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A Modern Retreat

Corten steel helps residence blend into surroundings seamlessly

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Located in a wooded cul-de-sac neighborhood in Durham, N.C., this single-family residence, nicknamed Piedmont Retreat, is wrapped in vertical Corten steel panels facing the street, and vast expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass and cantilevered windows in the back that overlook the surrounding forest.

The owners reached out to Raleigh, N.C.-based Tonic Design and Tonic Construction to design and build the residence. “It’s a corner lot,” says Vincent Petrarca, co-owner, designer and contractor at Tonic Design, “so the house really had to respond to the two streets. And for us, trying to create a place that’s calm and a getaway, the idea of even a few streetlights at night on the corner, the house really had to turn its back on the street. So the house created this hard shell to that side of the property, and then it really opens up, like a geode, looking down the Piedmont ravine into the mature forest.”

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Petrarca goes on to say they thought of the building similar to how when you slice a tree trunk and it has a thick bark on the outside, and if it dries out, it checks open. “We saw the opening as being a metaphor for the house,” he says. “This sort of opening up to the site, but it still has a vertical bark skin on the house.”

Facing the street, the house looks like it’s one story, but because of the slope of the lot, the site lends itself to a two-story house. The residence’s living spaces are open to an array of shifting perspectival views within and throughout, and the daily process of moving throughout the spaces is grounded by seeing the building from within and discovering a new vantage point of the site.

The house is designed so 90 percent of the spaces used most often are on one level—the master suite, kitchen, living room, dining room, etc. Downstairs there are two guest suites. “We put the main level of the house as close as we could to the street, so that everything is on one level,” Petrarca says. “They basically live on the main level, which is kind of into the trees as you go further into the site, based on the slope of the land.”

To connect the modest residence with the site’s lush landscape, Katherine Hogan, AIA, LEED AP, co-owner and architect at Tonic Design, says they wanted to open it up so the owners could enjoy the site, but also be private. Therefore, the back of the house features floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the site. “We really tried to be site-responsive,” she says. “It’s really about being in the building, and seeing the building, and seeing the landscape, but also fitting into the site and being private.”

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Corten was chosen because it provided the least amount of maintenance as possible, and when it’s finished weathering, the house will blend seamlessly into the surrounding forest. “Using the vertical striped Corten and the ribs, we thought was similar to the trees that we took away for the site so it would blend in,” Petrarca says. “And it really does blend in. The Corten gets more and more mature over time, and darker, and it kind of blends into those wet tree trunks in the winter.”

The Corten siding is 4-foot by 10-foot sheets, which Petrarca says creates a fish-scale kind of effect with the horizontal lines and the staggered joints. “That scale helps break it down, the closer you get to the house too,” he says.

“There are a lot of rusted agricultural buildings in our area,” Hogan adds, “but it’s not seen as a refined and beautiful thing. We tried to take that and reinterpret in in this building. I think the tones and colors of the Corten really do blend in with the trees and the site.”

The Corten panels are installed vertically on the house to connect with the verticalness of a tree’s bark. “By putting those lines on the building, we felt that it would blend in and disappear more and more as the building matures,” Petrarca says.

Additionally, the homeowners were interested in using reclaimed and repurposed materials wherever possible. Therefore, Hogan and Petrarca created contrasts between old and new, raw and refined by complementing the steel-glass contrast with new, modern fixtures and finishes juxtaposed with reclaimed wood floors, recycled factory lights, and pieces from the owner’s collection of art, objects and furniture.