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Blended aesthetics: Ray Kinoshita Mann builds her dream house

Ray Kinoshita Mann builds her dream house

  • The children’s bedrooms feature playful porthole windows. “The kids love shooting nerf weapons through the portholes,” Mann says. JERREY ROBERTS

  • A bedroom at Ray and Charles Mann’s home in Amherst. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ray and Charles Mann with their children, Emilia and Schuyler, at their home in Amherst JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ray and Charles Mann home in Amherst. JERREY ROBERTS—JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ray and Charles Mann home in Amherst JERREY ROBERTS—JERREY ROBERTS

  • Architect Ray Kinoshita Mann’s North Amherst home is basically a box, but its appearance is far from austere. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mann says her passion for space conservation influenced many of her design decisions. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Although the home of Ray and Charles Mann is basically a box, its appearance is far from austere. JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Here in New England we spend so much time indoors,” Mann says. “I wanted to experiment and see if we could build a house around an open courtyard.” JERREY ROBERTS

  • The Japanese-style shower room doubles as a place to dry laundry.

  • “Everyone in the family likes to cook, and I set up the kitchen to work like a short order chef’s kitchen, allowing people to work side by side,” Mann says. JERREY ROBERTS

  • A bedroom in the home of Ray and Charles Mann JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mann says she sometimes tries things out first in her own home before suggesting them to clients.

  • The cook top in the kitchen has four burners in a row rather than the typical front-back configuration. “It’s hard to reach over someone else to get to the back burners,” Mann said. JERREY ROBERTS

  • A sliding ladder accesses a flexible shelving system that holds the Manns’ extensive library. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ray and Charles Mann home in Amherst. JERREY ROBERTS



For the Bulletin
Thursday, May 19, 2016

What happens when a widely traveled architect obsessed with environmentally responsible construction, and who happens to be the daughter of Japanese émigrés, designs a house for her family and herself?

For Ray Kinoshita Mann, an architecture professor at the University of Massachusetts, the result is a sublime space that blends a decidedly cutting-edge aesthetic with centuries-old traditions of Japanese and European architecture.

The structure of the house in North Amherst is a parallelogram, simple and block-like.

“I used to design more complex shapes, but as construction costs have risen, I’ve adopted a more basic envelope,” said Mann. She described the house as “a muu-muu rather than a cocktail dress. The challenge is to keep a simple envelope but make the spaces that I want within it.”

Dickinson Meadow

The distinctive house that Mann designed for her husband, Charles, a writer, and their two children, Emilia, 18, and Schuyler, 13, and herself stands at the end of a long gravel driveway in what used to be a sand quarry. The Manns bought the 6-acre property in 2008 with the idea of building a house for their family and selling several other building lots.

Mann said they love the property’s sense of privacy. “It has a natural bowl shape and it’s surrounded by trees that were planted to hide the sand pit,” she said. “Even though we’re close to a couple of busy roads, it feels very secluded.” They named the property Dickinson Meadow, a nod to the abandoned sand pit that belonged to a relative of Emily Dickinson’s.

Box of delights

Although the house is basically a box, its appearance is far from austere.

The exterior walls, painted a soft, greenish yellow called “Tea Green,” are punctuated by large windows and a prominent rectangular block of translucent panels made of Kalwall, an energy-efficient material that resembles Japanese shoji, or paper screens.

Within this Kalwall block are smaller, clear windows that “frame the view in a way typical of Japanese houses,” said Mann.

She used many of the house’s features as experiments for her professional work for clients. The front door opens onto the centerpiece of her design — a sunlit interior courtyard that houses several burgeoning potted plants including a small fig tree loaded with growing fruit.

“Here in New England we spend so much time indoors,” said Mann. “I wanted to see if we could build a house around an open courtyard.” She says that she was influenced by small courtyards and light wells she had seen in European pensions and Japanese houses.

“There wasn’t necessarily a grand space, but the proximity to air and greenery in a tight space could nonetheless have a huge impact both within it and in the spaces next to it.”

The courtyard is lined with glass doors and has a huge screened skylight that is kept open in warm weather. In winter, the courtyard is closed off, but the temperature stays around 50 degrees, providing a hospitable climate for the plants.

The interior’s boldly visible timber framing was inspired by traditional Japanese houses that often incorporate natural wood beams and columns. Mann explained that the massive round columns were harvested from mature red pines from nearby Leverett that were planted during the 1930s Depression to be cut for fence posts; the 10-inch wide beams are of local white pine.

Multi-purposes

Mann’s obsession for space conservation influenced many of her design decisions. The living area on the main and second floors totals just 1,800 square feet, not including the 250-square-foot courtyard.

To save space, different rooms serve multiple functions.

For example, the Japanese-style shower room, an airy open space on the main floor with a cedar-slatted floor and bright chartreuse tiles is also used as a drying space for laundry. Mann installed hanging racks on pulleys that can be raised and lowered, eliminating the need for an energy-wasting clothes dryer.

The south-facing room also serves as a nursery for seedlings and lends itself to large, messy cleaning jobs — “We recycle lots of old stuff,” she said.

The single bathroom sink is wide enough for two people to use at the same time.

The long, light-filled family workspace is another multi-purpose room.

A sliding ladder accesses a flexible shelving system that holds the Manns’ extensive library. Charles and Ray have desks at either end, and the children spread their work out on an exceptionally long antique dining table that belonged to Charles’s grandmother. It accommodates more than 20 people for dinner parties.

Mann’s attention to storage space is evident throughout the house.

“I’m obsessed with simple cabinetry that eliminates unnecessary drawers. Everyone needs storage, but figuring out how much you need is an important part of the design process.”

She wants to avoid what she calls “architectural bloat,” noting that eliminating excess storage frees up a lot of useable space. “If you have too much storage space, you fill it up with clutter.”

Instead of space-wasting closets in the master bedroom, Mann created tall, floating plywood cabinets with wood-framed translucent Mylar-faced doors.

“It’s another riff on Japanese architecture,” she said. The cabinets have six linear feet of hanging space and a lower shelf that holds stackable clothing.

Green materials

Throughout the house, Mann used state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly construction materials.

The walls, floors and ceilings are constructed of fiber-cement faced panels with a dense Styrofoam core. The 4-by-12-foot panels are energy efficient and impervious to the elements. Mann coated the floor panels with a cement-like substance and used an eco-friendly stain to give them the look of well-worn terra cotta tile.

Heated by a central masonry stove, what Mann referred to as a Finnish or Russian hearth, the house is designed for maximum energy efficiency. In extremely cold weather, a back-up high-efficiency propane furnace powers a circulating hot water system that runs along the north and south edges of the house below floor level. A low soapstone shelf surrounds the hearth, providing a warm place to sit in cold weather.

Mann chose not to install central air conditioning.

“I might not do this in a client’s house, but our family loves fresh air.”

In warm weather, the courtyard skylight is open, drawing a cooling airflow through the house, she said.

Family focused

Down to every detail, the house addresses the needs of the family, including Mann’s elderly parents, who live in a separate apartment on the lower level.

“Everyone in the family likes to cook, and I set up the kitchen to work like a short order chef’s kitchen, allowing people to work side by side.”

A stainless steel counter with an extra-long sink runs the length of the space. Below are racks of stainless steel metal tubing for drying and storing dishes. The cook top has four burners in a row rather than the typical front-back configuration, since “it’s hard to reach over someone else to get to the back burners,” Mann said.

A moveable kitchen island on casters is covered in chartreuse acrylic resin. Large shallow drawers have corrugated metal bottoms so that small items naturally arrange themselves in the space.

Mann wanted the children’s space on the second floor to have a tree house feeling. An open, steel-framed staircase leads to a living area overlooking the courtyard that holds a built-in futon sofa, bookshelves and a television.

The children painted their own bedrooms. Schuyler chose bright turquoise; Emilia, tawny peach.

The rooms have sliding ladders to reach upper shelves and playful porthole windows that echo the large porthole window in the courtyard. “The kids love shooting nerf-weapons through the portholes,” Mann said.

Design extends out

The house’s outdoor garden space is as thoughtfully designed as its interior. A deck of local black locust, a wood that weathers well without rotting, runs around the east-facing front of the house and the south-facing side. Underneath, a 1,000-gallon tank holds rainwater from the roof. “We use the water for the garden, but we could put it to other uses if we needed to,” Mann said.

Flanking the deck are low stonewalls and terraces and beds for perennials and an extensive tomato garden filled with many unusual varieties, including Hawaiian Pineapple, Isis Candy, and Berkeley Tie-Dye.

There’s also a small fishpond and a fire pit for outdoor cooking.

“That’s another experiment we’re still working on,” Mann said.

Inside and out, the Manns’ house feels like an exciting laboratory for creating spaces that are generously imagined yet pleasingly concise.

As you leave, you’re aware that Ray Mann is committed to experimenting with a way of design that is also a way of life.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.