Rather than demolishing an existing house, our latest residential renovation project reimagines the historic worker cottage as a modern, light-filled split level home for our client and their four-legged companion.
Originally constructed as a single-story worker cottage with an attic above, this building endured many haphazard renovations over time. The series of modifications severely altered the structure’s aesthetic from a two-flat back to a single-family house with odd-looking dormer and back porch additions. With a distorted character, the house needed special attention in retaining the most vital feature — the front elevation.
Our goal was to modernize the worker cottage while respecting and maintaining the traditional residential scale and street presence. We restored the street-facing facade and strategically added additional square footage to optimize modern urban living while improving the living space’s connection to the backyard. Creating easy access to the yard scored major points with the family doggo!
Maintaining The Historic Worker Cottage Character
The humble Workers Cottage is rapidly disappearing from Chicago’s neighborhoods. These historical gems, developed in the 1870s, are purchased and quickly demolished to make room for more modern housing types. And what is typically erected isn’t the most inspiring design-forward housing stock.
True to our sustainable nature and desire to preserve the cottage aesthetic, we salvaged as much of the existing home as possible to maintain the style. By keeping most of the existing exterior structure, we could keep a wider footprint because one side of the building was built right on the property line. If we had demolished the house and started with a clean slate, we would not have been permitted to build directly on the lot line. The destruction and start new approach would have diminished interior space allotment, and we’re already pressed for space when working within the typical 25′ x 125′ Chicago lot size.
Sketches from the schematic design phase displaying the existing worker cottage (above) and the site-oriented design approach with the new roof slope (below).
A lot of work went into the restoration of this building, including underpinning the foundation, designing a split-level, tuckpointing, rebuilding the damaged masonry on the facade, and creating a solution for installing solar panels.
Updated Floor Plan
Split-level design? Yes, you read that correctly. However, we’re not talking about the iconic 1970s Brady Bunch home. Although we like to think the fictional architect Mike Brady would approve of our design intervention with this project. There are several benefits to split-level design that works well in this particular renovation, including loftier 12′ ceilings and an open layout in the main living spaces, a first-floor guest suite, and a bonus partial basement level for the laundry room.
We kept the original floor configuration at the front to maintain the existing facade and connection to the front. The entry, guest room, and bathroom are located on the existing floor level. From there is where the ‘split’ begins. We installed a custom staircase and lowered the first floor to grade level in the back of the house. Then we removed the dreadful back porch and designed a spacious, light-filled kitchen, dining, and family room that opens up to the back yard.
Rather than installing carpeting or wood flooring, we poured a polished concrete floor, a more pooch-friendly flooring option. Beneath the concrete is where we installed radiant heat provided by a high-efficiency boiler. Adding in-floor heating at the lowest levels of the house reduces the need for forced air heat in the rest of the spaces.
Connecting Indoor & Outdoor Spaces
The living space of a typical Chicago home is elevated 2′-6’ above the ground plane. This creates several challenges when trying to connect to the outdoors, especially in the back yard / private space. When the living space and yard are at the same level, it is easier to connect to the yard. It is essential to do this in an urban environment where we have limited access to space, interior, and exterior. By allowing for a better direct connection, we make both the yard and living space more useful and valuable.
As you can see in the existing condition photo, the clunky staircase made for a less optimal connection to the yard.
Instead of typical, off-the-shelf storage and closets, we filled the home with custom millwork pieces throughout. We designed an island with lots of storage nooks in the kitchen that holds anything from cookbooks to juicers. The high-gloss white cabinets provide a neutral contrast to the adjacent blue island base and the modern blue and white geometric tiles that form the backsplash.
From the staircase up to the master bedroom suite, we installed rift-sawn white oak throughout the rest of the house, creating continuity and a calming hue.
Designing & Building a Staircase
The existing interior stair was uneven, not code compliant, and located in an awkward spot, so we built a new staircase – one better suited for the space. Relocating the stair location created more room for the first-floor guest suite and allowed us to design a custom staircase and a light-filtering perforated screen that doubles as a protective guardrail.
The screen is attached to a steel frame, and the varying perforations allow light from the dormers to permeate down through to the main living level. Depending on the time of day, some interesting light patterns are created by the perforations cast onto the walls and surfaces.
Modern Dormers Create Solar Orientation
The building had some strange integrated dormers “popped-up” onto the existing structure. When thinking about incorporating solar panels into the salvaged exterior, our solution was to keep the existing dormer locations and reconfigure the roof slope into a single slope towards the south. This approach has several advantages — sloping to the south optimized the roof for solar orientation; it simplified the roof framing/structure, and it is more naturally connected to the dormers of the traditional building form. Whenever our clients are ready to invest in a solar system, no further infrastructure is required for installation, except for the system hardware.
Instead of cladding the end of the dormers in similar existing vinyl siding, we chose glazed walls to emphasize the dormers and provide additional light and views to the front. This elegant design solution creates a more spacious experience and a connection to the outdoors for anyone inside the dormer-clad room.
Whenever we design window openings, we think about how the opening is protected. Windows are a leading cause of leaks and water intrusion. While proper flashing certainly helps to waterproof the structure, good design can provide more assistance, especially in our Chicago climate.
With this in mind, the first floor has a wide opening to the backyard thanks to Marvin’s Ultimate sliding door, which allows a clear opening of 6′ inside of a 12′ span of glass. The second-floor deck cantilevers over this glass to provide shade from the sun, yes, and protect against wind and rain. Above that, the second-floor windows are protected by an extra deep roof overhang, which folds up and over the building form. The underside made the perfect spot for a linear LED light fixture, keeping the details clean and tidy.
Additional Interior Photos
Pictured above is the free-standing tub in the upstairs master bath. Below are photos of the second-floor bath, and master bedroom suite with custom storage closets.