nexus house - madison, wisconsin
The Nexus House, a compact residence for a young family of four, occupies a small vacant lot in Madison’s University Heights neighborhood, a designated historic district in the city center with iconic homes by Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Keck & Keck, and many others. Successfully contesting the local preservation ordinance whose strict guidelines advocated stylistic mimicry while failing to recognize the neighborhood’s rich architectural diversity, we designed a quiet but unapologetically contemporary building. Its formally restrained volume is discreetly placed in the back of the trapezoidal site, where it avoids direct visual competition with its two dignified neighbors – a hundred-year old Spanish Colonial home and the Ely House from 1896, a cherished landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.
The 1,980 sf house is composed of two principal building blocks: a two-story brick podium partially embedded in the site’s existing slope; and a linear cedar-clad meander that wraps up and over the podium before transforming into a cantilever, its overhang providing shade for the south-facing main level patio. Following this binary parti, the home’s “public” functions – garage, support rooms, and an open living hall – are located in the brick base, while its “private” spaces – upper level bedrooms, baths, and a small reading room – are housed in the cedar volume.
Exterior steps lead up the slope to the home’s front door, a glazed recess with a delicate steel canopy marking the vertical joint between the two distinct building blocks. The glass entry door opens into a small foyer that leads into the main living hall, an open space for cooking, eating, and sitting, where a series of floor-to-ceiling windows offer arriving guests expansive, carefully framed views into the neighborhood. The deliberately neutral interiors of the living hall are complemented by a troika of dark-stained wood objects that anchor the open space: a small entertainment center; a fireplace and chimney; and a wood wall and canopy cradling an intimate side lounge, which can be separated from the living hall with large pocket doors to serve as a guest bedroom or quiet study. Stairs lead up to the upper level and terminate in a small reading lounge shared by the adjacent three bedrooms.
The carefully restrained exterior material palette is limited to brick and wood. Manufactured in Wisconsin, the elongated Norman brick with horizontally raked mortar joints complements the flush horizontal cedar siding sourced from the state’s northern forests. Together, the saturated dark purple of the ironspot brick and the natural warmth of the sealed wood siding add an unexpected polychrome to the formally disciplined building mass, a subtle nod at the bold colors of the neighborhood’s Victorian homes.