If an attorney who represents himself has a fool for a client, as the expression goes, what of an architect?
Matthew Trzebiatowski didn’t know the answer, but he was aware of some of the potential pitfalls and benefits when he opted to pursue this path, working in partnership with his wife, Lisa, to construct their new home/office, which they named Xeros. The recently completed three-story steel, glass, concrete, and wire mesh structure abuts the North Mountain Preserve in the edgy Phoenix neighborhood of Sunnyslope. Matthew, a self-described corn-fed, Midwest farmboy of 33, chose to head west to Phoenix to jump-start his career after studying architecture at the University of Wisconsin. "It’s still the open West," Matthew says of Arizona. "If I had stayed home, I’d have spent half my career just doing interiors—I would never have had the chance to do a house so early on."
Throwing himself fully into the project, Matthew had a surfeit of ideas. "The architect as his own client can be one of the greatest blessings," Matthew says, "or one of the most complex problems. You have every idea that you want to get out, but no one to edit you. And it’s not only your home, but your calling card." He managed to overcome the glut of ideas through the input of his wife, who worked as a clinical director at a mental-health hospital before joining her husband as managing partner of their firm, Blank Studio. "Some of the most brilliant editing," he says, "was done by my wife."
Ultimately, the Trzebiatowskis came up with several goals they hoped to accomplish with their new house, not to mention principles to abide by. "The name ‘Xeros,’" Matthew says of the Greek word for dry, "is about being cognizant of where we’re building. Phoenix is a hot, dry place, and you try to remind yourself of that every time you make a decision."
But environmental concern didn’t completely drive the design. "Many more things could have been done, and should be done," Matthew admits. "We’re not off the grid, and we could have used things like solar power and composting toilets. And we don’t have thoroughly insulated glass."
But by following a few basic principles of sustainability and urbanism, the Trzebiatowskis achieved some of their goals. And they believe much of what they did can be replicated by others through simple design decisions.
"Work with the existing infrastructure," Matthew says. "Don’t keep going outward and gobbling up more real estate—go into the city, go into the texture that’s already there. If you can, go in and rehab an existing residence."
Indeed, the choice of neighborhood can have a greater impact than any other decision in the process, Matthew believes. "We feel the most important thing we did was to go into a place like Sunnyslope that had not only economic depression but also some social questionability. It needed a second life. A residence like Xeros can turn that around," Matthew claims. "We can recycle a neighborhood as well as materials."
While that’s not always possible, homeowners and potential buyers can definitely take home a few lessons from the Trzebiatowskis that will affect not only their own residences but also the cities in which they reside—and perhaps even the planet at large.
For instance, hot, sunny locations require substantial shade, and simple efforts like well-placed trees can provide that. "If you can use organic material," Matthew says, "that’s always the most pleasant way, both psychologically and in reality." Even in cooler climates, vegetation can help, but proper selection is essential. "Plant deciduous trees: In the summer, they’re in full foliage and give the shade you need; in winter, they drop those and you get the heat energy you need at that time."
Homes built on tight lots may not allow the addition of new trees, but other solutions are available. "You can add an exterior screen effect," Matthew offers. "People do this in different ways, including something as basic as installing awnings."
The Trzebiatowskis know about this firsthand, as Xeros sits on a narrow footprint—just 12 feet wide for most of the structure. The building’s severe lines catch the eye, but it’s the rusting steel frame and exterior curtains of metal mesh that really demand attention. At Xeros, the mesh curtain is not simply an overhanging shade. "It’s truly a veil," Matthew says. "There’s so much intensity of the outdoor amount of lumens and lights, but when you’re inside it completely evaporates, disappears. The amount of glazing we have in this space would be really overpowered if we didn’t have it."
If the live/work space sounds small, it feels wildly spacious to its occupants, who lived in the site’s original 20-by-20-foot uninsulated shoe-box house for a year and a half before beginning construction. Blank Studio occupies the ground floor and a mezzanine level, the latter of which is complete with shower and espresso machine; a spiral staircase crafted from a single piece of steel connects those two levels. The compact residential section, reached by climbing an exposed steel staircase, sits above.
Both Matthew and Lisa express delight with Xeros. "We call it sensual minimalism," Matthew says of their home’s style. "We’re definitely modernists and minimalists at heart when it comes to design."
While not everyone can build their own house, Matthew insists that anyone—architect or not—can apply the couple’s ideas in order to take the right step toward a sustainable future. For instance, it may seem obvious, but mindful placement of windows can have a substantial impact on a home and its power needs. Matthew and Lisa chose to exclude major windows on the west side of their home because that’s the side that takes the brunt of the sun every day. "All these spec houses going up [put windows everywhere no matter what]," Matthew muses. "Just don’t put a window on those surfaces [that get sun all day]. Simple off-the-shelf design decisions like that can really affect energy needs."
The Trzebiatowskis will no doubt outgrow the compact Xeros house, so Matthew may then design and build a new home for himself and his family. If that means having a fool for a client once again, he will at the very least be a wiser fool—and one with new concepts ripe for experimentation.