The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 21, 2010


Karla Johnson and Stewart Roberts, thoughtful and innovative architects

Karla Johnson and Stewart Roberts
(Courtesy photo)

“You can always tell an architect by the shoes,” my sister said once, and she knew, for she’d dated one forever. And she was right. Ruben’s shoes were always attractive and precise, without being showy, the perfect blend of form and function. After meeting husband and wife architects Karla Johnson and Stewart Roberts, I would add the following rule about architects: You can always tell architects by their trash sheds. And Easter eggs.

Karla and Stewart’s “trash shed” has better lines and cleaner design than my house, or any place I’ve lived for that matter. It’s attractive and precise, minimalist yet whimsical, with only one right angle. “An architect can’t just have a shed, it’s a ‘trash pavilion,’” jokes Stewart. It’s the most recent addition to their cozy, playful (yet precise) Arts & Crafts-inspired bungalow on Nickles Lane, built in 1993. “We wanted to use the ideas and philosophy of Arts & Crafts,” comments Stewart, “which meant natural materials, using natural ventilation.”

The inviting fireplace at the center of the house. (Courtesy photo)

An open floor plan with four working levels

The house, built by MacLeod Brothers, won an AIA (American Institute of Architects) Award and has many modern twists on the Mission, or Craftsman style. It is also filled with Mission-style furniture the couple picked up years ago at yard sales. “I think just two of the pieces are actually new,” says Karla. A sometime wood-worker, Stewart designed the floor lamps as well as the outdoor chairs. The ceilings are covered in birch plywood – giving the house a warm and elegant feel in a very budget- conscious way. The design features the Prairie School “hearth center” idea, with a working brick fireplace at the center of an open floor plan. The dining room has floor-to-ceiling windows, some of which are thermal, providing a peaceful and soothing second-story view of the forest surrounding the property. Maple floors prevail throughout. The would-be basement is an office and playroom (now a family room), with pigmented concrete flooring. There’s also a small woodshop for Stewart’s woodworking hobby.

“It’s not huge,” Stewart points out of the three bedroom house, “but it’s served us well.” Stacked vertically, it’s a tall structure with four working levels, but doesn’t seem so because of the exterior design features (a sloping red roofed canopy over the front door, cedar shingles for the first floor exterior and a few bays with quirky angles). Think Dr. Seuss meets LL Bean – all dressed up for an outing in New England colors. And true to the Arts & Crafts philosophy, you can feel the structure of the house in every room, from exposed beams to sloping ceilings in the bedrooms. Wide asymmetrical roof overhangs (gable style) promote a feeling of security and comfort.

Stewart’s father designed the built-in bookshelves and cherry kitchen cabinets. Their favorite room? “We spend most of our time here,” says Karla of the comfortable screened porch off the kitchen that leads to the black slate patio, which also houses a fountain filled with fish and a fire pit for barbecues. The patio sports Old Hickory Adirondack-style furniture. There’s also a second floor balcony “which was originally going to be screened in, but we never did it,” laughs Karla. Custom fixtures were made – but never made it out to the porch. It’s a stunningly peaceful enclave, and the third-floor view of the trees is unusual enough to make you pause. I wanted to pause on that porch for a bit longer, just to listen to the gorgeous silence. The entire house evokes that particular serenity that well planned spaces have, a harmonious marriage of form, function, beauty and simplicity. Sadly, they did not ask me to move in.

Personal and professional history

Karla and Stewart both hail from Wichita, Kansas, and were friendly growing up (they met in junior high) but had never dated. They married in 1978. Stewart went to MIT and originally planned on entering the field of chemistry but “it turned out everything I thought was interesting was happening in the architecture department. I was always interested in art and design, pottery and sculpture.” Karla studied at the University of Nebraska. “I always liked art and psychology,” she admits.

Their firm, Johnson Roberts Associates, was founded by Stewart in 1996, and today is located in Somerville. They also have a Chicago office. They have worked on residential projects, (even designing a vacation home in New Zealand) but today they handle many municipal projects, (police and fire stations, town halls, libraries) and educational and institutional work (schools, courthouses, faculty housing and Karla’s favorite, the Interfaith Center for Tufts’ University.) Karla had been with another firm for 14 years, sometimes working part time while raising their two daughters, when a health crisis forced her to revise her schedule. “I took a step back to fight breast cancer,” she says. “I was lucky and beat it.” She joined Stewart at the firm in 1998.

What do they like about being architects, besides the shoes and the trash pavilions and the Easter eggs? (We’ll get to that.) “I like to see things get built,” Karla states simply. “The construction phase is challenging but a lot of fun.” She is also attracted to the process of how you “get a space to accommodate a need.” She explains, “You have to crawl into people’s lives and understand what it’s like to be a judge or a fireman or a detainee.” In designing a school, must you think like a kid? “Absolutely,” says Stewart. “Your design really depends on the age of the kids. Scale wise, how is it organized?”

Karla also enjoyed a recent project involving transforming an old school into apartments for junior faculty, also for Tufts University. “We kept the blackboards and the huge windows so the space was loft- like,” a cool dwelling for the young, hip and broke. She’s also become very interested in senior design. “My brother does research with Alzheimer’s disease, and I think there is a lot of interesting territory that can be researched and discovered with seniors and design.”

Influences and design philosophy

Who are their influences, their favorite structures? They frown, reluctant to choose one. Stewart admits to being a Frank Lloyd Wright fan but says his favorite house might be the Gamble house in Pasadena (by architect brothers Greene and Greene), or even Rudolf Schindler’s early-modern Kings Road House in Los Angeles. Pressed, Karla cops to being a fan of more modern design, but admits that one of her favorite buildings is the “big white barn” on Monument Street (Water’s Edge Farm).

I asked them what the most important element in designing, for example, a library was. “It has to be welcoming, attractive,” they said. “You’re creating a space where you want a variety of people to want to come. You want a jaw dropping experience when they enter.” Stewart is on his 24th library renovation, and has completed over 50 library projects in total. Recently the firm completed the Concord Public Library restoration as well as a brand new library in Mashpee. He also did the Townsend public library and senior center – a project funded by a gift from a single individual.

The front desk area in the Townsend Public Library. (Courtesy photo)

Going green

“When we were first starting out, there was a lot of interest in solar, and in energy efficiency, but then it went away,” says Karla. “Now we’ve seen it come back.” Early in his career, Stewart focused on designs for solar and energy- efficient homes. “Our house was built with many energy-conserving features including a roof that was designed for easy installation of either photovoltaic panels or thermal solar panels,” he said. “We typically spend more on snow plowing than on heating.”

Johnson Roberts Associates are currently completing three library projects that will be LEED certified at the silver and gold level: The Mashpee Public Library (LEED Gold), the Pearle Crawford Memorial Library in Dudley (LEED Silver), and renovations to the Brighton Branch Library for the Boston Public Library (LEED Silver). (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is the Green Building Rating System developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. The model was developed in 1998 to encourage environmental awareness among government agencies, architects, engineers, developers and builders.)

As fellow Kansans, Karla and Stewart are eagerly following the progress of the town of Greenwood, Kansas, which was destroyed by a tornado a few years ago and has committed to rebuilding the entire town and infrastructure totally green. “It’s a unique opportunity to start over,” says Stewart.

What are some of the most important things to consider when trying to renovate or design with green in mind? “You really could just start with the basic guiding principles of building and design,” said Stewart. “Fitness for purpose. A house should function well and be the right size and scale for its use.” And orientation is key. “How does it fit on the site; is there cross ventilation, natural daylight? Promoting natural lighting can have a huge impact on energy consumption.” Insulation is also basic but crucial. Is there air leakage? Can you implement a heat exchange system? “Using renewable materials, local materials,” adds Karla. “You can and should be thoughtful about the materials you use.”

What are some popular misconceptions about green building? “Everyone talks about geothermal, but other systems can be more cost- effective,” says Karla. “It’s a case-by-case basis.” And some efforts can be overdone, according to Karla. “Passive solar doesn’t mean putting every window on the south and overheating one room all day,” she laments. “You have to balance windows with the mass of the house,” adds Stewart. “Natural daylight doesn’t mean putting windows everywhere; it means putting them in the right space,” Karla agrees.

Another misconception, Karla feels, is that green building can’t be attractive aesthetically. “Green can be beautiful; it doesn’t have to be tech-y and ugly. Adding PV (photo voltaic) to the roof of an historic building can be okay.” She points out that you don’t think about the telephone poles that are serving a purpose in your community; it’s the same with green technology. People will get used to it. “There are ways to do things well, thoughtfully,” she smiles.

Like Easter eggs. “It’s a family tradition,” says Stewart as they open a large closet door and hand me two dozen boxed, beautifully detailed hand-painted Easter eggs. No PAAS kits for these folks. “This year our youngest daughter did eggs with her friends in New York,” Karla says. I hand the eggs back, fearing I may drop them and the architects smile, clearly proud, holding years of beauty, whimsy and precision in their capable hands.

We spend more on snow plowing than heating.” (Courtesy photo)


© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito