Article No: 254

2009-04-02 11:30:49
Artful Mix
By: Suzanna Logan

A concrete hearth and built-in ledge provide warmth and seating in the family room.
 photography by Matthew Millman
In a sleepy Northern California suburb, just 30 miles from San Francisco, rows of predictable shake-and shingle-style homes line the sidewalks. But not every home on the street is what you would expect: enter House 6, the sixth and latest creation by master designer and concrete wizard Fu-Tung Cheng.

From the moment you walk under the steel and polycarbonate entry canopy interspersed with twigs, past the koi-stocked pond that flows under a glass panel into the interiors, and through the oversized, pivot door made of zinc, it’s easy to see this home is something special. And, with its massive concrete walls and minimalist design, it’s no wonder that the home eclipses its more traditional neighbors. But the structure, although eye-catching, wasn’t designed to be showy.

When the homeowners approached Cheng, they were hoping to remodel their existing outdated, ranch-style home. But after drawing out multiple plans, they decided a total redesign was in order. With two young boys, the owners wanted a place that was comfortable but indestructible. The resulting plan was for a hybrid structure of concrete and wood in which the two materials would complement, not compete, with one another. Concrete would be the star, providing the foundation, walls, floors, and countertops in the main living areas, while wood would be used to frame the bedrooms and to lend visual interest in smaller doses throughout the interior and exterior.

To begin the 4,000-square-foot project, Cheng and his team poured an 18-inch slab foundation. (Taking into account the area’s seismic activity, the foundation was designed to absorb shock and roll over shifting ground, much like a boat on rough waters, while post-tension cables were built into the walls and roof.) Next, a technique called slip-casting in which concrete is poured into pre-made molds was used to form the 12-inch-thick walls. To maintain creative control over the look of the home, Cheng opted to form the walls using 4-foot by 8-foot forms made of plastic and plywood rather than a single, 12-foot-tall form. Using this process, color and texture—the two elements essential to a successful concrete design—were introduced into each panel.

According to Cheng, it is a lack of color and texture that causes many people to mistakenly equate “concrete” with “cold.” He further explains that the dull, monolithic texture of some concrete structures is a result of how it is cast—not a fault of the material itself. “Concrete has infinite possibilities,” he says. “It has both practical and aesthetic value, and that is why I always have the attitude that it is to be shown as the main player.”

To this end, Cheng artfully employed color, texture, and special carvings in the design. First, he mixed in an array of mineral pigment powders to intensify the basic grey tone in individual panels. Subtle shades of purple, red, and yellow add warmth and depth to the concrete. Then, using both plastic and plywood forms, he was able to create some sections that were smooth and shiny and others rough. For an effect that was earthy yet polished, he stacked the nearly-glossy panels next to those made of Japanese plaster, which has a matte, coarse texture thanks to tiny slivers of wood. Finally, inlaid casts of actual Asian wood carvings heighten visual interest, lending an unexpected, sculptural quality to the walls.

Having worked with concrete for three decades, Cheng had used many of the same techniques on a smaller scale but never in a large residential structure. “In the beginning, it was nerve-wracking because you have to solve problems that you didn’t even know had been invented yet, but you learn as you go,” he says. “In the end, you can see it’s nothing like a freeway underpass. There is a lot of character in these walls.” 

But the walls are just one of the eye-catching uses of concrete throughout the home. Large concrete tiles overtop a radiant heating system cover the main living area floors, while Cheng’s handcrafted, concrete countertops appear in the kitchen and bathrooms. In addition to their stunning, glass-like finish, the counters are also stain-resistant and, says Cheng, will last a lifetime. Other concrete features include a water fountain in the entryway and a hearth with a built-in ledge for ample seating in the living room.

Knowing that such an extensive use of concrete could lead to a cave-like feel if he wasn’t careful, Cheng incorporated a number of skylights and solartubes (read: portholes) into the walls to usher in plenty of natural light and reduce the need for artificial lighting. But he didn’t stop there. Two walls of glass doors—one overlooks the poolside patio, the other is adjacent the kitchen—can be completely uncoupled for an open-air affect. “Being able to open up that whole wall gives such a sense of freedom,” says Cheng. “The indoors and outdoors become one at the same time. It’s very dramatic.”

Listening to him talk, it’s easy to sense that Cheng is one of those rare individuals who see both the big picture and the smallest details at once. This is nowhere more apparent than in his use of materials that are both sustainable and stylish. In the kitchen, renewable bamboo floors reinforce the home’s Asian Fusion modernism theme and durable, wood veneers replace traditional hardwood cabinetry. Where recessed lighting isn’t used, light fixtures made of paper and twigs help soften their stone-like surroundings. “Ultimately, all these layers of earthy products are meant to complement the concrete,” explains Cheng.

But it’s not just the interiors that are ecofriendly, the home’s exterior also features an organic twist. The wooden planks used to form the entryway are reclaimed from olive-curing barrels—a process which Cheng said gave the boards their remarkably rich patina. Even the unseen elements of House 6 are green. Cheng used 25 percent fly ash in the home’s foundation to cut cement use by 3,000 pounds.

While Cheng certainly took a green approach in the details, the structure itself is highly energy-efficient thanks to its concrete composition. Despite its location in a climate known for warm summer days, the home needs no air-conditioning unit. With a concrete foundation, floor, and walls, the home remains cool when temperatures rise, yet retains heat as they drop. 

With a smart design that is aesthetically-pleasing, ecofriendly, and structurally sound, Cheng says he hopes House 6 can avoid the same fate of its ranch-style predecessor. “In my mind, people will conserve a building that is designed well,” Cheng says. “That is why I feel that good design is one of the higher forms of conservation.” To substantiate his belief, Cheng says he always uses concrete in a way that is timeless rather than trendy. Clearly, House 6 was no exception. “They’ll think twice about tearing this one down,” he chuckles. “Of course, I’m not sure they could even if they tried.”