Michele and Jamie Darnell’s house sits at the edge of one thing and the beginning of another. Perched on a bluff with the former Kansas City Livestock Exchange and a knot of railroad tracks below, the copper-clad house looks westward toward the flat expanse of the country’s midsection and, in spirit at least, the mountains beyond. The eastern side of the house faces the Art Deco buildings of downtown Kansas City—the Paris of the Plains—rising out of some trees. "That was all by design," Jamie says.
Both natives of suburban Kansas City, Michele and Jamie met at the copy machine in Jamie’s architecture firm about 16 years ago. They soon married in the mountains of Colorado, a 13-hour drive to the west, near a patch of property owned by Michele’s family. "We camped on that land forever," Michele says, remembering family trips. "Then I married an architect, and there’s a cabin there now."
But it took another decade before the couple started building their own house back in Kansas City. "Growing up here, the goal was always to leave," Michele explains. "But both of our families are here. And we knew we wanted to build our own house, and that was definitely more of a possibility here."
Jamie’s firm, El Dorado Inc., is based in the city and has been an agent for renewal in the downtown area. So when the couple started looking for a piece of land, the same motivation informed their search. "We’ve really been invested in the redevelopment of downtown," Jamie says, "and that’s something we wanted to be a part of, too."
The hunt eventually led them to a somewhat forlorn plot in the city’s Westside neighborhood overlooking an area known as the West Bottoms with Interstate 670 to the north. A few steps away is a pedestrian bridge spanning the highway with a big cow statue on a pedestal in a park at the far end—fitting for a place known for its steaks and stockyards. They saw the land and knew they’d found their spot. "We went home and scrambled to see how much money we didn’t have," Jamie remembers. "Then I had to come up with the plans."
The Darnells’ new neighborhood was already home to a handful of modernist houses, all built in recent years between clapboard Victorians and 19th-century folk-style structures. Around their tiny cul-de-sac, now lined with three other houses and a photo studio, some newly designed homes were already underway when they broke ground, making for understanding neighbors. "Their aesthetic might be different," Jamie says, "but the main thing is that people were tolerant."
From that point on, though, the smooth ride became bumpy. After the Darnells secured the loans and came up with the design, construction began. And then, over the course of the next 20 months, life intervened. "We had two kids in the process of building, and both of us were working full time," Michele explains. "Our mantra became ‘No expectations.’"
The children—first Judith, now five, then Maple, now three—and the couple’s jobs, plus a major construction setback, made for a protracted, two-year construction. (The first roof leaked and had to be ripped off and replaced entirely.) Jamie acted as the general contractor and somehow managed to build all of the house’s steel components, the decking and interior framing, and much of the furniture. "In hindsight I should’ve just taken a big loan, borrowed a salary, and knocked it out," he says now. "I’m sure my job suffered. The project suffered. And we suffered. A little bit."
The concept was pretty simple, driven by a relatively limited budget. (Construction costs were about $320,000, which works out to $134 per square foot.) The idea was to create a small rectangular box that was modest in comparison to some of their neighbors but didn’t look dwarfed by them. "The best way to get your cost of construction down is to reduce your square footage, so we focused on cubic feet, on volume, rather than area," Jamie explains, pointing out the 14-foot ceilings in the living area. "We wanted to lift it up to give it a presence that was a little bit bigger than its size."
The footprint is essentially a 1,700-square-foot rectangle—plus an extra 690 square feet in the basement. The master bedroom is in the back, and two little bedrooms for the girls are off to the side of a central hallway lit from above by a skylight. At the front of the house, one contiguous living area is illuminated by windows on three sides. "We wanted just one space where we can see what everyone’s doing," Jamie explains.
Rather than a traditional frame construction, the house was built using SIPs (structural insulated panels) that came in four-by-eight-foot sections in kit form. "They built the whole shell in about a week," Jamie comments. The efficiency, along with the relatively low cost and tight, highly insulated "envelope," were positives, but the panels also have their limitations. "Most SIPs projects look pretty stupid," Jamie says. "They haven’t been manipulated by someone who’s thinking creatively." In this case, Jamie augmented the simple panel system with a dynamic cantilever.
The interior is starkly white—a backdrop ideal for toddler artwork but not, perhaps, for toddler eating habits. "There’s already a jelly wainscoting," Jamie says. The dark Brazilian cherry floors are often festooned with ruby slippers and the odd tiara. "Having a minimalist place helps," Michele says, "because in two seconds it can be all dresses and toys."
"Tectonics are the ornament in a way," Jamie explains. Six laminated Douglas fir beams span the ceilings, cutting the white space and connecting it thematically with the window-framed trees. Outside Judith’s window a mourning dove nests in a hackberry tree, a Seussian loblolly pine peeks up by the living space, and a knobby catalpa dominates the front yard. With ladderlike steps leading to the front door, the place feels like an ultrapolished tree house. The arboreal atmosphere was intentional. "We’re tree people," Jamie says.
Wrapped in corrugated copper, the house has a frontier-cabin quality that’s evolving with age. At first it was as shiny as a penny, but that’s changing. "My house looks like it has a skin disease," Jamie says. "It’s just oxidizing in a weird way. Eventually it’ll go green. This is just the first stage of the patina." And one day the connection to the land beyond the highways could seem even more pronounced. "My ultimate fantasy is to have this whole area planted in four-foot-tall bluestem"—a native grass—"so the house would appear to float," he says.
But like all houses and landscapes, theirs are works in progress. For two years, the mailbox sat at the foot of the front steps. Painting and staining were back-burnered. With two young girls and two full-time jobs, some things will likely stay unfinished for a while. "I’ll be happy if I can start ticking a few of these projects off my list," Jamie says. Some projects, though, took on a particular urgency.
The cluster of houses that share the windblown bluff with the Darnells has become something of an attraction in a city that’s better known, architecturally speaking, for its frothy water features. "There’s this constant parade of people driving by, really slowly, to check out the neighborhood," Jamie says. "You’re sitting on the couch, on display."
To remedy the situation he took some semi-opaque adhesive film and stuck it on the lower half of the windows, blocking the view. "Now," he says, "we can sit here in our underwear."
As a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Georgina Gustin writes about food-related issues, among other topics. Her travels for "Plains Gold" took her to Kansas city, at the western edge of Missouri. She was informed there that Kansas City is often considered the country's easternmost Western city, while St. Louis is considered the westernmost Eastern city. She is not sure if this is apt. What she does know, however, is that K.C. has some dang good barbecue.