By Dennis Rodkin

The contractor who’d been hired to pour a concrete floor for the new recreation room in an East Moline public-housing complex was confused by something the architect wanted him to do. Leaves, twigs, and other debris often fall onto wet cement, and any good contractor will patiently sweep them off so they don’t leave fossil-like impressions. But the architect had handed him some oak leaves and some long grassy leaves and asked him to press them into the wet surface.

The architect, Doug Ross of the Chicago-based Ross Architecture, made the request because he wanted to blur the line between outdoors and indoors. “We intentionally brought nature into the room with those leaves,” he recalls. Other design touches in the complex broke down the indoor-outdoor barrier even more. A long south-facing wall of glass, combined with a concrete floor that soaked up and radiated solar heat and a megadose of insulation, was intended to keep the rec room’s temperature in the balmy 80s even on single-digit winter days–without any help from a furnace as long as the sun was out. Residents could play in the room as if they were outside on an indoors-only day.

Of course most winter days in northern Illinois aren’t sunny, but Ross notes that the goal of green design in our climate is to reduce the use of furnaces and air-conditioning, not to do without them completely. “You can get enough sunny days during the winter to use 20 percent less heat,” he says. “That’s a big increase in energy efficiency.”

The rec room at the Blackhawk Hills complex was built ten years ago, when Ross had just left a high-end interior architecture firm to start his own company, but he’s still exploring ways to bring the outdoors in, to make nature part of our living spaces. In his buildings nature isn’t just something to look at through picture windows; it’s an essential force to live with and respond to. He’s not the only architect who thinks that way, but he’s responsible for some of the Chicago area’s most intriguing attempts to make the natural environment a central part of a building.

In December, Ross finished a big-ticket remodel of a Highland Park house on a half-acre lot, transforming it into a sort of vacation home at home where indoor and outdoor spaces overlap in striking ways. A hallway with wood decking running alongside exposed earth where a bamboo tree grows feels like a path in a Japanese garden, even though it’s all inside the house. The master bedroom’s shower is a stone pit whose glass wall looks out on a cluster of trees. Using it is like taking a bath in a spring somewhere in the woods–though nobody’s likely to hike by and catch you in the act.

Next summer the city of Chicago will build another of Ross’s nature-centered designs as part of Green Homes for Chicago, a project showcasing environment-friendly ways to build affordable housing: five houses by different architects will be built on lots in the Englewood and Hermosa neighborhoods. Ross’s design relies on a dramatic central stairwell leading up to a rooftop atrium with huge windows on the south, which together act like a big light and heat shaft. When the low-hanging winter sun hits those windows, its light will pour down the stairwell into all the living spaces, and its heat will be captured by a special intake duct in the furnace system, boosting the furnace’s efficiency. In the summer, when the sun is higher in the sky, it will instead hit a patch of lawn that insulates the roof–just as Mayor Daley’s new City Hall rooftop garden does. The summer heat will rise through the house and out the windows, creating drafts and reducing the demand for air-conditioning.

Ross’s Highland Park house was designed for a couple of North Shore empty nesters who wanted their house redone to suit their preference for minimalism and who had the money to do whatever they chose. His Chicago house was designed for a couple of city departments trying to demonstrate that new housing can be created that respects diminishing natural resources while remaining within the means of lower-income people. Yet the two houses ended up being a lot alike.

People living in either house will be connected to natural forces and seasonal changes in ways people in most other houses must work hard to achieve. The eventual buyers of the city-sponsored house will come to understand how the sun’s varying heights throughout the year directly affect the way their house heats or cools. The Highland Park couple will sit, chop vegetables, and even shower with trees, birds, and other wildlife seemingly within arm’s reach. “It’s about connecting to nature,” Ross says. “Some people see a building as a box with an inside and an outside. I want holes in that box where the outside intrudes on the inside and the two are integrated. The way you experience a building shapes your consciousness.”

Live in a building that’s full of sunlight and flowing warm air, his reasoning goes, and you’ll come to appreciate those natural forces and countless others. Live in a closed box with a big furnace and air-conditioning, with windows that can’t take advantage of the sun’s free heat, and nature remains something out there, remote from your life.

Ross’s buildings are environmentally centered, but they don’t bang you over the head with their greenness. “Doug is not the California kind of crystal-waving, patchouli-smelling, earth-mother-worshiping environmentalist architect,” says Todd Wiltse, who worked at Ross Architecture for five and a half years. “The green idea is incorporated into everything he does, but he’s not out to change the world. He has this fanatical sense of, How does nature come into this house? Is there a series of skylights, or does light from a concealed slit window wash down a wall? Have we designed for materials that are sustainable, like wood that comes from small timbers that can be regrown and don’t take down large trees? But he’s using those things as fundamentals, not as the point of the building. You might not even see them.” Ross would agree. A house, he says, “doesn’t have to be overtly green. You should be able to go into a green-sensitive building and not be aware of it.”

A case in point is the central staircase in Ross’s model for the Green Homes for Chicago program. While it functions as a passive solar heating system,Wiltse says, it also does a lot for the house aesthetically. Each of the house’s four primary rooms will bring outdoor light through outer-wall windows, not unlike many houses on Chicago’s narrow urban lots. But the three-story light well in the center of the house will also bring light to each of those rooms from another direction, brightening them on winter days when most neighboring houses are dim and dreary inside.

By putting the stairwell in the center of the house instead of running it up a side wall, Ross and his associates who pitched in on the design also freed up floor space so that the rooms could span the whole width of the house. That’s a rare treat on a slim urban lot, particularly in the price range–around $115,000 to $175,000–the city wants these houses to fit into. “That house will feel so different from what you’re used to in the normal narrow Chicago house,” Wiltse says. “It starts out as a beautiful home and proceeds from there to satisfy the requirements that it be energy efficient and sustainable.”

David Reynolds, deputy commissioner of the city’s department of the environment and overseer of the Green Homes for Chicago project, says, “Green design is really about holistic design: looking at your building as a whole and designing an energy-efficient envelope–your windows and walls and roof and ventilation system all have to be energy efficient–but making sure it’s a place that people will enjoy living.”

The contest that the city’s departments of the environment and housing ran last summer to find designs for the project attracted 770 entrants, most from Chicago. Of them, Reynolds says, “Doug Ross was the one who understood most that it’s the whole package. It’s not just sustainable materials, and it’s not just inexpensive to live in–it’s a nice place to live.”

At the other end of the financial spectrum, the clients in Highland Park primarily wanted a gorgeous, though understated, place to live. Environmental features figured in where they matched the couple’s Spartan aesthetic. The driveway is paved with cobblestones and grass that allow rainwater to percolate into the soil rather than washing across a concrete pad into the overworked storm sewers. Interior walls are plastered with a traditional dun-colored mix of mud, sand, and cement. Compared to a lot of standard finishing materials, such as marble or wood paneling, the mix has a far lower “embodied energy,” meaning that less energy went into making it and trucking it to the site. Ross tries to be conscientious about using such components where he can, though he’s not hard-core about it.

George Pappageorge, a Chicago architect with Pappageorge Haymes best known for his high-end home designs, says that Ross lucked out finding a client who liked the look of his preferred plastering method and that most clients won’t spend extra for green building materials. “There are a lot of building products available now that don’t contribute to the landfills and don’t use additional resources,” he says. “But I don’t think the general public is as interested in the environment as it should be, so if you try to use something that is slightly more expensive because it is green, the bottom line will not allow that.” He adds that even given the power crisis in California and skyrocketing natural gas bills around the country, most developers and home owners still won’t accept environmentally friendly building materials. “The question of green architecture isn’t really a question,” he says. “We know we have greenhouse-gas problems and limited resources and ever-increasing population, but we continue with the same patterns of manufacturing and construction that we know are basically fatal to the planet, because that thinking has been put to the side. Maybe there will be a reversal of our thinking when resources get more depleted and it becomes cost-effective to think that way, but we aren’t doing it now. It can’t just be public policy that we’ll build greener buildings. That has to come together with economics for society’s consciousness to focus on green ideas.”

Pappageorge suggests that a passive technique like the light well in Ross’s city-sponsored home is more likely to be accepted because it doesn’t cost anything extra. Some green materials even come in cheaper, though they may have limitations. Ross is fond of an exterior wallboard that looks like shikui, a traditional Japanese building component made mostly of mud. “Your walls have an earthen feeling,” he says, “because they really are made of earth.” An American counterpart he likes is hardboard paneling, which is made of paper and wood fibers–think of really firm cardboard a couple of inches thick. He used hardboard on the outside of the Blackhawk Hills rec room, spending less than he would have for standard materials. But if hardboard gets damp it starts to disintegrate, so it has to be protected from rain and snow by wide overhanging eaves. And it can’t come in contact with the ground or it will wick moisture, so the lower portions of exterior walls have to be wood, concrete, or some other material. But Ross points out that if it’s painted it won’t be damaged by rain or snow blowing against it or by humid summer air, and he likes its advantages. Not only is it inexpensive, “it’s made from paper fibers, so it’s not dependent on taking down large trees and heavy timbers. And because it’s made in Michigan, it’s a regional resource that hasn’t been transported over great distances from Oregon or South America.” If the structure it covers is ever demolished, he notes, “the product degrades into the earth.” Just add water.

Ross, who’s 41, grew up in Highland Park, where his friends included the sons of the couple whose house he’s just remodeled. He went to the University of Colorado at Boulder to major in environmental design, and he says the program “wasn’t just about combining forms and architectural motifs. It was about integrating human behavior and ecology into design. It’s the humanistic side of architecture, not the formal side.” He went on to get a master’s at the University of Pennsylvania, whose architecture school, he says, had an international flavor at the time because of its director, Adele Santos, who frequently brought in lecturers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, not just American and European hotshots.

In 1985, after graduate school, Ross went to India to work for a year in the office of one of his professors, Balkrishna Doshi, a leading Indian architect. “That year was quite influential for me, because in India you have extreme heat and you can’t rely on consistent energy,” he says. “The finest architects are relating to the environment out of necessity. They have to relate to the wind and the sun, and they have to use local materials, because that’s what is available. So they know how to make a building cool without air-conditioning.”

The next year Ross moved to Japan to work for another professor, Kinya Maruyama. There he explored traditional building materials such as wood and mud plaster. “They haven’t lost those connections in Japan,” he says. “They’ve refined the techniques, but it’s still very indigenous and close to nature.”

It was in Japan that Ross got interested in blurring the boundaries between indoors and outdoors. “In America or the West we have the building come out to greet the landscape with a front stoop or a porch,” he says. “But in Japan nature comes into the building and invades the building in places like the transitional spaces between inside and outside.” A small roofed vestibule with a dirt floor, for example, is simultaneously indoors and outdoors.

Returning to Chicago in 1989, Ross worked for the architectural firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz & Associates and later for Marvin Herman and Associates. After two years he set up his own office and now has five architects on staff, including his wife, Yumi Shilowitz Ross.

Like a lot of architecture firms, Ross Architecture gladly hands out a printed sheet detailing its design philosophy. The first of seven principles listed is “Connect to nature.” The explanation that follows reads, “Nature is not to be avoided or controlled, but rather integrated into the spirit of the design. Sun, rain, views, breezes, vegetation, shadows, etc. are core inspirations connecting our designs to nature.”

That’s not always the easiest principle to uphold, but Ross and his team find little ways wherever they can. At Palwaukee Airport in Wheeling they’re building a hangar and office building–not ideal structures for an arty rethinking of space. “The hangar is a hangar,” Ross says. Yet they’re making the buildings energy efficient and “trying to relate the indoor and outdoor spaces. We were the first at Palwaukee to provide a patio so passengers and pilots could sit outside and enjoy a beautiful day while they wait.”

Ross has been best able to bring indoors and outdoors together as he’d like in the model house for the city and the Highland Park house, where the big budget allowed him to give his ideas lots of play. The original house was one story and C-shaped, with four bedrooms. It wasn’t torn down, but it was massively reworked.

In some places the blurred lines really grab attention. The master bedroom, for instance, appears to have a small garden of azaleas along one wall, but the flowering shrubs are in a courtyard outside. They feel like part of the room because they’re next to a ground-level, knee-high window that’s about eight feet wide. There couldn’t be an odder place to put a window, but the location allows the garden to be incorporated into the bedroom without giving up privacy.

A window in the kitchen accomplishes something similar. The old kitchen cabinets were kept, but in the 18-inch space between the upper and lower banks, where most kitchens have a tiled or painted wall, this kitchen has a 13-foot-long window. It fills the kitchen with natural light and appears to bring the outside shrubs and trees inside, so that you feel as if you’re washing dishes in a forest glade. The neighbors’ house is just a few yards away, yet through the long kitchen window you see only the garden.

Each of the house’s three bathrooms has an outdoor element too–the master bath’s shower and glass walls, another floor-level window, a peaked glass ceiling. Bathrooms are after all, destinations, and Ross likes the idea of making people feel they’ve passed through indoor and outdoor spaces while staying inside the house. “Spaces can evoke feelings in people, just like music,” he says. “I don’t want to make elevator music.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murray.