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Diana Bitting | Photo: Mike Schwartz | October 8, 2012
A happenin’ home for an energy-filled family of seven rises from the demo dust of a historic Lincoln Park schoolhouse.
The Mastersons are a modern-day Swiss Family Robinson, residing in a stately masonry building in Lincoln Park that was once an elementary schoolhouse from the early 20th century. The children, five in all (triplets plus two), though similar to their tree-swinging doppelgängers in their creativity and endless energy supply, are far more refined—being the classically trained musicians that they are (and making a talented string quintet to boot). Their mother, Beth, and father, Jim—who are to thank for their offspring’s impressive extracurricula—outfitted the post-demolition space with color and imagination with the help of builder Roc Roney of Crescent Rock Real Estate and architect Jeff Goulette of Sullivan, Goulette & Wilson. The family moved in and made the house a home early last year.
“We were originally looking for a loft space, and we were looking way out west,” Beth explains, “but my husband was riding his bike one day and saw that this entire place was for sale.” Originally thinking they would utilize the top floors and rent out the bottom, the team began construction in the spring of 2009.
Bringing to the table her clippings from various architecture publications for inspiration, Beth, with the help of her husband and children, laid out their list of priorities. The builder-architect duo of Roney and Goulette listened to her every step of the way. “I feel like we were able to really think about how we want to live,” she explains, “and when the kids get older, when they are gone, what we will do with this space at that point…”
After a few initial brainstorming sessions at the beginning, the group got to work. With a modest budget for the size of the project—nearly 8,500 square feet—Goulette came up with ways within the shell that they could achieve what they wanted with modest intervention. “As we started peeling off the layers of the building, the challenges proved advantageous,” he explains. “We had to take the whole floor out for structure reasons, and had all this leftover wood. So we used it—every piece of wood in the house from the original construction was utilized in the renovation. The story was immediately revealed to us through the materials.”
That story involved three key themes: ample family interaction, green building methods, and light, light and more light. The generous communal living spaces encourage time spent together, as do the sliding metal barn doors on the kids’ rooms that exist in place of the typical hinged door frame. Designed by Goulette and manufactured by Roney’s go-to metalworkers on the West Side, these were a must-have for Beth so “there’s no door slamming in a few years,” Beth says with a smile.
In addition to the doors, so many other subtle elements encourage family bonding and discourage the isolation that can sometimes come from a multi-floor space—something the parents clearly had in mind. “I wanted my kids to have really small rooms so they wouldn’t spend a lot of time in there,” the wife explains. “And to have a larger space to congregate in, with one large bathroom shared to create more of a community feel. All the kids are in here,” she says, pointing to the row of Technicolor Jack and Jill sinks and multiple shower stall setup worthy of a kid’s summer adventure camp. “We are a big family, but I want us all to be together. Even if they are arguing in here, at least they are together.” It also helps to have a substantial lounge space that all five of the children’s rooms open out to, complete with the iconic striped Mah Jong sectional sofa and white beach-ball-sized Moooi Random pendant lights from Luminaire. “This room,” Beth says of the family room, “was so important to me, and this is just how I envisioned it: where the kids can hang with their friends… Christmas Eve sleepovers with all the kids here.”
The inside space is impressive, but the outside space—with its very urban locale—is the true showstopper. Almost a full city lot of yard, with a porous paving system over the grass to allow for basketball games, is easily accessed off the open-plan kitchen. Sliding glass doors allow all the visiting extended relatives to move seamlessly from the kitchen and dining area to the outdoor patio overlooking the yard during impromptu family get-togethers.
In terms of building “green,” it doesn’t get much better, or more subtle. Light wells, energy efficient appliances, salvaged materials, geothermal heating and cooling, pervious pavers, solar panels, et cetera—every box is checked and fully integrated into the space without screaming “LEED certified!”—a refreshingly integrated decision stemming from the collaborative nature of the project from beginning to end. The runoff wells are tucked deep down in the ground, installed to allow for a state-of-the-art geothermal heating and cooling system that Goulette and Roney devised with the help of an energy consultant.
“We also have solar thermal panels on the roof, for all the hot water,” says Beth. In addition to the panels, there is still another outdoor area up top, with breathtaking views of the skyline and a promising start to a rooftop garden. “The sedum will get growing, so it will fill in—maybe in a year or two—and all these holes are for light, or ventilation, or storing heat,” explains Roney, pointing to the skylight holes and the duct incisions. “It’s a total working roof.”
The lighting is another permeating theme that doesn’t scream—in fact, it’s so difficult to tell the electric lighting from the light wells throughout the home, an unknowing guest may think they are liable to blow a fuse. But no, it’s just very bright (nearly all) natural light, brought down through 90-degree conjoined tubes that run through the framework. In terms of the minimal amount of electric lighting, the group was once again asked to innovate. Falling for an industrial track-type lighting design in a magazine, the homeowners were disappointed when they found out how expensive they ran. “So we just made the lights from scratch for them,” says Goulette matter-of-factly.
Sounds like just the kind of resourcefulness the Swiss Family Robinson would be proud of, right? And with all the in-house innovations—in technology, energy use, material application and reuse and, of course, design—this house is so much more than a home. It’s part laboratory, part concert hall, part machine—kept running with love, laughter and lots and lots of fresh fruits and veggies to keep those kids’ creative juices flowing freely.