UNCG students add modernist touch

by Amy Kingsley

Baltic birch appointments, insulated concrete walls and ironic moldings aren’t exactly the kinds of improvements Lillie and James Marshall expected when they called the city seeking help bringing their condemned home up to code.

But that is what they got, as part of a brand new home designed and built by students in UNCG’s interior architecture program in collaboration with the Greensboro Department of Housing and Community Development. The students opened their creation to the public on Dec. 15 and dozens toured the stylish cottage, marveling at the high ceilings, hardwood floors and deep-set windows.

“I call this gentle modernism,” says Robert Charest, a professor in the department who taught the class.

The shape of this brand new house on Dillard Street is not so different from its neighbors. It’s got a peaked roof, wide porch and several quaintly paned windows.

There are, however, differences. The roof is covered in corrugated metal and those porch columns do their structural work without the benefit of ornamentation.

This house is more than just a home or a class project. It’s a conversation.

When Charest mentions gentle modernism, he’s referring to the delicate dance the twentysomethings under his watch choreographed between their modernist impulses and the constraints of the traditional Glenwood neighborhood.

“Typical design students are interested in whatever the trends they see in publications like Architectural Digest and Dwell magazine. The focus right now is very much on returning to the modern.”

That means square boxes, minimal ornamentation and vast glass surfaces. The kind of home, in other words, that might look a bit out of place among the Queen Annes, bungalows, shotgun shacks and prefabricated houses typical of Greensboro’s oldest planned community.

“We had to be careful to insert this house into the neighborhood,” Charest says.

The Marshall’s new home is laid out along a linear floor plan. An entryway empties into a modest living room separated from the kitchen by an island of cabinet space. The students topped it with a thick slab of acid-treated concrete polished down to something between onyx and marble. The house teases a modest amount of concrete and steel underneath its siding exterior, just enough to titillate modernist sensibilities.

“I had never been around concrete before,” says Jenny Thornton, a third-year student. “I found out it’s really heavy and hard to pour.”

Thornton and 19 other students got to spend plenty of time working with concrete over the semester. The class demolished the Marshalls’ decrepit wood-frame home and replaced it with a structure built with insulated concrete forms. Student construction workers framed the house with the interlocking blocks, which they then filled with concrete. The resulting house is almost impervious to temperatures outside.

“They’re going to be paying very little in heating and cooling,” Thornton said.

Students selected to participate in urban studio spent last summer drafting proposals for the house that they presented and discussed during the first week. One student, Amber Snipes, researched sanctuaries and sacred spaces that incorporated features like high ceilings and gabled roofs. The class adopted many of Snipes’ ideas for the final plan, Thornton said.

Although the students raced to complete the project, all done for a considerably meager $43,000, before the opening, a few details remained unfinished. At the back of the house the Marshalls surveyed a narrow stairwell. It needs a handrail before they return in early January.

Handrail or no, the Marshalls, who are the most important critics of all, are unequivocal in their assessment.

“It’s a nice home, isn’t it?” Lillie Marshall says. “I love it, love it.”

To comment on this article, e-mail Amy Kingsley at