Photo: Clayton Commercial Photography

Views, views, and more views topped the clients' wish list. And views — of towering oak and cherry trees; of wildlife including deer and the occasional great horned owl; and, in winter, of the twinkling lights of town, six miles away — were what Rochman Design-Build, Ann Arbor, Mich., delivered. That is, after working through some kinks.

There was the ineffectual solar heating system that blocked out natural light and caused wild temperature swings. There was the family-unfriendly floor plan and the child-unfriendly lot. There was the year-long design process, suspended briefly while the clients considered buying another house. And there was the budget, which sent the remodeler back to the drawing board again and again.

Behind the home's hobbit-like front entrance is a surprising expanse of space and long sightlines that reach through three levels and into the wood outside. “I like the fact that going into the house is a surprise,” owner Guerin Wilkinson says.
Photo: Clayton Commercial Photography Behind the home's hobbit-like front entrance is a surprising expanse of space and long sightlines that reach through three levels and into the wood outside. “I like the fact that going into the house is a surprise,” owner Guerin Wilkinson says.

Green Gone Bad

Nestled into a steeply sloping lot in the wooded hills outside Chelsea, Mich., a suburb of Ann Arbor, the 1,800-square-foot home appealed to its outdoorsy-minded owners for its dramatic setting and cottage-like interior featuring raw pine floors, exposed brick walls, and beam-and-plank construction. Guerin Wilkinson, who became the home's third owner in 1991, says he “liked the way the house looked from the street” — that is, quirky and unpretentious, especially its unassuming entrance, which belied the relatively open space behind it. “I liked the unusual nature of the house,” he says. “It fit my personality.”

The home didn't just look quirky; it was quirky. Built on speculation at the height of the energy crisis in 1980, it aspired to energy efficiency by way of passive solar heating — a method that uses glass to capture, and mass to store and slowly release, the heat of the sun. In the case of this house, the glass took the form of a two-story greenhouse, and the mass was a block and brick two-story loadbearing wall 12 inches thick.

But, as with so many other good intentions, this passive solar system went bad — a failure both of execution and location.

In terms of execution, the system didn't evenly distribute heat throughout the house, in part because of faulty construction of the plenums and convective loops. To compensate, the home's previous owners had installed fans and added wood-burning stoves. Wilkinson himself installed a gas-fired furnace in the attic, but the collective result was both visual clutter — with ugly ductwork snaking throughout — and hard work. “You had to be there all day to flip switches,” he recalls. “It was just funky, and it made a lot of noise.”

In addition, the glazing failed on the greenhouse, making it plant-roastingly hot in summer and freezing in winter. The greenhouse was “a good habitat for spiders, but pretty much unusable in winter,” Wilkinson says.

In terms of location, the sun-challenged Michigan woods delivered too many cloudy days — sometimes for weeks on end — for the system to work. And the home's beautiful setting was squandered by the massive greenhouse and the masonry that blocked light as well as any views to the backyard or woods.

Photo: Steve Kuzma

Despite the home's drawbacks, Wilkinson didn't initially plan to remodel. A bachelor when he bought it, as well as a weekend botanist, he spent more time tending to his gardens than to the interior. Plus, he owned a tree service, so “the idea of wood stoves was fine,” he says. “I figured I would never run out of wood.”

After a few years, however, Wilkinson was joined by Mary Waldron and her young daughter, followed by a son for the couple. As a family home, it didn't work. Waldron, an artist drawn to light and color, remembers walking around the house with Rochman, whom the couple had heard about from friends. “He asked me what I liked about the house, and then he said, ‘You don't like much about it, do you?'” Other than the site, she didn't.

Peeling Back The Priorities

In architecture school, Rochman learned to engage clients with a simple question: “Do you want us to design for your budget or for your wish list?” Wilkinson and Waldron, he says, “wanted us to design for their budget,” which was $200,000. Yet they also had many wishes, which Rochman unearthed by way of a series of questions that he weaves into every design/build process. (See “Questionnaire Extraordinaire” at end of article.)

From these conversations, Rochman created a “program” that distilled the couple's wishes into two key concepts: interaction with nature and interaction between spaces. As is often the case, “their program was much bigger than their budget,” he says. The couple agreed to design for their budget, with some flexibility, and to adjust their wish list accordingly. Together, remodeler and clients settled on six priorities:

  • Views, views, views
  • New “away room”
  • Mudroom/second entry
  • Improved front entry
  • New screened porch
  • Improved kitchen

The away room, a concept borrowed from The Not So Big House author Sarah Susanka, refers to a set-off part of the house that creates a quiet retreat for reading, working, or music.

The mudroom/second entry would create a child-friendly transition between the house and what was, at the time, the only level play yard, and between the house and the detached garage. “We wanted a place to drop the backpacks, where the shoes wouldn't jumble up,” Waldron says.