No Place Like Home

In a Zen-inspired structure, beauty appears in simplicity

By Ilene Dube | Photography by Jon Roemer

The world can be noisy — not just with sound, but external stimulation. To find the quiet within, it helps to have a soothing space in which to retreat.

A home on Lake Carnegie designed by Richardson Smith Architects, built by Pinneo Construction, offers just that sort of respite. Except for such striking features as a black steel stairway that wends like a sculptural spine, and a single red chair in the master bedroom, most everything is a gradation of white. Contrast comes in the textures.

There is no clutter to spoil the calm — many of what appear to be walls are a grid of cabinets. Everything has its place. There are no knobs or pulls to interrupt — the flat white cabinets pop open with a gentle tap. Even the pocket doors slip quietly into their slots.

Furnishings continue the serenity. A dining table is white with black chairs, a sofa is gray, and Noguchi floor lamps made from white rice paper offer function without fuss. Minimalist artwork continues the black-and-white theme, and even the flowers outside, when in season, bloom white.

After a short time one’s eyes adjust, so when a homeowner presses the remote, raising a shade, the clutter of the outside world is jolting.

The house has been a multi-layered collaboration: between the environment and the lake area; the architects who in turn collaborate with history and a world view; the homeowners who have a sensibility for the spare; and a builder with a Stanford University master’s degree in East Asian studies.

With its eagles and hawks, herons and cormorants, rowers and skaters, runners and wildlife enthusiasts, the lake allows visitors to feel as if they are somewhere else, not centered between the largest metropolitan areas of the East Coast. The watery oasis came into being in the early 20th century, when namesake Andrew Carnegie had it dammed up at the request of rower Howard Russell Butler. Legend has it that Butler raised the idea while painting a portrait of the industrialist and philanthropist.

Connection to Nature

The homeowners had worked with Richardson Smith 20 years earlier, putting “an addition onto an addition” to their house on Prospect Street. This time they were seeking a contemporary minimalist home on the lake with “a Japanese aesthetic — it dominates our tastes.” (The homeowners have requested anonymity; all quotes are from the husband.) That aesthetic includes straight lines and a strong connection with nature, water, and stone. The wife was born and raised in Japan, and the two sought an abundance of natural light and a “clear connection to the outdoors.”

Another Japanese concept the couple required was genkan: an entryway to the home that provides a place for the removal of shoes. “We never wear shoes indoors,” they say, and guests are expected to follow suit. The house offers a genkan at every entry, with storage for coats, gloves, scarves, hats, and of course shoes.

A Japanese soaking tub is sunken into a space that cantilevers over the pool, allowing a bather to submerge while surrounded with water views.

The house is energy efficient with solar panels, radiant heat, and a passive heating and cooling system. There is even a green roof with planters for growing vegetables over the kitchen.

As empty nesters, the couple wanted a separate wing that would serve as accommodations for their grown children and hoped-for grandchildren, and that could be closed off when not in use. A separate guest quarters, primarily for visitors from Japan, has its own entrance.

Even before the pandemic-induced isolation, the homeowners knew they would be spending most of their time domestically and had envisioned a quiet sanctuary for reading books, a place for their grand piano, a home office, and a large exercise room — all with a view of the lake.

 

 

“We tend to cook a lot,” they wrote on their wish list, and so a functional kitchen was a priority. They also clean the house themselves and requested unobstructed surfaces to facilitate that.

Among the reasons to live on the lake was the couple’s desire to spend time outdoors (“where we can witness the drama of nature — a fox and her pup, or an owl swooping down on field mice”), reading, having coffee, observing nature, kayaking and sailing, and swimming in a pool. In the end they got two pools — both a 75-foot lap pool and a wading pool, surrounded by black granite.

“We are enraptured with the composition of the house and its environment,” says the owner. “The mood and appearance of the house is constantly evolving depending upon the season we’re in, the weather at the moment, and the time of day. Light and shadow play important roles here, given the glass and, particularly, the fairly monochromatic materials used.” He invokes writer Pico Iyer’s description of the Japanese aesthetic as ‘being less about accumulation than subtraction, so that what remains is everything.’”

Additionally, “we like the fact that we generate the lion’s share of the electricity we consume; can shut down the heating and cooling of rooms not in use; and can take advantage of some minor ability to passive heat on sunny winter days.”

With three levels of wraparound terraces, “one can take in a sweeping bird’s eye view of the lake from the rooftop terrace or at a different angle from our bedroom, as well as different cat’s eye views from the pool or family room. The kitchen and living room provide additional vistas.”

From Vision to Reality

Tom Pinneo of Pinneo Construction got involved in planning from the beginning, offering insight into the construction that would make the design possible. “I’m a fan of architecture even when ornate, but with contemporary architecture, alignment matters more,” he says. “There’s no place to hide defects, such as under the molding. With clear sight lines there are few places to reconcile irregularities.”

Pinneo’s insight on building an energy efficient home with so much glass was important, as were his connections with professionals to subcontract the millwork for the cabinets and the steel staircase.

“Much of the glass was floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall, meaning that in many cases there was no blank wall to absorb small discrepancies or minor miscalculations,” says Pinneo. “Compounding that challenge was that the windows were manufactured in Holland and, due to the stainless-steel finish, had a 10-month lead time. We had to commit early, trust that our vendor would deliver, and still make provisions for progressing with the project long after we’d typically have the building enclosed.”

As for those wall-to-wall cabinets, “Behind the modern exterior are super functional pullout drawers with a place for everything. As with so much else in the home, the simplicity of design belies the effort that went into the planning and execution.”

“Given that our work is 100 percent custom,” continues Pinneo, “I often say we’re building the prototype and the finished product at the same time. We’ve never built the same thing twice.” He compares project manager Mike Danna to “the conductor of the orchestra.”

“The Taoists opened my eyes to skill, and I followed that introduction into carpentry,” says the one-time East Asian philosopher. “To grossly oversimplify things, the Taoists believed that what we truly know in this world are those things we know from doing. Spend the day with a framer laying out a roof, a stone mason building a chimney, or a carpenter building a stair rail, and you’ll get a taste of a kind of intelligence that, as the Taoists knew, was easy to recognize but difficult to describe.”

Teamwork

Richardson Smith Architects is made up of Juliet Richardson and Terence Smith. The two met while studying architecture at Princeton University — Richardson earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees there (1978, 1981), while Smith earned his Master of Architecture degree from Princeton in 1979. Having studied under Michael Graves, they worked for his firm before branching out on their own in 1986. The two were married at one point but have not been married for many years, though continue their business partnership and camaraderie. Both have served on the Princeton faculty.

Among the things they took away from their experience in Graves’ firm was “attention to detail, the proper use of scale, wise material choices, and the knowledge that a building’s relationship to its landscape is fundamental,” says Richardson.

With 12 architects in her lineage, Richardson notes there was never a time she didn’t know she would become one. Her great-grandfather, Henry Hobson Richardson, was the namesake for Richardsonian Romanesque, a revival style architecture incorporating 11th- and 12th-century southern French, Spanish, and Italian Romanesque characteristics. The great-grandson of inventor and philosopher Joseph Priestley, one of Henry’s most well-known buildings is Boston’s Trinity Church. Father of American Landscape Architecture Frederick Law Olmsted worked on many of his projects, and Richardson, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Sullivan are considered the trinity of American architecture.

Juliet Richardson has trekked the remote Sapa region of northwestern Vietnam and circumambulated the Annapurna Range in Nepal. “That trek is the highest non-technical trek in the world going over the Thorung-La Pass with an altitude of just under 18,000 feet,” she says. “Not all people can travel unaided by oxygen to those heights. The stone grave markers along the route are testament to this.”

On the ascent, Richardson continues, “one travels through a living lesson in environmental sustainability, as the crops turn from rice, to maize, to wheat, to barley, to buckwheat, the higher one climbs. Farm to table is not by choice.”

These experiences have shaped her as a person and how she works. “When problems arise in life or on a project — and they always do — try having a little perspective. You have no idea how blessed we are.”

Her travels have also taught her to know strengths and weaknesses. “We all have limitations. Not everyone is good at everything nor can they do everything. When managing a project, be honest about what you know, and what you do not know. The outcome will always be better than bluffing about your expertise.”

And then there’s the importance of teamwork. “Only the foolhardy trek alone,” she says. To that end, she and Smith “are actively involved in the design from start to finish. At the beginning we often work separately, sketching our initial ideas from our own workspaces at different ends of the office. We then meet halfway in the conference room to see where we are. We like to tell our clients that they benefit from having two heads imagining their project rather than just one.”

Though their roles can vary from project to project, Richardson focuses on project design, interior finishes, and landscape design, managing drawing production and documentation. Smith is in charge of project administration with a focus on project detailing and lighting design, and coordinating with consultants.

“There is no doubt that our new home has provided a remarkable sanctuary from the pandemic,” says one of its dwellers. “The views and the space eliminate any cabin fever, while the gym, pool, and lake access have not restricted our ability to get exercise. We attend concerts, movies, and lectures virtually, so the confinement has really not troubled us. We know that we are exceedingly fortunate in that regard.”

After an invigorating swim, he will pause at the far end of the pool to survey activity on the lake — the rowing team, kayakers, an occasional red-tailed hawk — and think “there is no other place in the world I would rather be.”