Glass house on the prairie

Homes: Glass house on the prairie

Glass house on the prairie

A modern home of curves and glass lets couple connect with nature

Story: Jodi Heckel

Photos: Robert K. O'Daniell

The home of Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope in rural Urbana is unlike anything found on the neighboring farms. The walls of the Y-shaped home are all curves and sliding glass doors surround the perimeter, so the impression is one of living in a glass house in the forest.

“It means the view from every window is different,” Cope said. “It orients you in a different way to a very beautiful landscape.”

Kalantzis noted they can watch the corn in nearby fields change as it grows, find a sunny spot in which to read somewhere in the house, experience the light of the full moon, and watch deer and hawks.
Kalantzis — the dean of the University of Illinois College of Education — and Cope — president of Common Ground Publishing and a UI education professor — came to Urbana in 2006 from Melbourne, Australia. After living in a city of 4.5 million people, the two looked forward to being in the countryside.
“The idea of being among farmland was appealing,” Kalantzis said.

The couple likes modern architecture. They thought they’d likely be building a home in a cornfield, but then found 19 acres northeast of Urbana with remnants of Big Grove as well as planted trees, and the Saline Branch running through the property. The old-growth trees include a 250-year-old red oak.
“It was that red oak, what we fell in love with,” Kalantzis said.

“Every room (in the house) looks back with that red oak in view,” Cope said.

Kalantzis and Cope wanted their home to be environmentally friendly and built with local and relatively inexpensive materials.
The walls are made of insulated concrete forms. Cope described them as similar to foam Legos, 10 inches thick and reinforced with rebar and concrete. The roof is made of concrete planks.
The home has a geothermal heating and cooling system, and solar panels on the garage roof will generate 4 kilowatts of electricity on a sunny day.

The floor is limestone, cut from the same Indiana quarry that supplied stone for the Empire State Building and the Pentagon. It has radiant heat underneath.
Kalantzis and Cope built a greenhouse on their roof. Right now it has a bed and desk, but eventually Kalantzis hopes to grow olive, lemon and orange trees there. The polycarbonate roof allows sunlight in, and a heater in the ceiling keeps the temperature above freezing in the winter.

Kalantzis and Cope plan to eventually cover the flat roof of their home with soil and a flowering ground cover to create a green roof. They have planted wisteria to climb up the outside of the house and along the railing surrounding the roof.

The couple dug a small pond, which is stocked with native fish. A pier made of steel I-beams floats above the water, and steps lead from their patio to the pond.
Cope wanted both simplicity and regularity in the design of the home. For example, the curves in the home’s walls all have the same arc, depending on whether they are curving in or out. The builders laid out the floor plan on the ground using GPS coordinates to get the curves right.

All 94 sliding glass doors are the same, and all the bathrooms have identical fixtures — floor to ceiling glass mirrors, glass counters and sink bowls, the same hardware in the showers.
The general contractor, Mark Watson of Danville-based Dreamworks Construction, said building the home was a creative project where aspects of the design were modified as they went along. It was not an easy project, Watson said, particularly building soffets and installing the sliding glass doors along the curving walls and building the circular-shaped greenhouse on the roof. But he was happy to be part of a unique, custom-built home.

The furnishings inside the house are a mix of modern and antiques, with references to Kalantzis’ and Cope’s ties to their native Australia and Greece, where Kalantzis was born.
The living room has Mies van der Rohe reproduction chairs and an ultramodern rocking chair designed by University of Illinois architecture students. Several rugs feature black-and-white geometric designs based on works by an Aboriginal artist. The wall above the fireplace is painted gray and serves as a screen for the Blu-ray player mounted on the ceiling.
The dining table is made from 400-year-old eucalyptus wood. The chairs are handmade, also from eucalyptus wood, as is Cope’s desk. In the home’s entry is an Australian cabinet — a piece of bush art made from rare Australian pine timber.

The kitchen has an industrial refrigerator and freezer. The countertops are all stainless steel, and dishes and glassware are stored on open glass shelves. The backsplashes are pieces of glass painted on the back.

The couple built the home with the idea that it would not be used just by them, but also as a public space at times. They have seating for 100 people, and they’ve hosted fundraising events for the Flatlander Fund and the Spurlock Museum, as well as College of Education functions.

Visiting scholars frequently stay at the home. Pocket doors in several bedrooms can close off a space to create another bedroom if needed. One of the guest bedrooms has a kitchenette.
The home’s “gallery walls” overlap one another and hide the doors to bedrooms or bathrooms.

The home has a 12.5-meter pool. Cope wanted Kalantzis to learn to swim. The couple lived on the water for 20 years in Australia, so the pond and pool were important additions to their home here.
On a wall in the pool area is a light sculpture Cope made from plexiglass and lights. It is based on a Paul Klee painting of an angel and was a birthday present for Kalantzis.
The couple made some of the lights in the home, including one over the dining table that is a plexiglass tube filled with clear marbles and Christmas lights. Cope painted a tree branch white and added crystals and lights for the fixture in the home’s entry.

The couple bought inexpensive glassware at local antique and secondhand shops over the course of a year and used fishing line to wire them together to make a chandelier.
The art in their home includes works of local artists, including a painting of Abraham Lincoln by the late Richard Greenberg of Urbana. The painting is based on a photo of Lincoln taken four days before his assassination. Cope said it “puts a local stamp” on their home.

Kalantzis wanted the home to be a showcase of the work of the local contractors and tradespeople who built it, as well as allow her, Cope and their guests to be comfortable and a part of the local environment.

“We feel ourselves very privileged to be here,” she said. “Every day there’s something a little different about it. It affects your psyche in a positive way.”

University of Illinois architecture Professor Jeffery Poss designed a meditation hut that was built along the pond on Mary Kalantzis’ and Bill Cope’s property in rural Urbana.
The V-shaped roof channels rainwater to a spout over the pond. Inside the hut is a small area with three Japanese tatami mats and a place for making tea.

Water is visible – but not the horizon – through a narrow horizontal window at the bottom of the hut. When the sun shines off the water, its reflections sparkle on the white ceiling.
Poss won a 2011 Small Projects Award for the hut from the American Institute of Architects, and a 2010 Architecture Design Award from Central Illinois chapter of the organization.