Nancy Church, a Chicago-based gynecologic surgeon, always wanted a serene beach house where she could unwind from the stresses of her job. But with a thriving practice that keeps her close to the hospital, a large circle of friends, and a considerable collection of contemporary art and mid-century furniture, she had a few nonnegotiables. “It had to be nearby, budget-conscious, flexible, big enough for guests, and aesthetically suitable for my things,” says the doctor. To accomplish the task, she tapped her friend, local architect and fellow modernist John DeSalvo. Here, she tells us how they collaborated on a home that more than met her criteria.
I’ve renovated practically every place I’ve ever lived, but I’ve never had the chance to create a home from scratch. I spent a long time looking for the right spot to build a weekend retreat. In 2005, a colleague told me about a piece of property in Michigan City, Indiana. It was just an hour and ten minutes away from my Chicago condo, so a week later I grabbed John, and we ran to see it. We hadn’t yet worked together but had been close friends for 13 years and share the same aesthetic. I met him when I lived in a Bertrand Goldberg building and he came to rent my apartment but ended up buying his own.
The lot was five minutes from the beach on the side of a dune. At the time, it seemed perfect because it was wooded and about fifteen feet higher than street level, so it felt private. It was on the small side—–just 120 by 50 feet—–but it was a great value for the price at $50,000. Just three blocks farther north on the lake, and it would have been a million dollars.
The project started out as a typical construction story full of drawbacks and dilemmas. We got a builder from the real estate agent, and it cost about 30 percent more than originally estimated to clear and grade the land. Then we unexpectedly had to put up retaining walls to keep the dune from shifting. That made the building footprint even tighter and eliminated any fiscal wiggle room. So we had to figure out how to maximize the lot and our program to get everything in.
At first I wanted glass walls; concrete floors with radiant heat; a cast-concrete countertop and sink in the kitchen; high ceilings; a porch; and a stairway modeled after the floating perforated steel one that Jean Nouvel designed for the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris. I’d just been there on my honeymoon with my husband, Charlie Jett, and we fell in love with it and took a lot of pictures to show John. We also decided to have two sleeping lofts on the second floor, connected by a glass catwalk.
John’s design for the house hugs the edge of the available ground space, which gives us about 850 square feet on the first floor and another 550 on the second. He came up with the idea of putting the porch on the roof and a steel staircase on the outside of the house so it would be accessible from the sleeping loft. Putting the porch up there also made it private enough for a hot tub. I suggested we use sails for shade. The sun gets pretty harsh here in the summer, and all the boats in the nearby harbor inspired me.
We chose the materials inside and out for their economy and aesthetics. John suggested we use Pac-Clad, a metal roofing material, for the exterior because it’s cost-effective, durable, maintenance-free, and comes in various colors. It also has seamed ridges that make it look like it’s made out of planks, which pays homage to the vernacular here—there are wood barns everywhere. We chose metallic silver because it would be more reflective and keep the house cooler.
By the time we were ready to break ground, it had been a year and a half since we cleared the lot, and the builder was missing in action. We heard he went bankrupt. We found Patrick Poland through friends, and he was a godsend. He has this encyclopedic knowledge of the area, so we were able to find subcontractors to make almost everything locally.
After we priced things out, we realized we had to cut down on anything custom. The concrete floors with radiant heat and cast kitchen sink had to go. They were way too expensive. Patrick found a local and economical concrete contractor to do the fireplace, chimney stack, outside stairs, back patio, and another wall along the dune behind the house for extra stability.
He was also able to find a steel fabricator to make the staircases, though John had to modify the design using perforated steel and tension steel rope, and eliminate the glass in the catwalk, to make it affordable. They used the same railing system to edge the catwalk and sleeping lofts. Our bedroom is lined with floor-to-ceiling frosted sliding glass doors for privacy, but the other one is totally open to the living area below it.
The kitchen is a combination of Ikea upper cabinets and stock MDF cabinets that John clad with bamboo veneers. I came up with an idea to double our counter space. Two storage units under the countertop roll out and are topped with butcher block, so they become food prep islands. John clad the MDF shelves and cabinets surrounding the fireplace with the same bamboo veneers we used in the kitchen, which gives them a very luxurious, custom-made feel.
Lisa Skolnik is a mother of four and a writer living in Chicago. As the former Chicago editor of Metropolitan Home, she's been in countless homes built with unlimited budgets. Seeing Nancy Church and Charlie Jett's dreamy beach pad ("Come Sail Away," June 2011) gave her new hope that "even normal folk can aspire to own a house that's cost effective to build and maintain."