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Using materials chosen for their low cost, Chaewon Kim and Beat Schenk redesigned and rebuilt their Cambridge cottage into a spare, modernist home. Upstairs, a polycarbonate wall provides light in the bedroom.
Using materials chosen for their low cost, Chaewon Kim and Beat Schenk redesigned and rebuilt their Cambridge cottage into a spare, modernist home. Upstairs, a polycarbonate wall provides light in the bedroom. (Globe Staff Photo / Janet Knott)
Photo Gallery More photos of Kim and Schenk's Cambridge cottage

A house built with steel

To some, it's an eyesore, but to its architect/owners, it's home -- and a beacon of the future

CAMBRIDGE -- It's the smallest home on the block, and from the outside, at least, you can make a strong case for saying it's the strangest. The house at 15 Clifton St. in North Cambridge is long and narrow, like a Vermont covered bridge, and has only one small window in the front and not a single window on either side. Where the roofing and siding should be is a continuous blanket of rusty corrugated steel. The building seems to be dripping rust. It looks like an abandoned warehouse, or a barn gone wrong. "People have complained to the city about it," said Chaewon Kim, who lives in it with her husband, Beat Schenk. But the interior of this house tells a different story.

Kim and Schenk are architects who bought the building in 2002 because it was the least expensive house in Cambridge on the market at the time. With little construction experience, they redesigned and rebuilt it with their own hands, $50,000, and home-improvement books from Home Depot.

Together, they created a remarkable, uncommon, Zen-like home -- abstract and yet so simple that it evokes a Monopoly game piece. It is flooded with light from the rear of the house, which is a wall of glass, and it is constructed with materials -- a long, plastic cutting board as a kitchen countertop, a sheet of polycarbonate for a bedroom wall -- chosen primarily because they were affordable.

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But the story of this house is more than a story about architecture, a resourceful couple, and a prudent do-it-yourself construction project. It's also a story of creativity, enterprise, focus, and inspiration that gave Chaewon Kim the will to survive breast cancer, diagnosed three years ago when she was only 26 and her prospects were very dim.

"The house was not just a building, it was the hope of my life," said Kim, who was born in Korea and came to the United States in 1996 to study architecture in Los Angeles.

"Despite the horror of surgery and chemotherapy, I feared that I might never get a single chance to design and build something," she wrote in a diary she kept about the project. "Since there was no client who would give a project to a young and ill architect like me, I decided to build at least my own house before I die."

When Kim graduated from Harvard's Design School with a master's degree in architecture in 2001, her future looked promising. Her boyfriend, Schenk -- a Swiss architect she'd met at architecture school in Los Angeles -- had a good job in Boston. She was hired by a New York architectural firm to work on the design for a new terminal at Toronto's airport.

It was heady work for a new graduate. Her office was on Wall Street. The mayor of Toronto came by to consult. She hobnobbed with famous artists commissioned to create public art for the terminal. She lived in a high-rise in lower Manhattan, a block east of the World Trade Center.

On Sept. 11, though, her world began to fall apart. When the South Tower collapsed, the tremor rocked her apartment with the force of an earthquake. Her bookshelves collapsed and the kitchen cabinets fell off the wall. Kim was trapped in her bathroom until neighbors were able to rescue her. A few days later, she felt sick -- "I thought it was from the ash and fumes" -- and made her way to a hospital to be examined. The doctor felt a lump on her chest and ordered an ultrasound.

The next morning a surgeon called; she had cancer in one breast -- an unusual occurrence in a woman so young. Her mastectomy was scheduled for Oct. 5.

Her family was in Korea. Her boyfriend was in Boston. Her city had been attacked. Her apartment was in chaos, filled with debris, with no electricity or water. And with a diagnosis of breast cancer, how could she now support herself?

The day before the surgery, she and Schenk married hastily at City Hall, so that he could legally be considered her next of kin in case something went wrong. There was certainly no honeymoon.

Kim was discharged from the hospital the day of her surgery. "There were literally no beds available for her," Schenk said. With the streets around her apartment closed to cars for security reasons, Kim had to walk two blocks back to her devastated building, dragging an IV pole, hours after her mastectomy.

She quit her job to come to Boston with Schenk, and in November they moved to a studio apartment in Cambridge; in January she started treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. But there were medical problems and she was hospitalized frequently.

Despairing, Kim began to see her dreams of being an architect slip away. Despite her illness, she applied, in vain, for four international design competitions. She offered her business card to her doctors. "I asked everyone, `Do you need a house?' "

It was about this time that she began to dream of building her own home.

"I just could not get any other project," said the petite, soft-spoken Kim, who is given to apologizing for her difficulty pronouncing some English words. "From building my own house, I saw the hope that one day I could contribute to more people and bigger cities through introducing good architecture. Because I believe that good architects can help the world look more beautiful."

They chose Cambridge, mainly because it was accessible to the subway and they had no car. With a down payment of $60,000 borrowed from family, they purchased 15 Clifton St. in December 2002.

It was a nondescript 712-square-foot worker's cottage built in the late-1800s with a pitched roof, two tiny bedrooms, and a lot of room for improvement. The walls, floors, and ceiling were covered with layers of materials to hide cracks, mold, and fire damage. A poorly designed bathroom at the back blocked the view of the yard. The house wasn't insulated. The siding was made of asbestos. Two major floor joists were burned through and didn't function structurally.

They loved it.

"I liked the simplicity of it," said Schenk, who now works as a senior associate in the Boston office of Cannon Design.

With only $50,000 for construction and materials -- and that's before a disheartening chunk, $3,500, was gobbled up by asbestos removal -- they began to renovate in March of 2003 and finished last May. While Schenk was at work during the day, Kim, recovering from her treatment, functioned as architect, developer, and general contractor. She became a fixture at Home Depot, sometimes shopping there two or three times a day.

When Schenk came home from work, the couple would labor until midnight, clearing down to the studs. The first winter and spring were extremely cold, and their only warmth came from a small space heater. They slept amid dust and plaster clouds.

It was a nightmarish job, made worse by a new complication in Kim's health. In August 2003, she was diagnosed with a cardiac condition that weakened her heart. Kim said doctors aren't sure whether it's related to her cancer treatment, but, regardless, she tires easily "so I try not to work too much without having enough fluids."

But despite their travails -- including a burglary during construction -- the house slowly took shape and now they live here happily with their cat, Miu Miu.

They extended the back of the house 10 feet and achieved their goal of using inexpensive, environmentally friendly materials, thus "disproving the stereotype that environmentally conscious materials are costly or complex to use," said Kim.

You can't beat the price of Corten corrugated steel for exterior siding -- $1.50 per square foot -- and while the appearance may displease some passersby, she and Schenk are rather fond of it.

"I love the color," she said.

"You see traces of time in it," he said. "The rust becomes almost like a patina. And it doesn't need maintenance."

They eliminated everything in the house that was not essential, including moldings, trims, and walls and windows, except for the floor-to-ceiling window at the back of the house and a skylight on the second floor. A latticed opening in the upstairs floor lets sky light wash over the "gallery wall" downstairs, illuminating the couple's small art collection. The bedroom wall is translucent polycarbonate, a material used in greenhouses, to maximize sunlight.

They would have liked a hardwood floor but used cork instead, to save money. They would have liked their kitchen countertop to be marble or Corian, but used a look-alike material -- a big, plastic cutting board ordered from a butcher shop supplier. They were so strapped for money, they painted the interior white because a painter told them they'd need fewer coats.

The effect is spare, actually minimalist. While some of the carpentry may be imperfect, the house is somehow unified and sophisticated. And despite its size, it feels surprisingly open.

Schenk describes the house in conceptual terms. "It is an abstract interpretation of New England architecture," said Schenk, 38, who with his lean form, chiseled features, and black clothes, looks minimalist himself.

For Kim, it was the stimulus for a career. The house was appraised at $450,000 and they were able to get a second mortgage. Now they're about to add a kitchen and three bedrooms; they recruited a friend to help with construction. They were also able to buy the two-family house next door and plan to rebuild it to rent or sell. The designs for both projects will be done by Uni, an architectural firm they've opened with two friends from Los Angeles that will be headquartered in their home.

"A four-people office is still small, but we hope to get a public project like a school and library in the future," said Kim.

Two years ago, while she was so sick, she could hardly have dreamed she'd own two houses in Cambridge and be working as an architect. She believes she is cancer free now and feels "very energetic and hopeful for the addition and new construction. Hopefully," she said, "my heart will be OK."

She and Schenk acknowledge not everyone is as enamored with 15 Clifton St. as they are. "People come by, and they either love it or are offended by it," he said. "But there is something basic about the notion of being able to build your own house; it's very liberating," he said. "This has a value in our profession, and it doesn't have to do with scale at all. It has to do with the actual meaning of a house." 

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