Chicago Cottage goes Modern With Charred Wood Addition


Our energy-efficient renovation at Carmen Avenue is now complete! 

This single family cottage had burst through its britches and then some. The kids needed a new bedroom, and the busy family was definitely in need of a second bathroom. The existing space felt far from modern with lots of smaller rooms cordoned off from each other. The solution? We opened up the floor plan, relocating the family room to the rear of the house to take advantage of sunlight. We added a new master suite and private balcony, and clad the whole addition in charred wood siding (more on that below). Radiant floor heating and a general refresh took the basement into livable territory. We maintained the century-old masonry on the front entrance to help old meet new. Read more about this classic Chicago building type here: Worker Cottage.

To read more about the construction process and project background, read our post: Coming Soon: Carmen Avenue Sustainable Renovation adds Openness and Energy Efficiency.

All photos are courtesy of the wonderful Mike Riviera.


We opted for an eclectic-modern style that blended sophisticated black, white and grey over sleek surfaces with found light fixtures, which perfectly grounded the more playful elements in the house: organic shapes on wallpaper and tile with bright colors and original masonry. Industrial touches can be found throughout the house, too.


Knocking out the existing back exterior wall was key in joining our new addition with the new open, split-level we envisioned. This opened up the kitchen to flow into the new family room in the back, with the sleek, new kitchen cabinets acting as a guardrail. 

Slide bar to see before and after

In addition to upgrading the interior of the home and spiffing up the floor plan, we also wanted to update the building envelope itself for maximum efficiency. One way we did this was by replacing the older windows with Ultrex wood-clad windows from Integrity from Marvin Windows and Doors. This low-e 3 glass provides superior insulation.

View of the overhang


The exterior is clad with Gendai charred cedar siding from Nakamoto Forestry.

You may have heard of charred wood siding lately—that’s because this method of beautifully preserving wood cladding via flame has been seeing a big swell in the U.S over the past few years.

This traditional finishing technique hails from Japan, where the charring process (known as Yakisugi or Shou Sugi Ban) helps make solid wood planks fire and rot resistant. This can be a major problem in a climate like Japan, where humid conditions can test even the driest of woods. Regardless of where it’s used, charred cedar has a unique texture—almost like the glossy, cracked surface of a burnt marshmallow— and it keeps the wood resistant to all kinds of weather and insects. Basically, this time-tested technique ages beautifully. The wall cladding is a traditional shiplap or square milled plank design, which creates a uniform look. We then soaked it with two coats of penetrating oil to keep it from drying out. 

Our supplier Nakamoto Forestry was a delight to work with, which should be no surprise, since they are the largest supplier of Yakisugi in the world, with both American distribution and production out of Portland, Oregon, and four mills in Hiroshima and Toukshima. Japanese architect Terunobu Fuijimori designed this house in Nagano, Japan heavily utilizing Yakisugi to achieve the house’s striking look. To learn more, check out this video tour of a Yakisugi factory. 


Before architects ever take hammer to nail, they must carefully consider the massing of their new building (or in our case, addition). Massing determines and analyzes the size, shape, angle, and density of a building’s footprint. All of this effects how the building will optimize passive light and energy sources like sun and wind, or living green features, like our green roof above. One of the most glaring (no pun intended) problems we observed with the original Carmen house layout, was that it failed to take advantage of the home’s south-facing backyard. South-facing plants get the most direct sun per day, and so do balconies, patios and windows. This solar surge was too good to pass up, so we added glazing and a mini-flight of stairs to take advantage of this free light and heat for the family room and kitchen.

A cutaway of the house shows the family room at grade with the yard for optimum sun-soaking

Our massing diagram helped us dissect the sun’s angles, but one of the central tenants of passive design, especially in the midwest, is that passive features need to work for multiple weather conditions in their specified climate, while still using few inputs. Tons of windows around a South-facing lot would be aces at making use of passive solar heat gain, but what about when it was already hot and sunny every summer?

The master suite balcony overhang provides natural shade for the South-facing family room windows and the lawn chairs (check them out above) for those high-80’s days Chicago knows all too well. The master suite balcony is more than just a city living luxury—it is an elegant part of our overall passive design strategy. The level below is able to cool off in the summer without blasting the a/c due to the shadow created from the overhang.

Sunlight from the South-facing backyard streams into the house’s family room and kitchen


One of the core principles of moss’ approach to design is connection to nature. When we approached the remodel at Carmen house, we wanted to find a way to join the backyard with the new family room in a way that didn’t involve a deck, flight of stairs or other barrier to enjoyment of the outdoors. It made natural sense to relocate the family room to the rear of the home for increased privacy, and the next logical step was to sink it down to grade so it could meet the edge of the yard easily (and parents could observe kids playing outdoors easily too!) Once we had decided to go with the split level design, we realized that building the family room on a slab would allow us to install heated floors for added comfort and efficiency. Another benefit of having the family room at the ground level? Thirteen foot ceilings.

Laying the foundation for hydronic heat

Most homes in Chicago have a usable basement but that doesn’t keep these below-ground levels from being the chilliest part of the house. Thats why we went with radiant heat to bring warmth from the ground up.
We elected to go with hydronic radiant heat for the basement and the sunken family room. Radiant floor heating depends on either hot water or electricity to achieve its toasty status, but hot water is easier to install if the residence already has a boiler. 


To update the bathroom, we nixed shower/tub combos for good, adding two kinds of tile in the glass shower stall: subway for the walls, and a small hexagonal pattern for better grip on the floor. A vintage-inspired Kohler double sink adds personality and a wall hung toilet keeps things clean and tidy. In the master powder room, a client favorite is the sculptural standalone tub, which helps turn any soak into a spa day. The shower stall has two of our favorite bathroom details for both functionality and aesthetics—the recessed shower shelf and linear shower drain.


Most closets are dark and gloomy setups, but we’re determined to change that sad state of affairs one closet at a time. We use shoji screen doors and translucent cutaways to let light shine through, or in this case, we scrapped the closet’s limitations entirely, and conceptualized it as an entire wall of functional millwork.

This sprawling closet occupies an entire wall of the master bedroom with custom millwork that blends seamlessly into the wall when not in use, and provides more than enough space to keep items off the floor. 


It’s amazing how the little details can really make a place feel like home. Whether its a unique brass doorplate, a spiral staircase next to 110-year old masonry (and still going strong!) or playful industrial cabinet pulls. As you browse some of our detail shots, keep an eye out for the different pops of colorful tile.

People & Products

Millwork: Fricano Custom Cabinetry
Doors/Windows: Marvin
Wood Siding: Nakamoto Forestry
Plumbing Fixtures: Kohler, Toto, Blanco
Appliances: Bosch, Bertazzoni, Kitchenaid
Lighting: Rejuvenation, Juno, Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Co.
Wood Floor: Carlson’s Barnwood