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New Beginnings

Uni, an international group of designers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is riding out a self-professed renovation high that never seems to cease.

Seated on a George Nelson bench, feline resident Miu Miu gazes through the east picture window at the ongoing construction. Sharing the bench is a quarter-inch-to-one-inch-scale model of the house and addition.

Quoting Nietzsche right off the bat, I might as well be a tweed-wearing lush in an old Woody Allen movie. But Beat Schenk and Chaewon Kim’s live/work house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, brings to mind one of the mad Prussian’s aphorisms: “When one has finished building one’s house, one suddenly realizes that in the process one has learned something that one really needed to know in the worst way—before one began.”

Read the adage twice, and after you’ve tripped over six uses of “one” that don’t exactly bless the translation, consider this antidote to its described fruitlessness: Keep renovating. Whatever your sudden realizations, you are always beginning again.

Schenk and Kim, the married pair who founded the design group Uni with two friends, Ted Ngai and A.C. Fernandez, inhabit their biggest project in a perpetual state of what Kim calls “renovation mania.” They bought a tiny 700-square-foot, two-story house in 2001 and finished renovating it last year. Now, they’re working on a 1,800-square-foot addition. And they just purchased the house next door, which they plan to gut, rebuild, and sell next year.

When Kim and Schenk bought the first house, ren-ovation wasn’t their plan. “We wanted to build ground-up, but finding an empty lot in Cambridge was impossible,” explains Kim. “This house was small, but on a big lot, so I figured we could easily tear it down to build something new.”

“But Won”—Schenk’s nickname for Chaewon—“took me to see the place and I thought it was too cute to tear down.” Though both were horrified by the house’s interior—a dark cluster of nooks and crannies dating from the late 19th century—they were intrigued by its iconic pitched-roof “house” shape. Their redesign cleared out the crannies to make each floor into a wide-open space. They brought light into the backyard-facing east façade with large windows and translucent panel walls. They coated the exterior in corrugated Cor-ten steel; its bold rust color surreally intensifies the house’s form.

Schenk, who is Swiss, and Kim, who is Korean, met as students at SCI-Arc in the early ’90s, where both spent their free time browsing among building supplies at the downtown Los Angeles Home Depot. This year, upon completing their first house, they got around to naming their firm with Fernandez and Ngai. “We were going to call ourselves Unit,” Kim says, “because it could stand for ‘U and I plus Ted.’ But then people told us other implications of the word ‘unit.’ So we decided to name ourselves Uni, like sea urchin sushi.”

The young group is notably international (Ngai is Chinese, Fernandez is Filipino). Between the four of them, they speak 12 languages and have worked for Rem Koolhaas, Kazuyo Sejima, Coop Himmelblau, and Frank Gehry. Nonetheless, their first project was humble—the original renovation cost $50,000.

Instead of hiring a contractor, Kim and Schenk undertook their own construction, with periodic help from Fernandez, who still lived in Los Angeles. (Ngai was finishing a degree at Harvard Design School.) “Our goal,” Schenk says, “was to show that with the most basic building materials, a clever plan can make something  exceptional.”

While executing the renovation, Kim and Schenk lived in the house through days with no running water, a winter with no heat, and “a lot of backaches.” But they still managed to enjoy the numerous challenges. “The day we started working,” Kim says laughing, “we both ended up in the emergency room. I tripped and sprained my ankle. Beat didn’t wear safety goggles and got sawdust in his eyes.”

“When we tore down an old shed in the backyard,” Schenk remembers, “I had to give 24-hour notice to the resident skunk. He didn’t want to leave. He made a horrible stink. I felt a bit guilty because he seemed elderly and winter was on the way.” 

“Demolition was a nightmare,” he continues. “We kept finding layer upon layer of wallpaper and paint. We hauled out eight and a half tons of debris. The neighbors kept seeing Dumpsters and they couldn’t imagine how so much stuff could come out of such a little house.” The hard work changed Schenk from what Kim affectionately calls “a pencil-holding skinny architect” to a broad-shouldered one.

Though the renovation was a rite of passage for all four designers, for Kim it was also a period of recovery. In 2001, she’d been diagnosed with an acute case of breast cancer. She was only 26 years old and thought she might not reach 30. But after a painful two-year treatment she was cured. Her newfound hope for sur-vival coincided with the construction process. “The project helped me,” she says. “It gave me energy.”

Schenk, who helps finance Uni’s projects with a job at Boston’s Cannon Design, still finds himself at Home Depot most weekends. Hours spent there pay off with countless money-saving strategies. “We have a huge collection of do-it-yourself books, and we really used them,” he says. For instance, they covered the floors with cork, which cost $2 per square foot. 

“Living in the house while renovating is hard,” Schenk acknowledges, remembering when Fernandez’s bed was a blanket atop a heap of Sheetrock. “But it’s also em-powering. You are constantly intimate with what you are building. This is how I like to do architecture. In an architect-client scenario, the intimacy is lost. You aren’t so close to what you are building, and you’re always struggling to compensate with communication.” Having learned from this experience, Uni’s future project object-ives will be built-to-sell spec houses—starting with the one next door—and competitions for large-scale commissions.

In the fall of 2004, the addition was merely a wood frame, its box shape hovering ten feet behind the house’s large rear window. By late winter, it might already be clad in black-stained cedar. “It will silhouette the existing house with a shadow,” Kim says. This time, the group hired contractors: “Beat, Ted, and I started working on the construction,” Fernandez says smiling, “but we were going too slowly, so Chaewon fired us.” Once complete, the addition will contain a couple of bedrooms, three bathrooms, and an extra living space. The designers were granted a variance to connect the addition to the house with a translucent passage; alongside it they envision a small concrete courtyard.

Now that the addition is under construction, Uni is already devising plans for the house next door. As their first building project coincided with Kim’s recovery, the designers found a new beginning, which set into motion a promising cycle. “Now we have three architects living under one roof, and since the group works here, Ted’s also here most days,” Kim says. “We’re surrounded by our own work, and we talk for hours and hours about altering the tiniest details, like the door hinges in the upstairs bathroom.” Even the first renovation is never quite finished. 

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