How to Live Small

A New Jersey retreat proves that modern can be comfortable — and size is just a state of mind

When Michael Green and Pete Palac were looking for an architect to renovate their 80-year-old brick bungalow in Frenchtown, just north of Lambertville, they had one major requirement: that he or she be able to think outside the box. After all, the project required a lot of imagination — and offered a lot of challenges. First, the house sat at the tip of a triangular-shaped lot, at the base of a hill. Second, both Green and Palac leaned toward modern architecture, favoring clean lines and simple materials, and their bungalow was anything but. And, finally, the 1,000-square-foot house was barely large enough for one person to live in comfortably, let alone two.

So when Palac stumbled on an “urban farmhouse” in Fort Washington in the pages of Metropolitan Home, he was thrilled to discover that it had been designed by local architect Michael Ryan, principal of Michael Ryan Architects, who has offices in Old City and Loveladies, New Jersey. In meetings with Ryan — “We didn’t shop around, we just knew,” says Palac, a technical writer and quality-assurance specialist — the couple explained to the architect how they live their lives: what they like to do, how they spend their “at home” time, what they like about living in the country. Then they drew up a memo outlining their wish list — a new entrance, an open floor plan, a patio or courtyard, a fireplace, a larger kitchen — and their aesthetic: clean lines, Zen-like and uncluttered.

The renovation project quickly expanded to include an addition, a 900-square-foot two-story room with a small loft, which became the central living space of the house. (Construction took the better part of a year, during which time Green and Palac relocated to a tiny apartment in Frenchtown.) This is where the couple spend most of their time, reading around the fireplace, listening to music, or playing jazz piano. (Green is a musician and an artist.) A wall of sliding glass doors faces an interior courtyard, now the main entrance to the house, bringing in streams of natural light; the windows along the tops of the back and side walls create “glass corners,” adding to the room’s feeling of unlimited openness and airiness. The goal was to make the central living space more intimate while still taking advantage of the soaring height at the edges of the room, says Ryan, who contained the project by using a limited material palette of steel treated with linseed oil, glass, concrete and wood. He chose not to use a lot of recessed lighting, opting for lamps instead to add warmth to the stunning space.