Making a warehouse a home
"Things were slow architecturally, and we had time on our hands," said Kimberly Miller.
When Richard Miller goes to work, he walks east from the second-floor black-and-white bedroom he shares with his wife, Kimberly, crosses a narrow hallway, and looks down at a glass-enclosed courtyard on the first floor, where 10 goldfish swim in a pond next to some plants and a metal sculpture called Drifter.
At the end of that hallway is the office of his architectural practice, where he employs one other architect.
"People don't believe me when I tell them I have one of the world's shortest commutes," Richard says.
He and Kimberly, an architect who is director of design for Drexel University, have been living in their Fishtown home, a converted warehouse they've named "Lantern House," for about eight months. They bought it about two years ago.
"Things were slow architecturally, and we had time on our hands," Kimberly Miller says. "Our little house in Queen Village was becoming too small, and Fishtown is coming up and is more affordable than some other neighborhoods."
Though they planned the house together, Kimberly gives her husband, who specializes in residential design, credit for its look.
So does the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which last month awarded Richard Miller a merit prize for the design of the house - the only "built" residential property (constructed, that is) to be recognized this year.
A look at the "before" photos, which Richard has framed and proudly displays, helps one understand just how creative the design is.
Before becoming the Millers' home, the 100-year-old building - which began life as a stable - was a 38-foot-long warehouse, a storage facility for auto parts.
"This pile of boards and wood is the result of the demolition of the roof of the warehouse, and our salvage of as much of the material as possible," Richard says, holding up a photograph. "We saved the yellow-pine boards and used them for the stairs and some of the furniture."
Also evident in the "before" pictures is a brick wall with triangular openings at the west end of the property.
Today, that wall surrounds what the Millers call their "sun garden," where they plant flowers, keep their barbecue grill, and have a small seating area.
"The zoning regulations call for walls to be no more than six feet, and this is nine feet high," Kimberly says. "If we hadn't won the right for a variance to keep the wall, I don't think we would have purchased the property."
The narrow exterior of the dwelling is clad in textured panels and glass. Though contemporary in style, its gray color contrasts, but does not clash, with the street's circa-1920s rowhouses.
On entering, the first thing a visitor sees is actually see-through: the glass living-room wall, through which the brick-enclosed garden is visible.
To the left is an open staircase.
"We wanted to use as much of the old material as possible for stairs and furniture," Richard says. "We also wanted to keep the feeling of the original building."
To the right, a mango-colored wall leads to the glassed-in "shade garden," which stretches to the second floor and provides space for the goldfish, plants, and the sculpture (on loan from artist Warren Holtzman).
Without the glassed-in area in the middle, lighting and ventilating the space could have been a problem, resulting in a long ceiling filled with light fixtures.
"We wanted to divide the long space, so now it is actually two houses: one 38 by 20 feet and the other 20 by 20 feet, with the glass cube in the middle," Richard says. "This divides what used to be one big wall.
"The shade garden provides light, and we can open the doors and receive ventilation as it reaches all the way up," he adds. "The pond provides cooling as the moisture evaporates."
Warmth is provided by concrete floors that are radiant-heated, as well as the brick walls, which contrast with the glass courtyard.
The brick borders the kitchen, with its stainless-steel appliances and cabinetry in rich wood tones, and offers a rustic counterpoint to the sleek modern island of polished concrete and bamboo.
What kind of bricks are they?
"They are just bricks, the original bricks," Richard says, "but they help us continue the flavor of the original house. We reinforced the walls with steel beams to support the upper floors, but continued the flavor of the original building as much as possible."
Up on the third floor is a guest apartment, designed by Richard, where Kimberly's father is staying while receiving medical care nearby.
Also in residence: a very friendly assortment of pets. A dog and a few cats cohabit very nicely with the humans living and working here in this stable-turned-warehouse-turned-home.