The house at 157 Congress Run in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming was a fine little place, a sturdy 1940s brick Cape with trim, boxy rooms and an undulating yard punctuated with old trees. In perfect condition and in one of the state’s best school districts, it was one of those iconic suburban homes that young couples with growing families fantasize about.
But to Terry Boling the house was all wrong. When he and his then wife, Debbie, bought it in 2003, he immediately ripped off the top floor and started tearing things up, leaving neighbors and passersby mystified and confused. Even Terry—a seasoned architect and professor of architecture at the University of Cincinnati—sometimes wondered. “I thought about it myself,” he now admits. “Are we doing the right thing?”
But four years, five and a half tons of concrete fiberboard, and one (amicable) divorce later, the iconic suburban house has been transformed, along with the Boling family, and everything is the better for it. At least the Bolings think so.
“I was out here one day during the renovation,” Terry recalls, standing on the sweep of lawn in front of the house, “and a pickup truck with a bunch of questionable characters drove by, and one of them yelled, ‘That’s the ugliest house I’ve ever seen!’ But I’m fine with that. This was more about how it works and less about looks.”
The Bolings had been living in Belgium and Austria for four years, when they decided to resettle in Cincinnati, where both had gone to school. They found a Victorian in a northern Kentucky suburb of the city, just across the Ohio River, and spent almost a decade there, renovating and reworking the place. “We moved from Vienna, Austria, to Ludlow, Kentucky; we had three kids, one after the other,” Debbie remembers. “It was all a blur.”
As the kids got older and the prospect of their education loomed, the Bolings started searching for a house in a strong school district; Wyoming, with its top-ranked public schools, was an obvious choice. Finding the house, though, wasn’t as easy.
“We wanted to live within the school district, and this place came on the market. It had almost two acres, which were unbelievable. But we weren’t enamored with the house—at all,” Terry explains. “The rooms were okay, but we wanted something more open. The second floor had no windows, except one small bathroom looking out onto this amazing yard. We wanted to exploit this beautiful view.”
With help from some of his graduate architecture students at the University of Cincinnati, where he specializes in teaching design-build studios, Terry ripped off the entire second floor, with its two small, dark bedrooms and gabled roof, and replaced it with an aluminum-trimmed box containing a new master suite that sits, slightly askew, on top of the original first floor. They covered the exterior of the box in cement fiberboard—one of Terry’s preferred materials, which also serves as a wall and ceiling surface throughout much of the house. “I hate drywall,” he says. “I don’t think I used any in the house. I like the tectonic quality of the fiberboard and the exposed screws. We must have used thousands of screws on the ceilings and the walls.”
Another theme also began upstairs. Terry and his students encased the master bathroom with Baltic birch plywood cut into strips, stacked on top of each other and glued—a hand-hewn, rough-textured detail that’s repeated throughout the house. “I’m really interested in this idea of the mark of the maker, of seeing the labor that goes into the product,” Terry explains.
Downstairs, the original boxy rooms seemed perfectly scaled for children’s bedrooms and were essentially left alone. The master bedroom became 9-year-old Muriel’s, the den became 11-year-old Mason’s, and the kitchen, with a little work, morphed into 13-year-old Haley’s, forcing all culinary efforts into a cramped, improvised space in the basement where Debbie cooked with a hot plate and an electric pan. “My friends told me I should write a book about Crock-Pot cooking,” she jokes.
About a year after they bought the house, the first phase was pretty much completed—and then the couple decided to separate. At first they tried living in the house, each of them staying there with the kids on alternate weeks. But that arrangement was too stressful, so Terry moved out permanently, even as the work continued. “We decided to move forward,” he explains. “We were too far in to turn back.”
Over the next two years, Terry and his students, with a little assistance from subcontractors, added a second wing to the house, which juts dramatically into the backyard—another light-filled aluminum-trimmed box containing the living, dining, and kitchen space. The idea, Terry says, was to create a continuous open room that connects to the parklike backyard.
During construction, Debbie and the children lived in the renovated old wing, which was separated from the new addition by plastic sheeting. Finally, the new wing was ready, and on Easter weekend 2006, with guests on the way, Debbie tore through the plastic that covered a doorway and walked to the other side. It was worth the wait, and the two years of cooking in the basement, she now says. “It’s all here, so it’s really functional,” says Debbie, a self-described farm girl from southern Illinois. “I really like being connected to the earth and soil. I can go out and get my herbs, and I can walk out to the grill without walking all over people.”
Admittedly, the process of transforming the house was slow. “All of this was done by my students and me,” Terry explains. “That’s why it took a long time.” But the pace also allowed ideas that might have gotten lost in a typical building rush to percolate and develop. Terry and his students framed the fireplace in the old living room with stacked strips of leftover cement fiberboard, for example. “How can you pre-imagine everything, every detail and every surface?” he wonders. “You can’t. I needed to be in the space and feel the space. I think of it as a kind of slow architecture.”
Terry hopes the experience of being immersed in the building process will change the way his students think about architecture and design. “The connection between construction and architecture is much closer for me,” he says. “So many architects don’t even know how to build. This is what I try to get students to see—that they don’t have to have one or the other. By doing the design and construction they see they’re one and the same. When your body’s engaged with the work, it’s not abstract anymore.”
Terry now lives in a “much more modest” house less than a mile away from the suburban dream home that he and his students upended. (The kids join him at his place every other week.) But he still comes over all the time to work on one thing or another. Some doorframes still need trimming—“the thresholds between things are always the hardest,” he says—and a new decking area outside the addition needs work.
And outside, not far from the trampoline and the faded wooden swing, another project is waiting to happen. “Next we’re going to build Mason a tree house.”