Under the Skin-Architect Bruce Norelius reveals his notion of layers in design

AIA Design Theory- August 2009

by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Trent Bell

The inspiration for an architectural design sometimes comes from unexpected sources. On a recent project, the desire to solve some pragmatic functional issues had architect Bruce Norelius and his firm Elliott Elliott Norelius Architecture considering a surprising array of things—onion skins, colonial wood clapboard houses, barns, and traditional wooden boats. While this assortment might seem random at first glance, a common thread unites it: the concept of layers, which ultimately opened up the possibilities for design.



AIA_wQ: Where did your idea of deconstructing a house into layers, or “skins,” come from?
A: We thought about our rich New England heritage of wood-frame houses clad with clapboards or shingles. I’m fascinated by the fact that old Maine houses have these layers to them. In many other northerly climates, houses were traditionally built with monolithic walls of stone or brick, plastered on the inside. But here in a land of abundant timber, builders constructed a wood skeleton and put a delicate skin of clapboards on the outside and a thin layer of plaster on the inside. We thought of the purpose of each of those layers, or “skins”:  clapboards to keep out the weather; wood frame for support; plaster for finish inside. What if we started to pull these layers apart and express each one individually? What if, like the hull of a wooden boat, or the inside of a barn, we could see each layer clearly? And what if, like an onion, we thought of the skin that encloses the space as many-layered, peeled away to reveal the essence inside?



Q: What were the homeowners’ goals for this project?
A: Our clients desired a thoroughly contemporary house with clean lines and expanses of glass, but we determined that designing a simple glazed box was impractical. First of all, there were the technical concerns of weather, energy usage, sun, views, and durability. Then there were the programmatic requirements of the clients: they wanted open views, but needed significant lengths of walls for art display and storage. They liked the idea of a glass box, but still wanted some cozy spaces. So we thought about how we could take all these parameters and use them as positive aspects of the solution, rather than thinking of them as obstructions to pure design.

Q: How did the resulting design develop?
A: Suddenly, even though we were borrowing from these design sources in a very abstract manner, the design concept started to fall into place for us. We could start to celebrate the complexity rather than fight it. The layers started to develop depending on their location in the house and the purpose served. They eventually included clear and translucent glass, vertical wood sunscreens, well-insulated walls, exposed concrete, and warm wood. In some of the most multilayered spaces, a band of open-backed shelving sits in front of glass walls, allowing natural backlighting of art objects. And the frame that holds it all up—hidden behind clapboards and plaster in a traditional house—is here sandwiched between these translucent layers and is treated as an important compositional element in the assembly.

Q: Has this concept of “skins” come into play on any of your other projects?
A: We did a steel-frame system at a studio and private art gallery space a few years ago that has a very similar take. Although it’s not as complex a system, it has the steel frame inside and a very traditional wood clapboard wall on the outside that, in many ways, looks traditional but is held away from that steel frame. So when you’re inside, it’s like a modern interpretation of an old timber barn where you see the posts and beams that hold everything up and then there’s just this layer on the outside of it. While it is simpler than the home pictured here, it’s the same idea. More typically, the frame or skin and interior finishes are all in that one plane.

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