Modernizing a Modernist

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Project Participants:

Architect: Ruhl Walker Architects

Original Architect: Paul Rudolph

Paul Rudolph, an architect who the world associates with the large-scale Brutalist movement, designed a relatively small residence in the Avon Hill neighborhood of Cambridge, in 1960. In the fall of 2014 and winter of 2015, S + H Construction was tasked with updating, upgrading and restoring this hidden and significant modernist landmark. The property was a former trucking garage, built in the early part of the 20th century. In the late 1950s, a family bought the building, and hired the renowned architect Paul Rudolph, to create a design that would convert the space to residential use. Hidden in a pocket of land behind a shared courtyard and a 14 foot tall fence, it remained mostly shut off from public view for over 50 years. When the house came on the market a few years back, the owner allowed any interested persons to tour the building. The response was remarkable, as dozens of architects and architectural historians leapt at the opportunity. The tour did not disappoint. The building is unusual for a residence in that it measures approximately 80 x 100, mostly on one floor, with 14 foot ceilings in the main living area. Original, elegant steel trusses support the flat roof, and are exposed on the interior. Rudolph created an impressive full glass wall facing the garden, in place of the former garage doors. At the interior, the kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms flanked either side of the huge living area. At the rear of the open space was another glass wall that defined another area, which was used as a greenhouse. A terrazzo floor was laid down over the old slab. The result was a space that welcomed and impressed.

This was a home that Doug Hanna was familiar with. Doug had been hired by the family at around the age of 17 to install a brick patio, a task for which he was wholly unqualified. But he saw it through, learning about preparing a sub-base for the bricks through trial and error, mostly error. He remembers this job so distinctly because the owner’s sheepdog, taking exception to his presence in the garden, decided to take a chunk out of the ring finger of his left hand. Marty Myer, who lived next door, drove him to the hospital, not the last time she would do that.

The new owners hired Ruhl Walker Architects to design the renovation, with Zero Energy Design consulting on the building envelope and heating/cooling systems. S + H was hired as the contractor, and Dan McLaughlin, one of our most senior job supers, was assigned the job. The demolition took place during bitterly cold weather. The former owners had left the grand piano in the space. We tried to interest various colleges and music schools in taking it away for free, and a couple sent people out to assess the instrument. It was decided that the piano was beyond salvage. One of their best carpenters at the time, Ray McDonald, is also an accomplished pianist, and Ray played some last songs on the piano before they had to reluctantly go to work on it with sledgehammers.

The new design called for a replacement of the single glazed curtain wall with new triple - glazed windows and doors. The owners ultimately landed on Schuco as the manufacturer. This was, as Dan recalls, one of the most challenging aspects of the project. “ We had to cut back and modify the steel plates at the tops of structural posts that held up the old trusses, in order to make room for the new glazing. We also found that the footing below the edge of the slab at this area required cutting and strengthening in order to hold the increased weight of the glass, and allow the frame to sit flush with the slab. When they cut into the slab, they discovered that the terrazzo was a finish that had been installed over the original slab. It had some kind of insulation layer below it, which had been crushed and compressed. This made figuring the exact height of the cut “interesting”. “ Still, the team from Schuco arrived with a perfect rough opening, prepared for their installation, which went off without a hitch.

As mentioned, this project was done in the winter of 2015, or better known around here as “ the year we got 8 feet of snow. “ McLaughlin says, “ The tall fence was deemed historically significant, and so we could not fit a piece of equipment into the garden to remove the snow. I shoveled off the roof 3 or 4 times because I was worried about the weight “. The building is cut into the side of Avon Hill, and the South wall retains the neighbor’s yard to a depth of at least 12 feet. Surprisingly, the wall seemed in pretty good shape, and was not weeping moisture. McLaughlin recalled that there were some moisture problems in other areas. “ We removed the slabs in areas where the plumbers needed to run new in-ground soil pipes, and during this time we noticed some areas that were leaking “. The S+H Landscape & Sitework Division went to work, applying crystallizing waterproofing mortar at some areas of the walls, as well as adding the product to the new slab pours. The roof was stripped of its five, yes, five layers of old tar and gravel roofing. Four or five inches of ridged foam was applied over the old roof deck, and the final layer has a layer of plywood on the outer face. This gave them material that they could screw the homosote layer prior to installation of the EPDM rubber roofing. An integral copper-lined gutter was constructed at the front edge of the roof and hidden behind the fascia. The parapet walls were roofed and flashed, and a complete new opening for the two massive skylights in the greenhouse area was framed in. Because the building is in the Avon Hill Conservation district, they had to move the AC condensers to the far Southwest corner of the roof so they would not be visible from the street. Dan remembers that getting the HVAC ducts, HRV ducts, AC set lines and plumbing lines from one side of the building to the other was challenging. “ The good news was that the joists above the trusses ran in the right direction, the bad news was that the cavities were small and crowded, and filled with cellulose insulation. The HVAC guys and plumbers really worked some magic to pull it off. “The terrazzo slab was patched where needed, and some areas received new hardwood flooring or tile. The bedrooms and bathrooms remained on the flanks of the space, keeping the main living area true to the original design. One significant layout change involved moving the kitchen from one of the side areas into the main living area, along one wall. “ The kitchen is really built into the casework, and at first glance, you don’t even know it’s there.

The resulting renovated space honors Rudolph’s design, while bringing systems and building envelope improvements in the home up to the 21st century istandards.