“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.
Instead of upper kitchen cabinets, the owners opted for windows. The cabinets are Ikea boxes, with drawers instead of doors, and wood fronts from Semi Handmade. They’re topped by butcher-block counters from Bally Block. The swirls and curves of the tiles behind the Thermador range are a deliberate counterpoint to the house’s many straight lines.
The focal point of the space is a dramatic 12-foot table on a scissor lift, designed and built by Diaz-Joves. The homeowners asked for an adjustable table rather than an island. With the turn of a wheel, it changes from dining, to counter, to bar height.
Off the kitchen, behind a rolling barn door made from reclaimed wood, is the “kids’ wing.” There’s a guest room, a shared bath and two intentionally small bedrooms, so as they grow, their daughters will prefer to play and hang out in the main space, rather than isolate themselves in their rooms.
The staircase is a custom design by Diaz-Joves, whose steelwork has become a trademark. “Maria welded the staircase in the driveway,” says Jack. The balusters echo the curves of a bike rack, an intentional nod to the family’s passions. She also designed the removable plywood baby gates.
On the second floor, a catwalk leads to the master bedroom and rooftop deck with a garden planted in succulents and grasses. The vegetation adds an additional layer of protection to the membrane of the flat roof, and provides extra insulation to the kids’ wing below.
The master bedroom has bamboo floors—copied from their favorite California hotel—and a wall of internal windows that help transmit light into the interior. Unobtrusive roller shades provide privacy. The exterior windows are placed so that when lying in bed, the owners see the treetops and sky, but not neighboring structures. “It feels like you’re surrounded by nature,” says Marcie.
“The placement of the windows looks random from outside, and at first I wasn’t sure I liked it,” she continues. “But once inside, it totally makes sense.” They hide views of the busy road and other houses where necessary, which makes the house seem more secluded than it is. A window in the powder room is even placed low, for the dog’s benefit.
In the master bath, there’s a nine-foot-long poured concrete counter with a trough sink made by Solid Rock Concrete. The cabinets are Ikea boxes with doors sliced from a single length of reclaimed wood. Slate floors are from a quarry in Wind Gap. “I like using natural materials—they age well, and the look is timeless,” Diaz-Joves says. The freestanding tub is American Standard.
The gym on the lower level—the room that started it all—has a rubber floor and plywood walls that can handle the dings and dents bulky sports equipment dishes out. A metal and glass garage door can be raised to bring the outdoors in. Also on this level are a family room, a small storage room and a wine cellar.
Radiant heat tubes wind under the concrete floors on all the three levels, run by a geothermal system. The bill for both electric and gas averages about $200 month for the 3,050-square-foot house.
“Green” building is a popular selling point, and architects boast about maximizing solar gain, using recycled and repurposed materials, or installing energy-efficient heating and cooling.
Diaz-Joves does all the above, yet doesn’t make a big deal out of it. “I don’t like labeling my buildings ‘green,’” she says. “Sustainability should be the standard on a well-designed building. A house should be comfortable, healthy and efficient without depending solely on the mechanical system.”
“The house fits our lifestyle,” says Marcie. “It works perfectly for everyday life. No space goes unused. We planned the house around what we love to do, and planned for it to function for our family as time goes on.”
Which is just as Diaz-Joves intended. “There is emotion attached to a house,” she says. “It’s not like designing a commercial or public space. It’s a responsibility. The decisions I make are in the homeowners’ lives every day. I love seeing what a house turns out to be once people are living in it.”
And she’s had lots of opportunities to do so. The working experience was positive for both sides, so much so that Diaz-Joves and builder Dave East remain regular guests. Jack says, “We built a house together and we’re still friends.”
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