Article and photos by Krista Atkins Nutter,
On an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in February, a group of fifteen or so designers, architects, and homeowners from across Cincinnati met in Camp Washington for the USGBC Green Home Tour Swing House by artist and craftsman, Mark Dejong. The culmination of an idea he had thirty years ago, the home’s concept was founded as Dejong grew up in the neighborhood of 1880’s row houses. He wondered what it would be like to open up the entire space of one of these old structures - what it would be like to remove the interior wood frame “guts” and reveal the exterior box’s entire volume. He imagined that a space like that would need to be experienced in a special way, and the idea of a swing came to him.
Dejong knew when he bought the home that he wanted to take his time exploring and peeling back the layers in the home. He calls it “having a conversation with the house using an aesthetic language.” While some artists work on canvas or with plaster, clay, or metal, Dejong says his medium is homes. His first task was to take care of the exterior and button up the envelope. Understanding the very difficult contradiction between historic accuracy and performance, Dejong chose high performance windows for their durability and longevity in addition to their energy conservation performance
Upon completion of the exterior envelope, he then worked with an engineer to develop a unique structural solution where concrete pylons were poured in the basement up through the first floor.
Vertical steel I-beams were then craned in through holes in the roof and floors, and bolted to the pylons and exterior walls using a creative offset bracket.
This bracket enabled the i-beams to sit roughly six inches away from the exterior walls, instead of being flush to the walls - creating a unique detail. Horizontal i-beams finished off the structure which allowed Dejong to turn his focus on opening up the interior.
He began deconstructing and removing elements from the interior (preserving and storing all of the pieces in his warehouse.) He removed walls, doors, woodwork, floors, stairs, chimneys, and old equipment such as space heaters. As he deconstructed the house and peeled away layer by layer, he used a color-coded patching system as a story-telling tool to reveal the history of the structure. For example, when he removed the space heaters and their exhaust pipes – he patched each circular hole with black-tinted plaster.
When installing new electrical runs within walls, the patches were created in a burnt orange color, and patches showing where old floor joists once tied into the exterior brick wall structure were brown.
Many art pieces adorn the swing house, including an old chimney flu that had been removed from a masonry chimney and inset into a wall as a sculptural niche-like feature. Dejong called it, “The Eyes of the House.” For another handmade piece Dejong used reclaimed original wood from the house to create an elaborate maze feature on the back of the kitchen island.
The key focal point of the home, of course, would have to be the swing. With over thirty feet to the ceiling’s highest point, a wooden swing secured to the interior steel structure on twenty-eight foot long ropes nearly two inches in diameter serves as the main focal point to the space. The swing certainly enables one to experience the volume in an unexpected way!
After learning about the technical and artistic elements of the Swing House, Dejong invited the group to visit his warehouse, studio, and loft across the street. Guests were able to see many furniture and cabinetry pieces in progress, as well as many pieces adorning the artist’s living space.
About the author and photographer: Krista Nutter, LEED AP, MS Arch, NCIDQ is a college design educator and administrator at a CIDA-accredited program, a sustainable building consultant, and designer/owner of an award-winning, Energy-Star 5+, passive solar, solar electric, high-performance green home in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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