Modern Balcony Creates Wine Enthusiasts Retreat


The renovation and addition of a modern balcony to a single-family two-flat in Wicker Park is now finished. This white trellis, Mediterranean style addition creates a spacious, multilayer rear exterior that maximizes living space and draws in natural light.

Our clients, a young professional couple with a taste for good wine and a baby on the way, wanted to transform their basement into a more inviting entertaining, and family gathering spot. The removal of a larger than life labyrinth rear stair that makes an M.C. Escher painting look navigable by comparison was the main impetus for this renovation. The other was a rather disused basement space with low ceilings and no connection to what would become a green oasis of a backyard.


Perhaps the most noticeable project intervention was the rethinking of the rear of the house. Like most Chicago buildings and the City’s legacy of ugly back porches glued to the back of structures, we tend to completely ignore access to natural light and a meaningful connection with usable outdoor space.

This project aimed to correct those inadequacies and create a modern expression of a scaled rear addition. It seems amazing that only about a total of 300 square feet was added to the building. With the basement floor lowered closer to grade, the large sliding glass window system now opens directly to the yard. A trellis covered deck accessible from the kitchen and dining area protects the basement sliding glass and provides an alfresco eating space mostly protected from the elements and screened from the neighboring properties. The addition is clad with our typical rain screen assembly of a waterproof weather barrier, furring strips, and white aluminum composite panel siding.

Above – sketches from the schematic design phase featuring the balcony addition.

Lowering The Basement Floor & Installing Hydronic Radiant Heat

Typically, dated basements aren’t the most welcoming spaces. Sure, they’re great spots to store your CSA fall bounty of root vegetables or a welcome environment for our spider-eating centipede friends. But, it’s not a place people tend to gravitate towards when they get together.

To create a more inviting, useable, and flexible space, we started by removing the existing wood floor, digging down to the footing, and bringing it down to grade. Sinking it to grade adds extra room height while making it easier to join the indoor space to the outdoors without adding stairs or a deck.

Rather than replacing the wood floor, we poured a new concrete slab using colored concrete and sealed it with five coats of polyurethane. The organic material and texture create interesting patterns for a more modern floor aesthetic. Below the slab is where we installed a drain tile and a sump pump to prevent groundwater intrusion into the space.

Aside from design malleability, the concrete provided an ideal conduit for installing the hydronic radiant heat. Radiant floor heating is an energy-efficient feature that we installed in several projects, including Carmen House. Using hot water from a boiler, the radiant tubes heat the entire floor, with the warmth rising to heat the rest of the room. As an added luxury in the guest bathroom, we connected the radiant system to the heated towel bar — no more chilly towels!

The updated guest bathroom with new tile, vanity, rain head shower, and a modern wall mounted toilet

Wine & Books, In That Order

Wine is part of our client’s business and housing a small proportion of their wine collection in the relatively climate-controlled basement was a project priority. Similar to our other wine storage solutions (PastoralLogan Certified), we let the bottle sizes determine the design of the cabinets. We created a custom walnut frame for the wine cooler to nest in that is flush with the rest of the millwork. And the dowel layout seen elsewhere is designed to handle the sideways storage of every bottle (ideal for keeping the cork moist) from a long, skinny Austrian Gruner Veltliner to a fat-bottomed Prosecco. Pockets of concealed cabinet storage provide storage for glasses and other liquor paraphernalia, and the bookshelf caps off the millwork piece, leading to the open family room.

Wine storage, stairs and millwork sketches below.

Casing Elimination

A holdover of the traditionalists, door trim, and casing (or molding) are largely meant to hide the intersections of dissimilar materials and the accepted tolerances of on-site fabrication. Since all of the interior doors and millwork pieces were custom designed and constructed in an off-site shop, we eliminated the need for casing and finished the drywall with metal reveals. Now, all that is visible is the wood door frame profile making for a more modern opening.

Stairs & Basement Garden Suite

There are two types of interior stairs. The most common are those framed on-site by carpenters from rough lumber and then clad with a finish material. This universal method creates a generic-looking and bulky product that isn’t sexy or exciting. Custom-designed is the other designation. And when provided the opportunity, and project budget allowance, we prefer the custom design route. Customization allows the interior stairs to respond to their unique position in the project, and they can be completely fabricated in our millwork shop.

Here we crafted an ‘open-riser’ stair (meaning light can pass through and down the stair to the floor below) constructed from stained white oak with a glass guardrail and an integrated, cove-lit handrail. We were pinched for space in this corner of the building, so the first riser acts as a larger landing, and the stair takes off along the white oak panel clad wall to the main floor. The space beneath the stair holds the AV equipment cabinets and provides a disguised spot for the return air grill. Lastly, the open stair and the project’s passively designed nature allow warm air to naturally rise through the stair shaft and exhaust through the clerestory windows.

Second Level Kitchen Playroom Annex

As home, work, and play life blur the boundaries, so do our living spaces. Now more than ever, we desire flexibility and less fussy, formal rooms, like the dining room solely used for, well dining. We continued the flow of the warm-toned wood upstairs to the kitchen and playroom level. The custom wall bench stores toys and creates a cozy nook for idle hands and imaginations. The open play space can easily be converted from a hot lava field (oh, you remember the floor is hot lava game) to a dining overflow area when entertaining. Having the playroom next to the kitchen makes the task of food prep and keeping an eye on little ones a bit less stressful.

Custom millwork flows from the kitchen/living level down to the garden level

Construction & Existing Conditions

Before images and stages of construction to the rear exterior; basement floor removal and plumbing rough in. Below, guest bathroom and images of newly poured concrete and electrical rough in.