By Marie Muir | Photography by Cornell Watson
The Carrboro home of Douglas V. Pierson and Youn Choi is harmonious with its surrounding landscape, resembling a black snake sunning itself on the hillside. “The exterior is the skin of a snake; inside the gut is where we’re living,” Youn says as she points to a wall running through the center of a miniature three-dimensional model of the home she and her husband designed.
“We created an internal system, right in the middle – that’s where ducts, electricity and all those things run.”
The entrance of the Carrboro home appears two-dimensional as you view it from the family’s gravel driveway, but as you walk farther down the hillside, more of the house reveals itself. In Doug’s words, the shape of the house is fairly simple – three sections that connect at two points to form the letter “Z.” Anchored by a concrete slab, the home was built up and into the wooded hillside.
“There are three main elements of the structure: live, work and sleep from low to medium to high,” he says. “And work is the mediator that connects the two in the middle.” The master bedroom and kids’ rooms occupy the top third, an office-workshop space fills the center, and the kitchen and living room take up the bottom third. At the far end of the home, a floor-to-ceiling glass wall offers a view of a meadow and creek below the hillside.
Doug and Youn individually developed reputations for world-class architectural design projects over the past two decades. They started a new chapter of their professional and personal lives with a move to Carrboro in 2016, founding pod architecture + design PLLC – an integrated architecture, interiors and experiential graphics design studio – with their more than 50 years combined experience. They approach each new project as partners by first taking the location and surrounding environment into consideration.
“We think about a design from conception all the way to the customer in the kitchen and socks in the drawers,” Doug laughs.
Youn uses wayfinding to cultivate natural movement among spaces, whether it’s for previous projects, such as Los Angeles International Airport or Universal CityWalk in Orlando, Florida, or her own driveway. At 2,000 square feet, the contemporary design of their home eliminates the potential for wasted space. “[The 1.25 acre lot had] so many restrictions, setbacks, no-build areas and open-space zones that no one wanted to buy the property,” Doug recalls.
But the duo had a clear vision for their Carolina home and started construction in 2018. Its completion was hindered by several unpredictable obstacles: the pandemic, a six-month arrival delay of building materials from New Bern due to Hurricane Florence and a freak accident 14 months ago when a tornado struck Raleigh, blowing over the truck delivering their plumbing fixtures.
The one-year build turned into two, but Doug and Youn are thankful for everyone who played a role in assembling their Carrboro home. Even their kids, Oscar, 18, and Sora, 15, contributed to the project’s culmination. The loblolly pine – supplied from trees that were removed during construction – that is used throughout the residence showcases their handiwork; they assisted with its cutting and staining, and the wood can be found on the walls, shelves and built-ins. Recycling materials is just one way Doug and Youn practice sustainable architecture.
“We like to say that 80% of green design is all the little stuff, and the remaining 20% or less is the sexy stuff like solar panels, renewable energy and stuff like that,” Doug says.
The “little stuff” includes thermal concrete blocks that frame the base of the building. Concrete is a thermal mass, Doug explains. “So at night, when it’s colder, it releases the heat, and by the morning when you wake up, the blocks are cold again,” Doug says. Doug and Youn plan to build a winter deck out of wood on the south-facing side of the house and a shaded summer patio on the north- facing side.
Concrete floors with radiant heating, supplied by a tankless water heater installed beneath the structure, also contribute heat to the house. Radiant heating was invented in Korea 2,000 years ago, a fact Doug proudly recites in homage to his wife’s native country.
A corroded wooden structure built in the 1930s occupies one corner of the meadow at the bottom of the hillside property. Locals who heated their homes with coal would get their supply here. Doug and Youn are restoring it and plan to move pod architecture + design’s office from its current location on North Columbia Street upon completion. Behind the building and through the woods lie the remains of a swimming pool, built by the Sparrow family sometime after WWII.
Doug and Youn have stayed busy on the business front, completing projects that include Rabbit Hole Distillery and Campus – a mixed- use industrial campus in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. Doug and Youn are on a bit of a distillery kick as of late, as they are also designing Liberty & Plenty Distillery, a startup craft distillery planned for downtown Durham that will produce rum, whiskey, gin and flavored vodkas. “We try not to be specialists in anything, but experts in everything,” Doug says. CHM