Building From Here: A Live-Work Home

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Leta Baker

Building From Here: A Live-Work Home

Written by
Leta Baker

Building From Here: A Live-Work Home

Written by
Leta Baker
Long before COVID-19 turned many of our homes into live-work spaces in the spring of 2020, live-work spaces were the norm.

For centuries before the industrial revolution, shopkeepers, bakers, potters, dressmakers and plenty of others made a living in the buildings they called home. Many people still do. After all, it’s economical, practical and just plain comfortable. Couple Lee Molen and Andrew Chase wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lee Molen grew up in live-work spaces before live-work spaces had a name. In fact, her family lived in over a dozen different unconventional homes in Salt Lake City throughout her childhood. That was one of the perks of having architect Ron Molen for a father.

“Every two years he’d finish a new house for us, and we’d move. There was no spring cleaning. We’d just move,” said Lee. It was about exploring new materials. Making adjustments to suit the family’s needs. “My mom was an artist too and she knew what she liked. She didn’t want a new kitchen. She wanted to move on. She was all in, and they were always trying something new together.”

Ron designed hundreds of houses with exceptional character across the Wasatch Front in the 1960s and 70s. His trademark touches included floor-to-ceiling windows, built-in furniture and free-flowing spaces for gathering. His kids’ rooms had built-in bunk beds with ladders and even firefighter poles. He also designed many prominent commercial buildings in Utah and beyond. His standout homes are still coveted throughout the Salt Lake Valley.

“Ron is just a thoughtful architect. It’s beyond style. His simple, nature-oriented houses evoke a lot about family. He really thought about modern living—and doing it in an economical way. He was so prolific,” said Warren Lloyd.

Ron retired a few years before Lee and her husband Andrew Chase were married in the late 1990s. At the time, the couple happily settled in a 1950’s brick home near the intersection of 1700 South and 1700 East and started their family. They updated aspects of the interior right away and got things about 90% of where they wanted them to be. There was always that lingering 10%, but life went on.

As a commercial photographer, metal worker and furniture maker, Andrew had always worked from home. “Even when I lived in a sketchy part of downtown in my 20s, upstairs was for living and downstairs was for work,” he said. So, why would he rent a space across town when they could build a perfectly good barn behind the house? Which they did. It didn’t have central heating or air conditioning, but it served him well for a number of years.

The years became decades. The family’s needs grew and changed. And things started to break around the house. Not to mention that lingering 10%. Andrew’s work now involved both woodworking and welding, and the sparks from the former endangered the latter. Then his metal work evolved into maneuverable metal animal sculptures, for which Andrew found worldwide acclaim. His work soon moved to the rickety old garage out front and the barn was relegated to the occasional large family gathering.

Lee and Andrew considered replacing the aging garage. Redoing the home’s old roof. Adding a second floor. Extending plumbing to the barn. Making the whole house more energy efficient. But none of it quite added up, money-wise or energy-wise. They looked at buying other houses around town. But they loved their location, adored their neighbors and didn’t want to give up the convenient 10-minute drive to their kids’ school.

The answer became obvious: Staying put, while starting from scratch. Creating a whole new energy-efficient home made for connecting and conversing, with space for Andrew’s designing and building. They talked to Lee’s father Ron about it first. But the project would be pretty technical, and it was more than he wanted to take on at that point in his retirement. Ron recommended phoning a friend—Warren Lloyd, the son of his early architect partner Glen Lloyd.

“Committing to rebuild your own house on your existing site placed you in a different realm. Once Lee and Andrew got to that point, they weren’t that sentimental about letting some things go,” said Warren. The couple also appreciated the opportunity to create and collaborate with local craftspeople and fabricators. After all, Andrew wasn’t the only artist in the house. Lee is a graphic designer who spent many years designing apparel and more.

“My dad always put the dining room right next to the kitchen. He wanted that conversation area to be close. And everyone was always mingling everywhere,” said Lee. In the spirit of the homes she’d grown up in, she and Andrew wanted a free-flowing kitchen, dining and living space for entertaining, but in an industrial-modern style of their own, with a minimalist palette of concrete, white oak and steel.

“I overheard all of my parents’ conversations about design growing up. What was wrong with granite. Tile. Corian. Marble. My mother tried every material out there. She was a pioneer. A connoisseur. Of what worked and didn’t work. That’s why we ended up with stainless steel,” said Lee. The new main floor would be designed around a cantilevered steel-and-glass staircase anchoring the kitchen, dining and living areas, connecting all three levels of the house and allowing light to filter in from nearby windows.

There definitely had to be enough space and light on the main floor of the house for Andrew to photograph his sculptures—and really, anything—from various angles and distances. “Whatever that standard amount of light per room is, I felt the need to have twice as much, to have the ability to really light it up,” said Andrew, “To read a book, clean, take photos. The team was very accommodating as I kept requesting more and more lightbulbs.”

Andrew’s new workspace too required more space and light. The obvious spot for it was where the old barn had been behind the house. But after 20 years of shoveling the world’s longest driveway with nowhere to put the snow, his dislike of physical labor made the call: The new studio would go in front of the house. This allowed for the creation of a shared basement with the garage, where they added a car elevator for storing his father’s classic 1960 Model A Ford in the winter. This placement also gave the house additional privacy from the road.

“It was fun because you don’t often find people who actually work in their living space and want a full-fledged studio in their home,” said lead designer Matt Hintze. This would be no generic workspace. It had to be just plain cool enough to warrant Andrew’s remarkable sculptural artwork.

In the end, his new studio didn’t end up having a much bigger footprint than the original garage out back—but because of the basement, it now has twice the square footage. It also feels much more spacious due to the higher ceilings and larger windows. A metal trap door covers a hidden descending staircase on the west side and a massive steel ridge beam with rolling hoist can easily move heavy equipment, material and sculpture through the space.

“It’s better than my old workspace in every conceivable way. And the woodworking area is completely separate from the metal-sparking area,” said Andrew, “It ended up being the perfect size for what I’m doing. If it was any bigger, I’d just be walking more,” Andrew. “Or buying and collecting more stuff,” said Lee.

On that note, Lee and Andrew are both avid fossil collectors, so it was only natural that they have a fossil-cleaning workshop in the new basement, plus built-in drawers for displaying cleaned fossils on the main floor. To add to the theme, Andrew sculpted metal fossils that were inlaid in the concrete floors of the main entryway and basement.

The family felt strongly about energy efficiency, so the Lloyd team used foam board and spray-foam insulation throughout the building envelope. They also integrated triple-paned windows and doors, light-switch dimmers and low-flow plumbing faucets, shower heads and toilets. A radiant hydronic in-floor system is the only source of heat and a partially ducted evaporative cooling unit on the upper floor is the only source of cooling, dumping air from the upper floor to the main floor and basement. So far, the average summer energy bill has been a mere $60.

The master suite upstairs exits to a hidden rooftop terrace above the garage with stunning views in all directions. “They took what would have been a completely wasted space and made it something cool. As a kid, I always loved being in trees and on roofs, I liked getting as high off the ground as I could,” said Andrew.

During Lee’s upbringing, living rooms were more like art rooms full of paintings and pottery. Today, a row of Andrew’s stunning metal animals, some up to 6 feet tall, line the east wall of the living room on clean white pedestals. Two more flank the nearby fireplace. Each one looks like it could spring to life at any moment.

“Just looking at those sculptural pieces out on display is really satisfying—that you were able to create the work here, that’s a live-work space,” said Warren.

The serene waterwise landscaping just outside the abundant windows of the main floor features native bunch grasses, stone mulch and planter beds, but no water-guzzling turf grass. Strategically placed rain gutters at the south end of the roof distribute precipitation into the adjacent planter boxes. And the durable, sustainable natural ash hardwood siding covering the home creates the effect that it’s been there much longer than it has. The easygoing way life that has unfolded within only adds to that feeling for the family.

“A lot of people who are obsessed with modern design come by and want to talk about the house. They tend to be bummed that we’re not quite as excited about modern design as they are,” said Andrew, “We’d probably think about it a lot more if we weren’t so happy with our home as it is,” said Andrew.

Soon after the rebuild was completed in 2019, the family hosted their first large gathering—a 90th birthday party for Lee’s father Ron. More than a hundred loved ones mixed and mingled in their new free-flowing live-work space. It was the perfect way to celebrate the next architectural chapter in their lives.

See more of the Wasatch Live-Work home