisions to make and competing ideas for how to proceed, the Salengers opted to survey potential homebuyers—friends, friends of friends, social media connections—posing two simple questions: What features were at the top of their wish lists when purchasing a house? And, if resale was not a factor, what would they most want in a home?

The results were clear: Buyers wanted a great room that combined kitchen/dining/living, followed closely by an enclosed garage and walk-in closets and, if resale didn’t matter, nearly 60 percent of the 50 or so respondents named an atrium or courtyard as their top desire.

“If you have the right quality of space, you can live well within a smaller footprint.”

Maria Salenger, architect and homeowner

Light and shadow create an ever-changing natural gallery on the translucent glass walls of the courtyard.

It wasn’t just personal preference that dictated the creation of the visually striking, contemporary glass structure at the back of their property. Building a self-contained, second space was the more financially viable option and would allow the original house and the feel of the neighborhood to be preserved.

“Matthew and Maria are two of the most sensitive designers I’ve ever had the chance to work with,” says builder Richard Fairbourn, who assisted on the project. “The home has such a natural feeling and was in keeping with the context of the neighborhood.”

The Salengers maximized the size of the property, moving the front entrance from the ranch house to a newly built wall on the side of the yard behind the garage to create an entry into an enclosed courtyard, and added the rear building as a flexible space for living, working and entertaining. It’s unconventional, but it works, both functionally and aesthetically.

1. Made of translucent polycarbonate, a custom awning changes angles throughout the day to help shelter and cool the home. The covering also preserves the feeling of refuge within the courtyard and prevents the concrete foundation from retaining heat. Wood decking, repurposed from the original sleeping pods, delineates the entry to the glass home. “We wanted a portion of exterior surface that didn’t require us to put on shoes when we went outside,” says Matthew. 2. According to biophilic design, outdoor areas are most successful when their square footage width approximately mirrors the size of the indoor space.

A trio of images show how the overhang moves with the sun, rising straight up in the darker hours to allow for maximum sunlight to filter in and lowering to a 12-foot-deep overhang during the hottest hours of the day.

“When you come through the door, you’re in a private outdoor space, and as you walk down the path to the public part of the house, you get even more physical and mental separation from the street,” says Matthew. “You do a lot of walking and all of that, as a sequence, enhances the feeling of refuge.”

The wall of glass that looks out onto the courtyard was a must-have for Maria. Not only does it feel as if the outdoors is part of the room, it’s easy to keep an eye on Oscar and his friends playing in the verdant courtyard. One might assume that a large wall of glass would make for either unbearable heat or a daunting electric bill during the hot months in Phoenix, but the knowledge the couple gained about the movement of the sun while utilizing the original sleeping pods paid off.

“Consider ways to live within your garden. Just because you’re adding on to your house doesn’t mean you need to disconnect from the outside.”

Maria Salenger, architect and homeowner

A carefully orchestrated system of wall angles, ductwork, insulation and a 12-foot overhang of translucent polycarbonate, which changes angle via a sun and wind sensor or a remote control, prevents the home from any solar heat gain during the five hottest months of the year and is self-cooling. While the architects installed a solar array for sustainable energy, the house is designed to naturally take advantage of Arizona’s climate. When weather is mild, clerestory windows and the integrated courtyard-facing doors can be opened at night. The breeze cools the concrete slab floor so that it radiates the cool temperatures well into the day. When air-conditioning is a must, only one building is cooled at a time, as the Salengers shift activities to the original front building each night.

In the evening, the polycarbonate overhang glows to create a lanternlike effect. “The panels were designed to keep the sun off the glass at all times but not make the room dark” says Matthew. “Because the polycarbonate diffuses light, lowering the panels actually produces more light with less glare. It also keeps the concrete outside from getting hot, which prevents radiant heat from warming up the building. The feeling of shelter is also greatly enhanced.”

Inside, maximum efficiency was achieved throughout. Aside from the kitchen’s peninsula, everything in the home can be moved to accommodate multiple uses. The family can easily alter the space without taking on additional, costly renovations. In the main living space, a large millwork piece is business on one side and home entertainment on the other, with a central cord providing electricity to all components so that it can be plugged in elsewhere when the piece is moved.

“When we have a large group in our studio space, we can move the panel to enlarge the working area,” says Matthew. “When we entertain, we can shrink the studio in order to accommodate large areas for entertaining, meetings, or lectures.”

In the sleeping area in the original ranch, custom millwork wardrobes have sliding panels that extend to act as doors, creating enclosed rooms for Oscar and visiting guests.

The Salengers began by completely gutting the interior of the original ranch house. The result is a large, open space that is now divided by movable millwork wardrobes and expandable wall panels. There are three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a family room used in the evenings and an art studio for Maria.

A series of photos shows how the wardrobes can be shifted to block off spaces and create privacy.

No matter what room or whatever season, the home continues to reveal new lessons in light, energy and use of space. “Our primary goal is to create environments that are beneficial to their inhabitants,” says Matthew. “We’ve had many people tell us they don’t like modern architecture but they like our designs. We start with a feeling, emotion or sense of what we want to create, and we design spaces specific to those sensations.

“Biophilic design has taught me that what we designed allows for increased health, better cognitive performance and lower stress levels and blood pressure. We hit on a lot of those elements with this house,” he continues. “I’ve since used biophilic design in every project since, including a series of net-zero homes in Central Phoenix that have a semi-enclosed garden/entry courtyard. It has been rewarding to take what we’ve learned from our own house and put it to work in our careers.”

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