Limitations can often breed opportunities, and that was certainly the case with the two-story dwelling designers Eric Mandil and Sean Hughes, architect Brian Ojala and builder Aaron Ojala realized on a tight urban lot in Denver’s Cherry Creek North neighborhood. Smitten with the land’s central location, an empty-nester couple looked to Brian Ojala to create a light and modern structure—an ambitious vision, as the lot was adjacent to a two-story duplex. “It was very difficult to get light on the land, because the building casts a large shadow on the property,” the architect explains. “The couple really wanted an oasis, which was quite a challenge.”
But it was a request Brian Ojala was able to meet handily. After several iterations, he perfected a striking modern design anchored by a two-story atrium. The architect capped the space with a prominent skylight, which allows natural light to spill into the front entry. “We also created a 2-foot-wide by 30-foot-long story, so the light comes through the ceiling, past the second floor and into the first,” he says. Thanks to these elements, the lower-level open kitchen and dining area are recipients of bright sunlight.
As the structure draws in natural light, it also reaches outside to engage its surroundings. Marked by exposed steel structural beams, the interior boasts thick marble walls that extend past the exterior envelope to define outdoor living areas. “Every room has a relief to the outside,” says Brian Ojala. “You’re not walled up anywhere in the house.” For instance, one of the living room’s marble walls reaches outside and serves as a barrier from the busy street. “It extends the footprint of the house,” the wife says. “In the summer, we open the doors and let the spaces flow.” In the wall, an integrated fountain spills water into a swimming pool, muffling the sound of city traffic and offering a beautiful focal point for an alfresco seating area.
Given the indoor-outdoor nature of the house, the material palette follows suit. “There needed to be a continuity between the inside and outside,” says Mandil, who worked with Hughes on the fixed surfaces, materials and colors. “The architecture is pretty hard-edged, and we wanted to keep the decor warm and comfortable.” Starting outside, the designers surrounded the property with a custom louvered steel fence illuminated by uplights in the ground. “At night, it’s a whole different stage set,” Mandil says. “There is a lot of indirect and ambient light, so the project has a theatrical aspect.” The dramatic feeling continues in the entry, where the designers suspended Bocci glass orb pendants that appear to drip into the space. Another sculptural fixture they selected, with tiny bulbs resembling fireflies, takes center stage in the dining room and plays off the tile flooring that complements the stone walls. “The marble walls make it feel ancient and contemporary at the same time, and we wanted to keep that quiet monumentality,” says Mandil, who is also an architect. “It’s serene but not cold.”
The duo kept up that equilibrium in the living room, where they gave the replace surround a brown cashmere-lacquer nish to balance a white glass-and-Caesarstone bar on the opposite side of the room. White leather-upholstered sofas selected by the wife—who chose the home’s furniture, mostly from Studio 2b—round out the space. “I picked them for their modern look as well as their versatility for entertaining,” she says. Another fireplace appears in the family room, where the designers clad the floor-to-ceiling form with a chiseled bluestone Mandil likens to corduroy. “Even though the design is sleek,” Hughes says, “there are many warm elements that balance out the contemporary language.”
The architecture’s linear forms are also tempered outside with native grasses, upright junipers and colorful wildflowers. “It’s a modern home, but the landscape is a blend of a modern look and a natural Colorado style,” says landscape designer Troy Shimp, who also poured the concrete patio surrounding the pool. “We wanted to design something with a lot of ‘wow’ in a relatively limited space.” Offering drama and privacy, modern steel planters and ornamental trees punctuate the area.
The final design belies the meticulous building steps taken by Aaron Ojala, who is Brian Ojala’s brother and partner in the firm. Constructing the house on the tight lot required extra precautions, such as drilling concrete piers every 2 feet around the perimeter so the foundation would not cave in. During the framing process, the architect and builder continued to fine-tune elements, such as exact window placements, to ensure the best possible outcome. “When you do a custom home, there are details that need to be worked out in the field,” the builder says. “We kept adjusting things until it was perfect.”
That attention to detail and the creative spirit exhibited by the whole team resulted in a residence that not only makes the most of its challenging site but also fulfills the homeowners’ expectations. “We took a small lot and built a house that feels larger visually,” the wife says. “We met our goal of entertaining, relaxing and enjoying the convenience of urban living.”