A Self-Taught Designer Builds a Midcentury-Inspired Home on a Budget
Almost everything about Bob Butler’s Nashville home is unexpected. Its sunken living room, open beams, and carport hark back to the 1950s, yet it’s barely more than a year old. The breezy, rectilinear residence transports visitors to midcentury Hollywood Hills or Palm Springs, though it’s located in a city known for Craftsman bungalows and the rococo mansions of country stars. Most surprising of all, Bob designed and built it himself, with only a few years experience under his belt and no formal training, and on a budget that would get the attention of many area residents: $115 per square foot.
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"It was difficult to find builders who wanted to be creative within my budget," he says. So he hired a variety of subcontractors and ended up doing it all.
The road that led Bob to architectural design was also unexpected. Born in New York and raised in Australia, he made his living for many years as a fine art photographer. But in 2011, while looking for a light-filled home in Decatur, Georgia, he purchased a 1950s ranch and refashioned it almost entirely by himself, on a "super slim budget," into a low-key modernist haven. His education? Francis D.K. Ching’s Building Construction Illustrated, YouTube videos, and muscle memory from a handful of drafting lessons in high school. His photographic training didn’t hurt, either. "I felt like I was building a 3-D picture," he says.
The legendary Case Study House program also made a strong impression on him when he was briefly living in Southern California. A series of prototype homes commissioned by Arts & Architecture magazine between 1945 and 1966, designed by the likes of Richard Neutra and Eero Saarinen, the Case Study houses were intended to demonstrate that the fruits of modernism could be made accessible to America’s booming middle class. Not all the homes were built, but the belief that elegance and economy can coexist remains strong.
After his renovation in Georgia won accolades in the local press, Bob moved to Tennessee to pursue a full-time career as an architectural designer. He also decided to build a new home for himself that would push the limits of style and affordability even further, one that would create a template for future clients. The site he chose, a three-quarter-acre property in East Nashville’s Rosebank neighborhood, featured another ranch, which he set about razing.
Bob started with inexpensive materials. The 1,750-square-foot structure, consisting of a single high-ceilinged story, is rendered in polished concrete flooring, cement-block walls, and stained oak cabinets. What few splurges Bob allowed, he was careful to offset with other savings. Many of the large windows, for instance, are oriented south with large overhangs to maximize passive heating in winter and limit solar gain in summer.
"This project was all about piecing together everyday materials in a way that’s affordable."
—Bob Butler, designer and resident
The home is laid out in an L that has a limestone-chip courtyard and a Galvalume-topped carport in its nook. The sunken living room juts out from one arm of the L, and the kitchen and dining area are in the corner. One wing houses an office and bedroom, while the other holds the master bedroom and bath.
While the atmosphere is no-nonsense, it’s hardly austere. Potted succulents and cacti fill almost every corner of the interior, interspersed with Danish chairs and other midcentury furnishings. Outside, the post-and-beam frame extends beyond the home’s envelope, creating a grid of dimensional lumber that is "more sculptural than structural," Bob says.
Bob also looked to Australia for inspiration. "A lot of the architecture in the bush features lower-pitched roofs," he notes. True to form, the home is topped with a subtle hipped section that meets a sawtooth-like roof, allowing sunlight to pour in through eight-foot-wide clerestories.
The detached guesthouse, finished last spring at a cost per square foot similar to that of the house, has three roof components: a flat portion clad in an energy-efficient TPO membrane; a low-pitched, butterfly-shaped section covered in fescue grass for insulation; and a flat section featuring a roof deck, which, because of the grade of the site, can be accessed directly from the ground on one side.
Bob often enjoys sitting on the home’s wraparound porch in the evening, warmed by the indoor/outdoor fireplace made of cement blocks. (Brick was deemed too pricey.) The rear perimeter of the property is lined with trees. Within earshot, there’s a creek. "Before I built a fence in the back, I’d get turkeys coming through," says Bob, who shares the house with his shepherd mix, Goya. "Now I have the best of both worlds—city living and nature."
As for his second career, that’s going well, too. Since establishing his studio, Profile + Principle, in 2014, Bob has undertaken 10 projects with clients and 20 more as a developer. "Most modern homes in Nashville are created piecemeal by a group of designers, builders, contractors, and developers," he says. By overseeing many of these functions himself, he contends he has a competitive advantage in cost: "I’d like people to know that, with ingenuity, modern living can be achieved on a modest budget using everyday materials."