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Originally published Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 4:01 PM

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Architect lets go, and an elegant little house gets another chance

On Location: A dogtrot-style house gets a modernist twist.

The New York Times

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RAMSEUR, N.C. — The little house was awfully pretty, its corrugated metal cladding glinting in the sunlight, as honest and spare as a child's drawing, amid ancient magnolias and overlooking acres of lush soybeans. The owners, Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, two psychology professors at Duke, declared themselves delighted with it.

They admired the way the house embodied the rural architecture they loved: the dogtrot cabins of the American South and the "wrinkly tin" structures of New Zealand, where they are conducting a longitudinal study of 1,000 individuals. (Moffitt, 57, and Caspi, 52, are nature- and nurture-ists. Their work examines the role of environment and genes in human behavior, particularly anti-social behavior and depression.) Caspi recalled the shacks on the kibbutz he grew up on, and Moffitt pointed out how the house's tiny footprint overlaid that of the original farmhouse built by her family here in the 1920s, and how potent the memories still are.

To be sure, the house does have its skeptics. There was the neighbor who exclaimed, "Honey, you've made a terrible mistake and built your fireplace outside of your living room." (Moffitt told him, "It's worse than that. There is no living room.") And her father took a dim view of their building, as he put it: "a cross between a chicken house and a trailer."

But the only review they really cared about was that of Stephen Atkinson, an architect with whom they had made an unusual bargain. Atkinson, who lives and works in Palo Alto, Calif., had given them the plans for the house — they were free but with a caveat. For every change they made to his original design, he would charge them.

No chimney, for instance, would cost them $3,000. Clear glass instead of translucent fiberglass windows? That would run $4,000. A cathedral ceiling, rather than the flat modernist one he had specified? $2,500.

Put another way, the more closely the house hewed to his vision, the less it would cost them. Atkinson, for whom this house has become something of an obsession, was making sure that the third incarnation of the structure he called the Zachary House would be close to perfect.

In the mid '90s, when Atkinson, now 45, was a few years out of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, he began to hawk the plan of a dogtrot-style, two-room modernist dwelling clad in corrugated metal to various architecture journals. To his delight, it won a prestigious prize — a citation from Progressive Architecture — and he begged his father, a retired Baton Rouge dentist with property in Zachary, La., to build it.

When he did, for $45,000, the 550-square-foot house became a little star, appearing in 39 magazines, from those with a modernist bent, like Dwell, to more traditional ones, like Southern Living, as well as a number of books.

Zachary House hit a chord with all sorts of people, not just architecture buffs and designers, for whom the abstracted dogtrot had became a kind of fetish object, in the words of Karrie Jacobs, founding editor of Dwell magazine. (Modernist riffs on rural, regional architecture were bubbling up all over the place, from the Rural Studio in Alabama to Houston, where Brett Zamore, a local architect, was playing around with something he called the shot-trot, his own fusion of a dogtrot and shotgun-style house.)

Its cross shape, two small rooms connected by a breezeway bisected by a long deck, mimicked that of the great cathedrals. Cost-conscious environmentalists and those devoted to the tiny-house movement applauded its price and its size. And architecture writers worked themselves into a lather over it ("a poetic construct which contains an essence greater than its potential interpretations — a persistent formal structure whose perceived meaning will be less than the overall essence of the architecture," one enthused academic wrote in a university journal).

Atkinson found himself spoiled by all the attention.

"I'm really ambitious," he said. "And this avalanche of personal attention was not a good lesson. The world just doesn't work this way."

For years, Atkinson received calls and email from fans asking for the plans. And for years he refused, because he didn't know how to price them and didn't like the idea of his house being built without his supervision.

In the meantime, design pilgrims were visiting Zachary House by the busload, and Atkinson's parents, who used the place as a weekend house, became adept at showing off the little house and ticking off its fine points, like the 8-foot flat interior ceilings, designed to recall the Barcelona Pavilion; the translucent fiberglass fixed windows, which filled its two small rooms with diffused light and shadows; the "void" of its breezeway.

"It's a paradox," Atkinson will tell you, "that the heart of the house is actually a void."

But in 2005, his father had to sell the property it sat on, and Tom Ranzino, a Catholic priest from Baton Rouge, offered to "rescue" the little house and move it to land he owned nearby.

He, too, had been a fan, and for years had spent his day off visiting the house, reveling in the meditative state it induced. The house was damaged during the move, though, and in fixing it and making it conform to the local building code, the priest made changes — installing windows that opened and new cladding with rounded, not squared-off, edges — that chipped away at the original.

Atkinson said he was so shattered by these alterations that he conflated the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with what he saw as the destruction of Zachary House.

"People were inquiring after the storm 'Did your house survive?' " he said. "And the temptation was to say that it didn't."

While he may suffer from the ideals of his profession, he has no trouble poking fun at himself.

"I thought of myself as an artist at the time," he said. "Not in the building profession."

Caspi and Moffitt met 25 years ago at a conference in St. Louis titled, romantically, "Deviant Pathways from Childhood to Adulthood." And around the time Atkinson was mourning the fate of the Zachary House, they were trying to buy her late grandmother's farm, 194 mellow acres more than an hour southwest of Raleigh, where she had grown up.

Her grandfather had six farms and five daughters, and each time Moffitt made an offer, a different aunt would demur. Finally, all five aunts said yes on the same day.

Moffitt had adored her grandmother, an iconoclast who wore trousers and a pith helmet.

"She went her own way," she said, recalling that when her grandmother was introduced to Caspi, whose first name is not one you hear a lot in North Carolina, she gave him a long look and said, "I think I'm just going to call you 'Bobby.' "

They had been collecting ideas about what they might build on the land that was so important to her for some time. Nothing fancy, nothing too expensive, and something that would echo the simple structures they had seen on their travels.

In a bookstore in Dunedin, New Zealand, they found "Mini House," by Alejandro Bahamon, a Spanish architect, which has an extremely fetching photo of Zachary House on its cover. Thus baited, they wrote Atkinson and asked for the plans, and there was just something about their entreaty (Atkinson is not sure what, exactly) that made him take them seriously, instead of brushing them off like all the others.

"He told us the history of the house and said he'd be open to having us be the custodians of the new incarnation," Caspi said. "He laid out the arrangement, and we went for it."

Atkinson said: "There are four things that people want to change in the house, it's always the same things. It would never dawn on them that it would diminish the architectural content."

And they are?

"One is not to build the chimney," he said. "Two is to screen in the breezeway. Three is to build the exterior doors at 6 feet instead of 8 feet, which is a custom size, because it's an obvious cost-savings and what difference does it make? The fourth thing is to put cathedral ceilings in, instead of the 8-foot-high flat ones. People hate those."

But the important thing about the 8-foot door and the 8-foot ceilings, he said, beyond the touchstone of that modernist icon, the Barcelona Pavilion, "is that there is no header to break up the space, so the ceiling just zooms through the whole house. That's why I made the breezeway ceiling white, which creates this enigmatic central space." (See "void," above.)

Caspi and Moffitt were charmed by Atkinson, and in their own way they are just as passionate about space as he is. Much of their ongoing research is about how place alters behavior. (One study links the amount of green space in a neighborhood to incidences of juvenile delinquency.)

The only condition on their end was that he meet their builder, Brent Lindley, and a year and a half ago, they flew him out to North Carolina to do so.

Last month, the house was finished. It cost the doctors $120,000 to build, plus $300, Atkinson's charge for two ventilation hatches that had been carved out of the bedroom walls. (Remember: There are no windows that open in the house, only four double doors at the ends of each room.)

There have been invisible changes to conform to code, as well as some improvements on the original, like insulating the plumbing, for example, by burying it in the ground. One of the house's elegant touches and cost efficiencies is that it is built above the ground, with no foundation and thus no basement. Lindley used a tankless water heater to free up closet space.

But the biggest modification Atkinson has just had to swallow for now, and it's a bitter pill: Lindley has put cross beams inside the exterior doors, to stop the wind from shredding them. These doors, made from corrugated metal, shield the glass doors inside, which means you can shut the house up like a little box when no one is there. The solution, Atkinson said, is to bolt the metal seams together.

"They'll get to that," he said.

For their part, Caspi and Moffitt are struggling with another conundrum: how to read in bed. The bed is designed to sit smack in the center of the bedroom, and side tables and lamps with cords snaking to the wall would really tank the look.

"We still haven't figured that one out," Moffitt said.

The house is basically empty, but it looks terrific that way. Caspi likes the way the light moves across the rooms, an ever-changing art installation. He has his eye on something called a Slow Chair, a high-design item made by two French designers for Vitra, he said, but it is $3,459.

That's almost $7,000 for the two of them to sit down, "though each Slow Chair does come with its own pillow," he pointed out.

"And slowly we'd be paying off our Visa card," his wife countered.

For now, they are plopping down in one of four plastic deck chairs from Wal-Mart. You wonder what Atkinson will say about those when he visits for the first time next month.


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