It’s hard to shock people in Columbus, Indiana. Over the past 80 years, the world’s most famous architects – Eero Saarinen, IM Pei, Robert Venturi – have come to the small town to construct buildings that our idea of what a church, library or a CEO’s house should look like have changed. However, few of these commissions were cheap. Last year, Columbus-based Nick Slabaugh had perhaps the most shocking idea in a place where everything was seen: great architecture should be affordable for everyone.
Slabaugh lives in the working class Chestnut Street neighborhood near downtown Columbus. When a small amount went on the market there, he saw an opportunity to start an urban development project that he had been thinking about for years. The cybersecurity consultant wanted to build a high-design, low-cost home. His friend Jonathan Nesci, an internationally known designer who lives in the area, connected him with Chicago architect Grant Gibson. Slabaugh presented Gibson with a challenge: create plans for a house that a person with the median income in the country – about $ 55,000 – could buy.
“Columbus is obviously a special place for architecture,” said Gibson of his decision to accept the job. “After Chicago, I don’t think there’s a better place in the Midwest. So I didn’t have to worry about designing something completely different from the old Victorians in the neighborhood. “
The result was Columbus House No. 1, a two bedroom, two bath residence that sums up some references to the city’s great buildings in less than 1,000 square feet. The large dome skylight over the central collection area is a nod to Saarinen’s nearby Irwin Union Bank. Architecture fans may recognize the sunken front window from the IM Pei library in downtown Columbus, where Slabaugh spent much of his time as a boy. And the underground interior with built-in seating owes something to the sunken conversation pit of the famous Miller House.
This half-buried profile means that Columbus House No. 1 is only 3 meters above the ground. “It’s very small and inconspicuous,” says Slabaugh. “If you walk down the street I don’t think she’ll jump out. Some people find it more unusual than I do. “
From the outside, the house looks claustrophobic to anyone tall enough to play high school basketball. But the underground drop enables ceilings with normal height. Gibson wanted this feature to surprise visitors, and it has the added benefit of insulating the energy efficient home. The skylight, the largest he could find in North America, offers another revelation. Since it is made up of two layers of curved glass, the color of the light bathing the living room below changes as the day progresses. At dawn, a pale blue could tint the walls and polished concrete floor. a tangerine orange at dusk.
The bedrooms and bathrooms – located on the four corners, another reference to the Miller House – reflect the modest size of the house. In fact, the bathrooms are so narrow that Gibson had to build in relatively thin wall-mounted toilets to fit into the space. However, no compromises have been made in the kitchen, in which an angled island designed by Nesci and bar stools lean into one another. Building the house during the pandemic required limiting the number of people on the project, which resulted in an unexpected upgrade. “We had planned to get just a couple of Ikea cabinets,” says Gibson, “but in the end Jonathan designed these too.”
Slabaugh is currently renting Columbus House # 1 to two architecture students on the IU campus, but plans to sell it for less than $ 200,000 in the near future. In talks with several other architects about another piece of land he owns, he hopes one day to attract investors and build several houses a year.
“I think Project # 2 will be completely different,” he says. “I would like to introduce the many possibilities at this price. Yes, it improves my neighborhood and I firmly believe in the social cohesion that investing in dense urban cores brings with it. But I also need to address a philosophical point: you can have architecturally interesting apartments that are affordable for the average person. “