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From the street, Lindsey Locks and James Steinhilber’s house, a crisp, two-story box with a gable roof and vinyl siding, is unassuming. Step inside, however, and the home is a standout. “You walk into a big, open space with a glass wall at the end that looks out to all this green,” Locks says.
It was the 100-feet-deep lot that attracted the couple, who were ready to start a family but reluctant to leave the area. “We like the walkability and diversity of an urban environment, which coincides with a smaller plot,” Locks says. “We were excited to find a house with a yard that’s giant by East Cambridge standards.” The downside? The 2,500-square-foot workers cottage, built in 1800, was split into two rabbit warren-like condos and needed to be transformed into a functional single-family home.
Exhaustive research turned up architect Isamu Kanda, whose Cambridge roots, unique aesthetic, and enthusiasm clinched it for the couple, even though they hadn’t anticipated going modern. After running through the pair’s priorities — pulling in light, connecting the interior to the yard, demolishing the back staircase and rebuilding the front one — it made sense to start from scratch, save for a portion of the foundation.
Kanda followed the same footprint, but simplified the form and dug a full basement. The big question was how to get light into a narrow dwelling that is sandwiched between much larger neighbors.
The solution? A triple-height lightwell/stairwell on the south side of the house. A high window with reeded glass lets in natural light that penetrates the interior, all the way to the basement. “The only way to have a big enough lightwell was to have it double as a stairwell,” the architect says. “From midmorning to midafternoon, the sun just clears the neighbor’s roofline and pours in.”
The three-story statement staircase is suspended from the second-story ceiling. Forty-nine structural steel rods ranging from 4-feet-long (for the top step) to 19-feet-long (for the bottom step), all 1 inch in diameter, support 12 oak plywood treads and two landings. A thin steel bar runs parallel to the oak handrail to ensure that the vertical rods remain rigid. “The alternative to adding the horizontal bar was to use thicker rods, but we were afraid it would seem jail-like,” Locks says. “The whole idea was for the stair to be as open as possible.”
Glass panels surround the stairwell on the main level, which accentuates the suspended nature of the stair, keeps the interior airy, and provides a space to show off the couple’s houseplants. There is also an upper planter nestled into a wall under the second-story window.
The main level has an open layout with the living room in the middle, furnished with family hand-me-downs, and the kitchen and dining area in back. Here, a 16-feet-wide expanse of glass has French sliders that open to the yard. “A sun-drenched kitchen connected to the yard was always the vision,” Locks says.
To make the most of the space upstairs, the couple’s closet — done in floor-to-ceiling mirrors that create a fun-house effect — doubles as the passageway from the landing to their bedroom. All three bedrooms have vaulted ceilings with exposed beams. To keep costs down, the team used conventional framing lumber sanded for a smoother finish. “Once installed it was a no-brainer; there was no way we were going to close that ceiling,” Locks says. “It’s stunning and makes the whole second floor feel bigger.”
When it came to the bath, there was some discussion. Not only is it fairly open to the bedroom with just a floating wall dividing the spaces — though there’s a separate toilet room and a private shower — the two rooms are the same size. Locks wondered if a sitting room would make more sense, but trusted Kanda’s instincts. “He said it will feel like a luxury hotel,” Locks recalls. “Now that I’m in the space, I get it.”
Architect: I-Kanda Architects, i-kanda.com
Structural engineer: Silman, silman.com
Contractor: Sager & Son, sagerandson.com
Steelworker: Mill City Iron Fabricators, millcityiron.com
Woodworker: Gath Woodworking, gathwoodworking.com