Modern Life

Stephen and Emma Chung were ready. Like so many before them, the
city dwellers started thinking suburbs when they recognized that their
Somerville loft wouldn't be suitable for the family they were eager to
start. And Stephen, an architect by trade, had always hoped to design
his dream house.

The Chungs' requirements were simple: a safe, rural setting within
commuting distance of MIT, where Emma teaches, and of Stephen's firm,
Urbanica, in the South End. The reality proved less so. Skyrocketing
suburban land costs put most properties way beyond the couple's modest

So they got creative. “There are no available lots,” Stephen says.
“The only way to build a house these days is to buy land with an
existing structure and start from scratch.”

This outside-the-box approach eventually paid off, but not without a
healthy dose of drama. In the summer of 2002, while Emma was away on
business, the Chungs' real estate agent phoned Stephen about a house in
Wayland. Stephen drove to the property and found a dilapidated
structure sitting on an overgrown, uncared-for plot of land. He loved

Stephen put in a bid immediately, even though he couldn't reach
Emma. After all, they had been trying for almost a year to find the
perfect place. And this might be it.

In Washington, D.C., Emma found a note in her hotel room that read:
“Your husband called. He made an offer on a house.” Surprised, she made
Stephen drive her directly to Wayland when she landed at Logan. She was
dismayed by what she saw, to say the least. “It was a disaster,” she
says. “The house was a wreck, and the land was wooded and looked

As fate would have it, there were 15 other bids on the property, so
they bid a second time. Their offer was accepted, and an excited
Stephen and apprehensive Emma began to make moving plans. Their first
step was to demolish the existing structure — except for the foundation
— and then build a house according to Stephen's blueprints. They had
just three months to erect a home from the ground up.

“I called in every favor I had,” Stephen remembers. “I hired a
couple of guys and they came over with big hammers. We just started
smashing. When the workers didn't deliver, I fired them. I had no
choice. We couldn't afford two mortgages at once and had no time.”

Because of financial constraints, Stephen himself acted as
architect, contractor, and part-time physical laborer. Like any
building project, the Wayland house was plagued by construction
problems and minor injuries. Nevertheless, by late September — blood,
sweat, tears, and nine credit cards later — the Chungs had their house.
A few weeks later, they learned that they were pregnant.

Today the airy home is full of life, as two-year-old Jonathan darts
across the polished wood floor. Large windows illuminate the modern
living and dining areas. The kitchen's appliances gleam under recessed
ceiling lighting. The Chungs' house looks upscale and expensive — but
sometimes looks can be deceiving.

“This house is economically built,” Stephen says. “Much of the
exterior and interior is made with imperfect wood. Some people consider
it low-grade, but to me it has more variation.”

In fact most of the materials, paints, and products used to create
this house were comparatively inexpensive. The couple bought floor
models of the stainless steel kitchen gear to cut costs, for instance.
The entire building is just one story, with 1,300 square feet, but it
appears much bigger thanks to small architectural elements such as
cutout windows and mirrored walls.

Stephen says he's a modernist who listens to nature, and his
personality is reflected in the details of his house. Likewise, Emma is
influenced by Japanese and Scandinavian design, and much of the
furniture suggests her spare style. The overall mood is one of minimal,
natural beauty.

The house is a study of light and movement, and though the design is
decidedly mature, the couple has added amusing touches such as a
kitchen wall turned into a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard for Jonathan to
draw on.

It's one of several family elements the Chungs have been thinking
about. They'd eventually like to add another bedroom — or two.