Matthew and Maria Salenger are both artists and architects. That is perhaps the main reason they could not reach a consensus about the design of their dream home.
One thing they agreed on: They intended to live unconventionally.
When they purchased their 1953 Tempe bungalow, the first thing they did was gut the 1,150-square-foot building, which had not been remodeled since the 1950s. The space included three small bedrooms, two very small bathrooms, a dining room and an all-pink kitchen.
“I wanted to live in the house for a little while and get a feel for the neighborhood and the property and what the house was like and what it was needing,” Matthew Salenger said, “but Maria said, ‘No way, we’re gutting the whole thing right away.’ ”
Initially, all of the rooms were closed off, giving the space a stuffier feel. But the couple preferred to live in a more flexible environment. They removed most of the walls and created a large open room instead.
During this experimental and bohemian phase in their lives, the homeowners slept in mobile bedrooms they built in the backyard. These "sleeping pods," as they called them, were built with steel and corrugated fiberglass. One had to walk across the lawn to access them, and they were just large enough for a full-size bed.
“It was really neat for a while,” Salenger said, “but then we got married, and we got pregnant. Having to walk from the pod in the middle of the night to use the bathroom was untenable with Maria being pregnant. So we started sleeping inside.”
On top of that, the couple began running their firm, coLAB studio, out of their home. Holding meetings with employees in their home had become increasingly inconvenient, with visitors tripping on their son’s toys scattered over the floor. It was clear that they needed more space. Only this time, they decided that they could not think exclusively like artists. They needed to consider the resale appeal of the home.
“At this point we had gutted the home and it had no resale value whatsoever. It was worthless,” Salenger said. “We didn’t want to make that mistake again. We wanted something that had some resale value, but we still wanted to live unconventionally. But couldn’t agree on what that would be. So we decided to let other people decide.”
They sent out a survey to 47 potential homebuyers. They asked the participants what the most important attributes to a home were. The No. 1 answer was a great room that combined kitchen, dining and living room. No. 2 was a garage. No. 3, walk-in closets. The homeowners eventually complied with all of these suggestions.
But then, completely unsolicited, a large number of respondents came back with the idea of an atrium or a courtyard. This gave the Salengers an idea that inspired the entire design of their house.
“So the courtyard and the great room became the two major design elements. Immediately, we knew how to design the house. Once we had the survey results and we really analyzed them, we knew exactly how we wanted to make this work, and we designed it within a week or two,” Salenger said.
The solution, they decided, was to build a 1,000-square-foot addition at the other end of the property, with the lawn in the center between the two buildings. The perimeter of the property then would be enclosed with etched tempered-glass panels on either side to create a courtyard. The work took about 10 months and was completed in 2010.
Inside the original building, used mainly for sleeping, they designed four movable wardrobes in order to separate each bedroom. These can be reconfigured to create up to five rooms, as needed.
The addition has an all-glass facade with a view of the lush lawn and serves as a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and, separated by a bookshelf wall, a workspace. The two buildings are connected through shaded walkways on either side of the courtyard. For many people, that would not seem practical.
“To us there’s a ritual to it,” Salenger said. “Of having to walk in between and experiencing nature. I grew up in a Chinese courtyard house on Maui, where you had to go outside to go between each room. Most of the rooms were not joined. And it’s a wonderful experience because it provides that mental break between one side of the house and the other. And it reconnects you with nature, even it it’s just for just a few seconds. And it also puts nature at the center of the house, so you get to see birds playing …”
Salenger felt like he knew this intuitively, but he later found out that “there are studies that show that when you’re enclosed in a courtyard, it actually raises your ability to be productive, but also to be more calm. If you’re in a place like this where nobody can attack you or sneak up on you, it puts your mind at ease and helps to be productive.”
“When you look around,” he continued, “you can imagine that you’re absolutely anywhere. You can imagine that you’re out in the middle of the desert, for instance. Or that you’re right in the middle of downtown Tempe. And even though it feels very quiet and very secluded, we can walk to bars and restaurants, and the light rail.”
Seventeen years after purchasing their home, he said the couple now feel ready to move on to their next project.
But so far, they can’t agree on what that will be, either.
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