Designing an innovative house is a rite of passage
for many young architects. But building in a city doesn’t always make experimentation easy; after all, neighbors have their own ideas about how a block is supposed to look.
When Ho Ping Kong and Tan found their site
back in 2001, it held a building you could literally back a truck into: a contractor’s warehouse with
a storage yard. Yet the two-story concrete-block structure seemed like the perfect place to begin. “Here, you don’t have to conform with the facades of the street,” Ho Ping Kong says. And the building itself “was so elemental—a block and an empty space,” Tan says. “It was perfect. We weren’t paying for things we didn’t want to use and we could experiment with all our crazy ideas.”
Ho Ping Kong and Tan wanted to push that effort to an extreme with a house totally sealed off from the street, where all the windows looked inward. Today, it seems that their idea isn’t so crazy after all. They’ve rebuilt the warehouse as a two-story home for themselves, their children, and their growing business. From the outside, there’s not much to see: Most of the warehouse’s walls remain, the front door is notched into a blank facade, and the yard is hidden behind a rampart of concrete block. “When we first moved in, a lot of neighbors didn’t even believe this was a house,” Tan recalls.
Inside it’s a different story. As you enter from the alley, the interior unfolds like a magic trick, with
a 30-foot-wide main floor that opens onto a broad, sunlit courtyard. It’s a project that evolved as it
went along, the couple says, sitting in their wood-paneled living room while their kids, five-year-old Abbe and four-year-old Ian, play nearby. When they first started they never would have imagined that they were building for a family of four.
Their own living room shows how they’ve transformed the ancient idea into something contemporary. A long wall of cedar-framed windows opens onto the main courtyard, and the setting sun washes in from both sides to paint the patio stones and a single Japanese maple with the last drops of daylight. There are no views of the world outside the walls—just another glassed-in pavilion across the way, which provides storage and a model-making workshop for their growing architecture firm, Studio Junction Inc.
Though flexible design is key to accommodating a growing family, the most important element in making this building work as a living space is the abundant daylight that pours in from above. The second-story courtyard that was carved out of the house creates windows in every room, and a clerestory lets light into the first floor.
The transformation of this alleyway warehouse into a sophisticated piece of architecture was a remarkable feat, but while the couple acknowledges the creative achievement, they’re quite pragmatic about its function as an industrial reclamation project. It makes for good urbanism, they argue, by adding another family to a city block without disrupting the fabric of the neighborhood. Having literally made their dreams into a concrete reality, they feel better equipped to do the same for others. “We’re better architects, ” Ho Ping Kong says, “for learning how to build.”