House Tour: Inside Marc and Lana's Big Dig House

Lexington, Massachusets

Name: Marc and Lana
Location: Lexington, Massachusetts
Years lived in: Just about two

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Last fall on a tour of Lexington's mid-century modern homes, we were lucky enough to see the inside of the famous "Big Dig House" and meet its current owners. We were thrilled that Marc graciously allowed us to come back and take a few photos for you.

Living in such an unusual space turns conventional decorating on its ear. It is a house where art is the steel beams, and wallpaper is the raw concrete. Click after the jump and we'll take you on a unique house tour where the architecture is the star of the decor.

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If you don't know the story of the "Big Dig House", its history includes using over 600,000 pounds of salvaged raw steel and concrete from Boston's massive Big Dig highway project. The home's original owner was a civil engineer involved with the Big Dig, which took down our congested, elevated, main I-93 expressway and replaced it with an underground central artery tunnel... after over 10 years and a whole lotta money. During its construction, the home's original visionary owner/engineer asked Cambridge architects Single Speed Design to do something unique and almost unthinkable in residential house design — they were asked to recycle and reuse some of the huge amounts of constructions waste from the temporary infrastructure put up in the Big Dig highway project as they designed his house. (The materials would otherwise have been put into a landfill.)

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Thus the Big Dig House features a tour de force of reused material: steel columns, beams, and concrete for its frame and floors from the demolished I-93 off-ramps. A painted 27-inch wide girder from the walls of Storrow Drive even helps brace the roof. Concrete roadway was reused for the floor, and the home uses radiant heat which supplements modern Runtal radiators. The home's strong steel and concrete frame can support two roof gardens, including a Japanese garden with trees over the garage. The original owner's wife is a water resources engineer and her eco-friendly touches include a system where rainwater is collected underground in a salvaged cistern and waters the roof gardens.

According to two books that Marc graciously lent us, labor costs were kept to a minimum because the materials were mostly used without being modified. The framing was completed in less than two days (!! this usually takes about 6 weeks). Most houses have exterior load-bearing walls, but the Big Dig House's outside walls aren't load bearing, and instead rely on the massive steel beam structure throughout. This features allows the huge expanses of uninterrupted windows.

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Marc's family used to live in the same Lexington, Mass. neighborhood and had fallen in love with the unusual house as they watched it being built. As the house was being constructed, running by it on his daily jog, Marc eventually met and talked to builders, learning much about the unique house, but never dreaming that he and his family would live in it one day.

The key to living in a house like this is that the architecture acts as kind of a furniture in itself. After hanging out in their house talking to them for an hour, the modern elements felt so natural, that the beautiful modern furniture we were surrounded by was barely noticeable. This is the opposite of the typical AT apartment tour where you start with a standard house and fill it up with unique furniture and decorations to make it your own.

Marc's furniture taste runs to the modern as you can see, and most of the furniture was simply moved from their other house. Many of his furnishings are recognizable from DWR, and they use Artemide lighting and FLOR tiles throughout the house. We particularly loved seeing Dieter Ram's wall shelving unit from the 1960's in person — we had only ever seen it in books. Conspicuously absent are window treatments, so the view becomes part of the house. Luckily they live on the top of a hill surrounded by massive trees, so privacy isn't an issue.

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Bauhaus founder and Head of the Harvard Graduate of Design Walter Gropius, formed The Architects Collaborative, an architectural firm that was itself an experiment in collaborative design. TAC was also known for reusing and recycling materials first developed for other uses (plexiglass skylights from bomber plane gun turrets for example). A house around the corner from theirs is in the first photo here.

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The house won the AIA/Boston Society of Architects Housing Design Award in 2006, and has been featured in numerous books and magazines such as Metropolis and The New Yorker. We hope that you can appreciate the reused materials which make it, and the ecological and pioneering spirit in which it was made. Also the love in which the owners have for their special house.

(Thanks, Marc!)

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