Shou Sugi Ban Charred Timber House


We just received the building permit for our latest residential remodeling project, the Shou Sugi Ban Timber House, and construction starts now! The renovation of this River West, 1880s-era building will modernize interior and exterior spaces, create additional living space and a connection to the backyard, and add new life to a building that could have easily been demolished.


Shou Sugi Ban (焼杉板), which literally translates to “burnt cedar board,” is a traditional, centuries-old Japanese technique that involves scorching and blackening timber to prolong the life of the wood by making it resistant to decay, weather, and bug infestation. It is also known as yakisugi in Japan – yaki means to heat with fire, and sugi refers to cypress. It’s believed that the technique dates back as early as the 1700s and began as a process to fireproof fencing and facades of markets and homes to protect goods from fire.

The process involves lighting planks of wood on fire, followed by cooling the timber with water. Next, the charcoal layer is cleaned and finished with a preserving oil, and the resulting product reveals a deep charcoal black color with a silver sheen. The final result is a unique cladding material rich in color and texture that is very natural looking and has the ability to capture and reflect light. Light reflection can accentuate a building’s surroundings producing interesting shades and patterns.

Because of its sustainable nature, texture and color, we applied Shou Sugi Ban charred wood on several building projects, including the Carmen Avenue renovation. When we suggested using the cladding material for this project, our clients loved the idea! So much so that they will tackle the job of charring the wood themselves rather than buying a finished product.



The 1880s brick house sits on an irregular, triangle lot with elevated train tracks running at an angle in front of the building. Whenever possible, we salvage the bones of a building to reduce the amount of landfill waste. However, due to deferred maintenance, we cannot salvage the crumbling facade, and it didn’t respond well to the site.

We’re removing and replacing the existing facade with more appropriate materials for a sustainably designed southern exposure. We’ll install a combination of brick and vertical charred wood cladding, retaining the traditional brick look blended with the striking detail of the black timber. The Shou Sugi Ban timber is intended to reference railroad ties on the “L” tracks near the front of the house while providing privacy and shading from western light.


Our renovation began with rethinking the layout of the building’s interior to accommodate our client’s lifestyle. The young couple is a creative professional duo who needs a live/work loft space with an open floor plan centered around a kitchen. Also, they want a master suite combined with a living space, kid’s bedrooms and space for guests, and multiple access points to the outside.

We’re giving the structure a little boost with a new steel system frame on the first floor, and for efficiency, we’ll build out the second and third floors with a conventional frame. Replacing windows and doors with Low-E 3 glass and blasting the walls with highly-efficient insulation will significantly improve the building envelope.

To increase living space, we are removing the existing attic roof while retaining the masonry side and rear walls to create a third floor. We designed a perfect spot for a roof garden on the third level, which will have a flat roof structure. Over time, the green oasis will flourish with heat-absorbing plants that attract beneficial insects while mitigating water runoff to the overall site.

The animation shows our basic concept and program in six stages.


While the new exterior facade is a dark pallet, we focused on applying lighter, Japanese-inspired, natural materials for the interior. Stepping inside, the interior will be bright and airy, with new windows and an open staircase with a two-story space at the bottom landing. The large windows and floor-to-ceiling glass folding wall on the first level allow the interior spaces to enjoy ample natural light and air ventilation, reducing the home’s reliance on artificial energy. Custom white oak millwork cabinetry and details will flow throughout the house, adding a warm and calming hue.


The house’s ground floor was gutted at some point, so there weren’t many obstacles to designing an open living and workspace. We positioned the kitchen and dining spaces near the newly enlarged window system to take advantage of sideyard views. The workspace functions as a fusion kitchen photo studio, and the amount of natural light is a welcome free light source for our clients.

We’re adding several bedrooms and a guest bedroom to the second floor, and the third-floor addition is where the master suite and living area are positioned. Our clients will feel thoroughly pampered in their deluxe master suite with a fireplace, swanky bar, and lounging areas. They might find it hard to leave the retreat-like space with lavish amenities, spaciousness, and a private deck.


It’s hard to resist the temptation to expose brick walls, which impart timeless texture and character to a space. Our clients were interested in exposing some of the existing historical Chicago Common masonry in the interior, which takes a little ingenuity.

Considering our current energy code requirements, exposed masonry at the exterior and interior of a wall is nearly impossible. It’s typical for builders to keep exposed masonry at the exterior face and build an insulated furring wall at the interior. We think they have it backward. Here, we designed an insulated cement board, the waterproof membrane at the masonry’s exterior side. This type of rainscreen allows us to keep the interior exposed to the masonry surface. And an added benefit to this design is that the masonry will act as a thermal mass in the winter by absorbing and storing heat during the day and releasing it back into the space at night.


There is such potential with the amount of side and rear yard space. And in its current condition, the only connection to the yard is a rickety door that opens to an awkward set of steps leading to the yard. We plan to maximize the connection between the interior and exterior by replacing the side entry door with a large-scale folding glass wall system that really connects to the site’s open space.

The folding doors opening to the walkway merge with the yard, creating more usable space, especially during warmer months. The cantilever overhang that juts out from the second and third floors provides shade and protective cover during rainy months.

We’re eager to begin work on this project to make some vast improvements to the space’s livability and overall aesthetics. Below are a few photos of the existing exterior and interior conditions, and you can check out our social media platforms for construction updates.

Front and side exterior views