The existing building is typical of Atlanta’s Castleberry neighborhood. It’s a long, narrow, two story, 5,000 square foot warehouse with windows on the front and back. The front faces Walker Street. Car access is via an abandoned rail line which serves as an alley behind the building. Due to the lot line to line construction there are no windows on either side creating a dark interior.
Since the mid 1990’s buildings like this, which make up the bulk of the building stock is Castleberry, have been slowly converted into art galleries, condominiums, restaurants, offices, studios, and homes. When the clients, bought this building it was almost unlivable. The first thing they did was create a live work space in the front third of the building with an office on the ground floor and an open loft living space above
After living with this arrangement for a few years they decided their living space was too small and didn’t give them enough privacy when they had overnight guest. They wanted to expand into the back two thirds of the building with a guest bedroom and new master suite. They also asked for roof access for a future deck, and an atrium to introduce light into the interior of the building. The budget was a modest $90 square foot.
The challenge in most renovations is to squeeze a lot of program into a small space. We had the opposite problem on this project. We had two much space. The program would only fill half of the available space, and to have access to day light the new rooms would have to be located at the opposite end of the building. This would leave a large, dark, useless space in the middle of the building. Adding a typical atrium and skylights would have relive the darkness, but it would still feel like an empty leftover.
I worked collaboratively with the clients and contractor. We talked, we sketched, we talked some more. Ideas pieced together as each of us provided insight. During an early meeting we were trying to layout the new rooms so that the feeling of wasted empty space would be eliminated. We kept trying to stretch and rearrange the rooms to fill the space, but nothing worked. Either the rooms were too big and didn’t feel comfortable and home like or we had a big leftover space that was wasteful, unpleasant and awkward. Finally, out of frustration, one of the client’s said “All we want is to see beauty everywhere we look”. It was a breakthrough. We couldn’t eliminate the extra space, but we could make it a virtue by creating a rich three dimensional composition that mixed solids and voids to create a variety of forms, spaces and lighting effects, which, we hoped, would be beautiful.
We started by drawing lines on a map that connected the site to various locations that were important to the client and then translating those angles onto the floor plan to create a subjective grid which embedded the clients’ lives into the fabric of the building. The subjective framework insured that the new forms would always have a distinct, irregular and imprecise relationship to the existing building, that they would float in the existing space. I then created a conceptual computer model that showed how the grid could be used to create new rooms, how the rooms could be formed into objects floating in the existing space, and how those objects transformed the space around them into a cohesive design.
What we ended up with is an open first floor that fills many of the functions a backyard might (gatherings, playing games, lingering in the sun etc.), with a series of pods floating above it like clouds. The whole arrangement was lit by a series of new skylights.
To create the pods we simply cut away the floor and existing structure where we didn’t need it leaving irregular gaps and openings, almost like gaps of sky on a partially cloudy day. We carefully shaped the pods to give each one privacy, but to also allow views across the space to preserve the open character of the building. We added windows to allow light in and views out. To add drama and light to the first floor, we indirectly illuminated the underside of the pods. This also created an inversion between day and night. The dark underside of the pods during the day would become bright at night, while the skylights above would shift from light in the daytime to dark at night.
Near the end of construction we spent most of our weekly progress meeting simply hanging out, chatting and watching the shadows on the walls. The space was beautiful, and we just enjoyed being in it.