SMALL AND CLEVER: The Martin house thinks big

martin house

BEFORE and AFTER: The two-bedroom house on the site had to be dismantled when the Martins learned that a root from a tree in front had compromised the foundation. The finished renovation glows at twilight.
photo at left, courtesy Tina Govan; photo at right, courtesy James West/JW Productions

by Liza Roberts

photographs below by Juli Leonard

When Steve and Sujitra Martin decided to move to Raleigh from Charlotte in 2006, they knew what they wanted in a house here: Something small but efficient, in a walkable, downtown neighborhood.

The house they built with the aid of local architect Tina Govan is a revelation of contradictions. Small but expansive; practical but quirky. With an abundance of daylight, simple lines, and natural materials, the house is bright and airy, with the spatial sense of a much bigger place. Its cunning design turns nearly every wall into a cupboard; squeezes benches and desks into staircase landings and window wells; fits a pantry under the stairs; tucks a TV and piano into built-in nooks; hides utilities behind pocket doors; and manages to pack three bedrooms, an open-plan kitchen-dining-living room, sewing room, attic loft, and sizable finished basement into 2,700 square feet.


BUILT TO SCALE Maya, her father, and a favorite bear, above, admire the model of their house that architect Tina Govan made before it was built. The roof comes off to reveal tiny furniture inside.

It’s just what the Martins – and now their daughter, Maya, 6 – had hoped for. “How do you get more use out of a room? Tina (Govan) gets how to do that,” says Steve Martin, 46, who works at Square 1 Bank in Durham. Sujitra Martin, 47, who manages the couple’s rental properties near N.C. State, says the result is satisfyingly efficient: “I don’t think that there’s any space here that we don’t use.”

Govan says she was happy to work with clients who truly embraced the idea of a small house. “Some people think they want to live small, but they don’t,” she says. “And a lot of people think of needing rooms and hallways, but you can define spaces in other ways.”

The Martins didn’t need convincing. In the previous decade or so, the couple, who met at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, had lived in eight different homes in eight different places – ranging from Minnesota to Australia, in locations rural and urban, and in big houses and small. This time, they knew: No large piece of land to tend, thank you; no massive square footage to heat and cool; no remote location. With a baby on the way, a bungalow-style house close to downtown (and to Steve Martin’s then-job at RBC Bank) sounded ideal.

Sujitra Martin, who grew up in Thailand’s small Uttaradit Province, also wanted a house that reflected the minimalist architecture of her childhood home. Cooled by cross-ventilation and anchored by a central courtyard, that family house in Thailand encouraged an indoor-outdoor style of living Sujitra hoped to replicate here.

Govan suggested the Martins consider renovating a modest two-bedroom, one-bath house on Holden Street in Oakdale, a small neighborhood of several square blocks sandwiched between Mordacai and Oakwood. It was a neighborhood in transition at the time, Steve Martin recalls, which gave him some pause, but “the transition was underway, and Tina knew it was a good neighborhood.” Govan lived up the street, so her knowledge was firsthand.

Sujitra Martin, marooned in Charlotte on bedrest, put her faith in her husband, in what she could glean from Google Earth images, and crossed her fingers.

When they realized the original house was structurally unsound, they enlisted Habitat for Humanity to take it apart piece by piece for resale, and then started from scratch. Outdoor space was thoughtfully organized to make it easily accessible; architect Govan created a roof deck to replicate the Thai house of Sujitra Martin’s memory, featuring a large center patio with a structure on either side. Geothermal heat and solar panels were installed, and local, often reclaimed, materials were used throughout. Southern yellow pine paneling and beams, reclaimed long leaf pine floorboards, poured concrete floors and minimal decoration were designed to keep it simple.


JUST RIGHT Steve, Maya, and Sujitra Martin use every inch of their house. This window seat in the sitting area of their main room doubles as a bed for visitors and a reading nook for Maya.

Today, they’re all happy, including Maya, who finds endless fun in the house’s unexpected nooks and crannies, window-seats, swings, and lofts. Steve Martin has his own home office space, built into an upstairs landing. The roof deck, patios, and expansive windows feel like home to Sujitra.

And they’ve found that 2,700 square feet is plenty of room for parties and overnight guests. Last year, the Martins say, 13 of Sujitra’s relatives from Thailand stayed with them at once, and everyone had somewhere to sleep, whether it was a futon in the loft, one of the window-seats, or an actual bed.

“My mom and sister love it,” Sujitra says.