An Eye-Catcher Meant to Last: At Prospect Avenue & Murray Place
By Ellen Gilbert
Photography by Jeffrey E. Tryon
“It’s not the type of project you have the opportunity to work on every day,” agree Joseph Weiss of Joseph Hobart Weiss, Architecture Planning & Design, and Rob Faucett, of R. Faucett Construction as they show a visitor around the remarkable home they have created at 84 Murray Place, a corner lot located near Princeton University.
The word “collaboration” often comes to mind in talking with Weiss and Faucett. “Every one of my projects is a collaboration between the owners and the people building it,” observes Weiss. “It’s a process.”
The feeling seems to have been shared by everyone involved. Faucett reports, for example, that Mark Fisher, whom he describes as one of his “finest leaders and craftspeople,” immediately “took ownership” of the project and has been on the job “from the day we started.”
SPACES AND FUNCTIONS
Built in 1960, the original house had a California-modern look. Proximity to town was a priority, but there were some “fatal flaws” with the existing house, including utilities that didn’t work and the fact that it was built on a slab. While some consideration was given to salvaging the garage, the ultimate consensus was that the original house simply wasn’t serviceable.
An important key to the whole new enterprise, notes Weiss, was the owners’ desire “to build a sustainably-designed house that had minimal fossil fuel consumption.” The result, he reports, is a “well-sealed envelope” of approximately 3,500 square feet that relies on geothermal heating and cooling systems. Three exterior geothermal wells provide ground temperature water for the geothermal system. Insulated plywood sheathing and spray foam insulation compensate (“like a warm blanket”) for the substantial expanses of glass windows (which are, in any event, Duratherm imported from Maine). Thanks to a uniquely designed ventilated exterior wall and an energy recovered ventilation system, Weiss estimates that, on the whole, the structure is about 18 percent more efficient than the average house being built today, and Faucett uses words like “breathing” and “performing” to describe the house’s ability to dry out quickly. Over 90 percent of the fixtures use LED lighting.
The “process” to which Weiss refers began when the couple gave him “a list of spaces and functions” they wanted to be sure to include in the house. Weiss’s challenge was to incorporate their wish list while creating an interesting design from what would otherwise have been a fairly boxy structure. Working with a corner site that had two distinctive streetscapes and the challenge of getting sunlight into the rear yard informed how he conceptualized the space. The desire for a strong connection between the inside and outside spaces resulted in the large number of windows that also give scale and proportion to the form. Weiss created a small model of his proposed design, and the owners were immediately sold.
A spirit of adventure was there from the start, according to all reports, and the result is a far cry from the traditional center hall colonial the couple, who have three young adult children, occupied before. “It draws an amazing amount of attention,” Faucett reported as the new house neared the end of construction. “We get lots of inquiries.” Stoppers-by during construction included, not surprisingly, area residents and others associated with Princeton University. “Some people love it; others prefer a more traditional house,” Faucett observes.
In addition to dazzling feats of custom millwork—the horizontal grain in the expansive front door is a “wow” in and of itself—the layout of the rooms, which includes five bedrooms, is fairly unique. A result of Weiss’s desire to allow as much sunlight into the backyard as possible and have an outdoor sun deck, is a suite of bedrooms on the second floor that is accessible only by climbing a spiral staircase or traversing an outdoor, second-floor deck connecting the two wings.
The home’s new Murray Place address—the old house fronted on Prospect Avenue—is a reflection of Weiss’s re-orientation of the space. In designing the house, he notes, he was careful to “capture the scales and rhythm of the homes on Murray Place,” while acknowledging the more sizable structures on Prospect Avenue. The result is a house that acknowledges the eclectic but more traditional-looking homes on the surrounding streets, while occupying, as Faucett says, “a niche for itself.” The fact that several stately old trees were salvaged in the process hasn’t hurt.
A one-car garage under the house reflects another interesting design decision. Its relative smallness leaves more room for the large, wrap-around yard, and a sloped, heated concrete driveway ensures safe coming and going. Still, two cars can potentially park back-to-back, and the basement garage allowed the new house to have a smaller footprint on the site than the former house, says Weiss.
The use of wood is particularly artistic. “Shou sugi ban,” an ancient Japanese technique for finishing wood, was used for the exterior siding, and the material, mostly Spanish cedar (“not your common species wood,” notes Faucett), was burned, brushed, and oiled prior to installation. Faucett reports that his Flemington-based workshop blow-torched some 12,000 linear feet of wood to get the right look for the house. Complementing the torched wood exterior is mahogany trim.
Inside, a semi-transparent mahogany screen wall is a focal point rising to the second floor. All the doors—including, of course, that mighty front door—are custom made. Sliding interior doors are covered in neutral-toned organic banana leaf fabric. The kitchen is done in oiled rift-cut white veneered oak, and open cabinet doors slide backwards toward the walls and disappear like magic. “It’s been a great opportunity to showcase the shop’s cabinetry and millwork,” Faucett says with well-earned pride.
The owners moved in mid-December and, from all accounts, are extremely happy with their beautifully appointed new home. While the many remarkable details that went into creating 84 Murray Place might suggest unlimited funds at work, Weiss and Faucett make a point of saying that the house was designed and built to a budget.
To learn more about Joseph Weiss visit jhwarchitect.com.
To learn more about Rob Faucett visit www.rfaucettconstruction.com.