netsch house som gbd magazine

Photo by Dave Burk

How Netsch Residence, the home of a celebrated architect, pays tribute to the old while embracing the new

The renovation of the late SOM design partner Walter Netsch’s house in Chicago involved a delicate balance between preservation and design updates. New homeowners Will Forrest and Mark Smithe wanted to preserve the sensibility of the original house while also making it their own.

Brian Lee, the design partner at SOM who led the project team, renovated the space with a light touch to preserve as much as possible. “We wanted to match what Will and Mark believed in, being stewards of the house and developing something that was sensitive to the original intent,” Lee says.

netsch house som gbd magazine

Photo by Dave Burk

Netsch, who’s known for designing the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs, built his house in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood in 1974 with geometry at the forefront. “Netsch developed a design concept that is loosely tied to field theory, which is really about geometry as a driving force in the design process,” Lee says.

The house is an economical cubic form based on a 40-by-40-foot square and rotating squares. In the center of the residence is the service core, with the kitchen, bathrooms, and utilities. Rotating around the service core is a series of trays for various living spaces that step up or step down, forming a corkscrew-like shape. “The trays act as a series of platforms that are open to each other, supporting his idea of ‘one big space,’” Lee says.

Forrest and Smithe were very pleased with the renovations and have hosted a number of events in the house since. For what would have been Walter’s 100th birthday, the couple organized a symposium with the nonprofit MAS Context, a Chicago-based nonprofit that addresses issues that affect urban context. The project itself exhibits the respect the new homeowners have for their home’s legacy and history. Lee asked Forrest and Smithe what they wanted to name the residence. “I asked, ‘Should we call it the Forrest/Smithe house?’ And they said, ‘No. Let’s call it the Netsch House.’”

netsch house som gbd magazine

Photo by Dave Burk

The original house was sustainable to begin with due to its small surface area and efficient exterior wall made of concrete block with a brick face. “Because the window-wall ratio is quite low, the efficiency of the building envelope is high,” Lee says. After the renovations, the house is even more sustainable with LED lighting and new efficient heating, cooling, and water systems.

netsch house som gbd magazine

Photo by Dave Burk

Netsch used natural light to animate the space, positioning windows in room corners to allow direct and indirect light to bounce off the walls.

netsch house som gbd magazine

Photo by Dave Burk

A skylight on cross diagonals also tracks the unique geometry of the house. Netsch also deftly placed windows to frame selected views, including the beautiful St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Old Town.

netsch house som gbd magazine

Photo by Dave Burk

SOM preserved Netsch Residence’s natural lighting but upgraded to higher performing windows.

netsch house som gbd magazine

Photo by Dave Burk

Netsch originally included plenty of wall space to showcase his art collection, but Forrest and Smithe wanted more of a clean space to appreciate the beauty of the light, the walls, and the house itself, Lee says. Tying Netsch’s love of art together with the new couple’s love of technology, they commissioned Chicago-based Luftwerk to create a digital art installation. “The house was painted all white, so it really becomes a theatrical backdrop/screen for this digital piece that can work during both the day and evening,” Lee says.

Photo by Dave Burk

SOM brought life into the kitchen and two bathrooms with new cabinetry, lighting, smart appliances, and countertops.

netsch house som gbd magazine

Photo by Dave Burk

Inspired by Netsch’s powerful use of simple, modest materials, SOM used a single 22-foot piece of oakfor one of the kitchen countertops. SOM also redid the floors and put in new trim. Minimalist railings were installed for safety, and concealed sliding doors were de- signed and installed in the master bedroom to enhance privacy without sacrificing the open concept floor plan.

Netsch Residence, 1970s

netsch house som gbd magazine

Archive photo by William Lukes

netsch house som gbd magazine

Archive photo by William Lukes

Floor Plan

netsch house som gbd magazine

Drawing courtesy of SOM

Project: Netsch Residence
Location: Chicago, IL
Completion: 2019
Size: 3,500 square feet
Architect: SOM
Interior Design: SOM
Learn more about SOM and read more gb&d residential architecture stories.