Case Study: The Nook

For our private clientele, many of our projects begin with an exploration of what the scope of work wants to be. While walking through this exercise for a residence in Colorado, our clients asked if there was something that we could do with the empty space under the main open stair in their home. It was an odd space, and we knew right away that whatever was designed, it would need to be something special.

The Ball Chair, by Eero Aarnio

We began the design by looking at what opportunities might be possible.  It wanted to be something fun, inhabitable, and distinctive.  For the first draft of the design, we drew some options that could be used as a work and art station for both the kids and adults.  When presenting to the client, we could tell that we had not quite hit the mark.  They liked what was designed but wanted more ‘wow’.  They asked if the design could be more adventurous.

For the record, the answer to that question is always YES!  We had an idea that we had dreamed up while developing alternates for the space. This particular option didn’t make the cut for the original presentation because we thought it might be pushing the envelope too far. The design took inspiration from the Ball Chair, designed by Eero Aarnio, and the idea that several pods could be combined to create a place for inhabitation.

Early concept images of The Nook

Conceptualized as three spheres that were embedded into the wall, the space was tailored for reading, lounging, and playing. The top two pods are connected through a central tunnel that provides access to the highest level.  The interior was dimensioned ergonomically so that kids and adults can sit comfortably in several positions.  The lower half-sphere was envisioned as a play place on the floor, but would no doubt become a favorite spot for the family dog. When the design was complete, you couldn’t help but notice that it’s quite anthropomorphic.  So, we decided to play with color and gave it blue eyes. We affectionately named it ‘The Nook’.

Construction diagram showing the geometry and assembly of pieces

With the clients’ approval to move forward, the team started to explore ways to realize the design.  We went through a myriad of ideas on how to fabricate the complex geometry of the piece. Everything from using shipbuilders to large-scale 3d printing was considered. Ultimately, it was thanks to our diverse experience in different types of architecture, in this instance public work, that lead us to fabricate the project in roughly the same way that playground equipment is made.  The entire design was documented in 3d software and cut into several large sections of high-density foam with an industrial size CNC router.  The pieces were then coated in fireproof fiberglass for reinforcement.  The result was a light but extremely solid and durable structure.  When all the pieces arrived on-site for installation, the excitement was palpable.

The inside of the structure was originally designed to be entirely lined with foam and upholstered, like the aforementioned Ball Chair.  Unfortunately, the upholsterer was having a lot of difficulties getting the fabric seams to fit tightly because of the contoured surface. The finish quality didn’t meet the teams’ expectations. Few projects go completely smooth from start to finish, this is even more true when you are attempting something new and unique.  The key success when these circumstances arise is being able to identify how and when to pivot.  This was one of those times.  There’s no doubt given more time and budget, the issue with the upholstery could be resolved.  But, with the upholsterer frustrated and the process stalled, we realized that we needed to develop another way to finish the project and live up to the vision of what it was to become.

Detail photo of rejected fabric seams

One thing we noticed when the piece was in place (however unfortunately upholstered) is that the kids took to it like fish to water.  It was their favorite place in the entire house. Sliding, rolling, and jumping from the top opening quickly became a popular pastime. When we had to change gears on the interior finish, we decided to use it as an opportunity.  With the way the Nook was being used, we thought that the interior would function just as well, if not better if it was constructed of a more durable/harder material.  In the end, we decided to go with an innovative type of high-performance lime plaster that is similar in finish to Venetian Plaster.

Interior photo of the tunnel between the spheres
Detail photo of plaster finish and texture

After the fabric and padding were removed and the plaster was installed, the Nook was both stunning and functional.  The kids can mess around in it without worrying about breaking something and the pillows used for fighting fill the interior when non-rambunctious activities are called for.

Before image of the space under the stair
The Nook under the stair after completion

One of the things we pride ourselves on at Tumu is that our work embodies the spirit of the people we design for.  We steer the aesthetics and make sure concepts can be built within the scope of each project, but every one of our designs is unique because of our clients’ ambitions.  For businesses, it reflects their ethos and brand; for municipalities, culture and function are paramount; and for our private clients, it’s detailed and personal.  Regardless of client type, we always endeavor to innovate and deliver something better than expected.  It should come as no surprise that the nature of the client makes a big difference on how far we push the envelope.

We thank our brave clients who encouraged and supported us to explore, and our entire design and construction team who made this dream space come to life.