written by:
photos by:
February 12, 2010
Originally published in Recipe for Success

In a leafy residential area a few miles from downtown Kansas City, Missouri, an enterprising architect saw opportunity where others saw trouble. He took a sloping, triangular lot and designed a new home for his growing family—an open, tree house–like structure on stilts that hovers at the quirky edge of a conventional neighborhood.

The Arnolds’ bedroom and living area float over the hillside, the large windows allowing light to flood in from both sides. A bamboo-enclosed deck sits atop the house’s foundation.
The Arnolds’ bedroom and living area float over the hillside, the large windows allowing light to flood in from both sides. A bamboo-enclosed deck sits atop the house’s foundation.
Photo by 
1 / 7
The entry bridge leading to the front door was made from timber salvaged from Christian’s parents’ farm near Kingman, Kansas.
The entry bridge leading to the front door was made from timber salvaged from Christian’s parents’ farm near Kingman, Kansas.
Photo by 
2 / 7
Christian and Jack play chess by the fireplace - the centerpiece of the living room and which the Arnolds use daily during the winter. The hearth is made of large slabs 
of limestone, which Christian cut himself, intentionally leaving imperfections on the
Christian and Jack play chess by the fireplace - the centerpiece of the living room and which the Arnolds use daily during the winter. The hearth is made of large slabs of limestone, which Christian cut himself, intentionally leaving imperfections on the surface for texture. A studio8 couch and Vitra Tom Vac Rocker articulate the space.
Photo by 
3 / 7
The dining table was made from reclaimed pine that Julie refinished with layers of stain and wax. Julie also made the lamps, using Knoll textiles.
The dining table was made from reclaimed pine that Julie refinished with layers of stain and wax. Julie also made the lamps, using Knoll textiles.
Photo by 
4 / 7
The Duravit tub in the master bathroom is another favorite spot for keeping warm; it offers a slender view out toward the trees.
The Duravit tub in the master bathroom is another favorite spot for keeping warm; it offers a slender view out toward the trees.
Photo by 
5 / 7
In the kids’ room, Jack climbs the bunk bed he shares with his little brother, James. The paintings on the wall were done by their mom.
In the kids’ room, Jack climbs the bunk bed he shares with his little brother, James. The paintings on the wall were done by their mom.
Photo by 
6 / 7
Julie, James, and Christian enjoy an unexpected bonus of living in a house on stilts—–a pair of swings suspended from the base of the structure. The family often goes for walks on the property, looking for wildlife and playing in the tepee they built in a
Julie, James, and Christian enjoy an unexpected bonus of living in a house on stilts—–a pair of swings suspended from the base of the structure. The family often goes for walks on the property, looking for wildlife and playing in the tepee they built in a secluded space in the woods.
Photo by 
7 / 7
The Arnolds’ bedroom and living area float over the hillside, the large windows allowing light to flood in from both sides. A bamboo-enclosed deck sits atop the house’s foundation.
The Arnolds’ bedroom and living area float over the hillside, the large windows allowing light to flood in from both sides. A bamboo-enclosed deck sits atop the house’s foundation.
Project 
Arnold Residence

Pull up to any house in any American suburb, and the first thing you’re likely to see is the blank, flat expanse of adjoining garage doors. That suburban cliché was exactly what architect Christian Arnold and his wife, Julie, wanted to avoid when they built their home near downtown Kansas City, Missouri, but it’s precisely what they ended up with.

“We make fun of those houses with big garage doors facing the street,” Julie says, laughing. “But we couldn’t figure out any other place for ours.” That’s one dilemma of building on an oddball piece of land where geography dictates architectural destiny.

The entry bridge leading to the front door was made from timber salvaged from Christian’s parents’ farm near Kingman, Kansas.
The entry bridge leading to the front door was made from timber salvaged from Christian’s parents’ farm near Kingman, Kansas.

Before they had children, the couple lived in an urban neighborhood, but when their two young boys, Jack and James, entered the picture, they outgrew their 19th-century bungalow. Christian didn’t savor the idea of commuting from the suburbs to his downtown architecture firm, so the search for property in the city began. The Arnolds soon realized what so many have before: A good empty lot is hard to find.

Still, the quest continued, somewhat casually, and eventually they stumbled onto a dramatically sloped, pie-shaped piece of land in a city neighborhood that had barely seen any construction since the 1970s. “It’s definitely not your typical lot,” Christian says. “You can see why nobody built here.”

Christian and Jack play chess by the fireplace - the centerpiece of the living room and which the Arnolds use daily during the winter. The hearth is made of large slabs 
of limestone, which Christian cut himself, intentionally leaving imperfections on the
Christian and Jack play chess by the fireplace - the centerpiece of the living room and which the Arnolds use daily during the winter. The hearth is made of large slabs of limestone, which Christian cut himself, intentionally leaving imperfections on the surface for texture. A studio8 couch and Vitra Tom Vac Rocker articulate the space.

Yet despite its shape, pitch, and seemingly unbuildable proportions, the lot was perfect in other ways: It was located in the city just a short ride from downtown, yet completely enveloped by trees. It had a suburbanesque yard where the boys could climb cottonwoods and maples with their dad. Perhaps best of all, the odd lot presented an interesting design challenge for Christian.

Having lived in lofts in the past, the couple wanted to create a loftlike  sense of openness and flow, with lots of natural light. “I’ve gotten addicted to light,” Christian says. “It’s part of my body chemistry.” So, after throwing around ideas for a few months, he came up with drawings that called for a rectangular structure, half of which rests on a typical concrete foundation, wedged into the hillside, while the other half sits on towering steel posts planted toward the bottom of the hill. The end result feels almost like the house was miraculously pulled from an urban building and placed in a leafy yard—–an open-plan tree house on stilts.

The Duravit tub in the master bathroom is another favorite spot for keeping warm; it offers a slender view out toward the trees.
The Duravit tub in the master bathroom is another favorite spot for keeping warm; it offers a slender view out toward the trees.

A primary goal of the project was to keep the process and the house itself as green as possible—–to “touch the earth lightly,” as Australian architect Glenn Murcutt famously says. Despite the sloping lot, no dirt was added to the site, minimizing the need to bring in exhaust-spewing trucks during the construction. Trees were left in place, providing shade for the hot summers but allowing warm sunlight indoors in the winter once the leaves have fallen. The Arnolds chose long-lasting materials like slate tiles for the house’s exterior and a recycled metal roof with an estimated 50-year life span. The construction itself yielded some materials, like extra rebar from the foundation now used as railings.

With tall windows on all sides of the house, the Arnolds worried that heating and cooling bills would be very expensive, but a radiant floor heating system, along with natural light and a much-used fireplace, have kept costs down. “We haven’t changed a lightbulb since we’ve been here,” Julie notes, nearly a year after moving in.

In the kids’ room, Jack climbs the bunk bed he shares with his little brother, James. The paintings on the wall were done by their mom.
In the kids’ room, Jack climbs the bunk bed he shares with his little brother, James. The paintings on the wall were done by their mom.

Construction began in November 2007, and Christian did much of the work himself, leaving all the licensed trades like steelwork, electric work, and plumbing to subcontractors. His architectural duties keep him in the office mostly, so this was a chance to tap into skills honed during his childhood on a farm near Wichita, Kansas. “We lived in the country, and I had five brothers,” he explains. “My dad just kept giving us things to build—–barns, sheds—–to keep us out of trouble.”

The house displays subtle nods to both Julie’s and Christian’s rural Kansan roots. (Julie grew up about an hour and a half drive west of Kansas City.) The walnut countertops in the bathrooms came from a tree Julie’s grandfather cut down; the lumber for the entry bridge leading to the front was sourced from Christian’s family’s farm; and the boys’ bedroom sports an orange barnlike door.

The Arnolds look back on the nearly yearlong construction period with a kind of romanticism, remembering long days when Jack and James scrambled around in the dirt until they fell asleep, exhausted. The Midwestern winter posed some chal-lenges along the way. “There were some horrible days when my hands froze before I could get any nails in,” Christian recalls. But for the most part, the going was smooth.

Now they’ve been settled in long enough to watch the leaves change into fiery fall colors, drop in winter, then come back to spring greenness, all framed by the windows and cast in shadows on the walls like a portrait of the seasons. It’s a cycle they’d like to repeat for many years to come. “I never want to move,” Julie says.

But the Arnold family has grown by one since moving in, and their three-bedroom house could become a little too cozy. Fortunately, Christian isn’t daunted by the thought of starting again. “I like projects,” he says.

Another eccentric patch of land could be waiting.
 

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016
senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016
Monochromatic Master Bedroom in Copenhagen Townhouse
Whether it's to maximize limited light or create a soothing interior, these five projects go white in a big way.
February 04, 2016
EQ3 Assembly quilt by Kenneth LaVallee
The new Assembly collection from EQ3 celebrates up-and-coming figures in Canadian design. Discover this newly appointed class, which debuted at Toronto's Interior Design Show, here.
February 03, 2016
The Greenhouses of Half Moon Bay
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 03, 2016
Deck of Australian addition to Edwardian home.
A 1,500-square-foot home in Melbourne welcomes a modern black and white kitchen, dining, and living area.
February 03, 2016
open plan concrete home in japan
Embracing the organic, imperfect material, these raw concrete surfaces are a step up from exposed brick.
February 03, 2016
Renovated DC Row House loft space with Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair.
The classic designer's signature and comfortable forms continue to be popular in homes today.
February 03, 2016
Zinc-roofed cabin France.
An architect builds an energy-efficient home near one of France’s most popular pilgrimage sites.
February 03, 2016
1973 Palm Springs home
Made for casual design enthusiasts and Palm Springs connoisseurs alike, Unseen Midcentury Desert Modern offers a peek into 51 buildings—some not open to the public—in that Southern California mecca of modernism. Begun in 2008 by photographer Dan Chavkin, the book is set for release this February 9th and will be available on Amazon and at multiple venues of Modernism Week in Palm Springs, February 11 - 21. Here we preview some of its images.
February 03, 2016
Millennial concept home with an outdoor living area
A concept home aims to reflect the requests of the Millennial market.
February 03, 2016
The two twelve-by-sixteen-foot bedrooms, directly above a comparable pair on the first floor, feature a glass transom that follows the pitch of the roof. “The stair and railings were very simple,” Depardon observes. “We added a bit of design, with panels
Skylights needn't be simple overhead daylighting; sometimes they can truly define a room.
February 03, 2016
Modern small space Rhode Island cottage with landscaping and cedar cladding
Surrounded by nature, these cottages are tranquil retreats from the city.
February 03, 2016
The couple kept original touches, including the arch.
Historic archways belie these contemporary homes with physical reminders of each structure's storied past.
February 03, 2016
modern guesthouse in norway with angular facade and cutaway patio with spruce cladding and ikea chair
These houses make room for nature, not the other way around.
February 02, 2016
Modern kitchen with yellow sectioned walls and monochrome appliances
Whether it's a splash of color or bold strokes, this collection of interiors brightens up these homes.
February 02, 2016
Rust-washed concrete wall in Moscow apartment renovation.
This 590-square-foot apartment was stripped down to admit sunlight and dramatically reveal forgotten surfaces.
February 02, 2016
Nendo's collection of objects inspired by Star Wars
In a galaxy not so far away, Japanese studio Nendo has released a versatile collection of objects inspired by classic Star Wars characters.
February 02, 2016