“T HE MANTRA was, We just want it to be simple.”
We’re in Stacy O’Brien’s living room, and as she and architect Jennifer Herron chat about the design process that created the 2,000-square-foot home we’re standing in, it’s easy to see that mantra at work all around us. Every surface is either white, glass, polished concrete or light, glossy wood. You can see from one end of the house to the other, from the master suite at the front through the main living space to the corridor that leads to the other bedrooms and bathroom. It’s a simple form: a 26-foot-by-78-foot rectangle. A single gable. Metal and glass.
“Every decision, we just asked ourselves, Well, what’s going to be the simple way to do it?” Stacy recalls. “And we found through that, we didn’t need a lot of the things you think you need.”
It’s a trend Jennifer says her firm—Herron Horton Architects, which she operates with her husband, Jeff Horton—is starting to see more and more often, this minimalist approach to building and living. Families want smaller homes with more open spaces that lend themselves to entertaining and togetherness, she says. They want efficiency, too—ample natural light, materials that are easy to maintain. Sustainability, too. And many of these families, when it’s time to build, have their sights set on Pettaway Park in downtown Little Rock.
“Did you see all the houses going up nearby?” Jennifer asks. “It’s crazy.”
We nod that we did. She’s right. In fact, all it takes is a glance out the wall of windows to our left to see proof of this, as the neighboring lot is currently a construction site teeming with tinkering subcontractors.
“They’re moving from Cabot,” Stacy says of her future neighbors. “They want to become a one-car family.”
Stacy and her husband, David, didn’t have that far to go to relocate. They’d been living in Capitol View for long enough to know that when they had the opportunity to build, they wanted two things: storage and light. “Neither of those things are in abundance in older houses,” Stacy laughs. They also knew they wanted high ceilings—they’d gotten used to that—and they knew they didn’t want it to be too open. Beyond that, they just wanted to keep things easy and minimal. Oh, and they wanted a metal house.
Turns out that can be a sticking point in a lot of downtown neighborhoods, thanks in large part to the Capitol Zoning District Commission, an entity that was created in the 1970s to preserve and protect the neighborhoods surrounding the Governor’s Mansion and the Capitol. Pettaway Park, however, lies just outside this commission’s jurisdiction, meaning that instead of a lengthy approval process, things are quite quick to move along—hence all those residential construction sites we’d passed on our way to the O’Briens.
But back to the metal house. David O’Brien is an artist, a sculptor who’s worked with corten steel as a medium. (He’s got a sculpture made out of the stuff on the UALR campus.) Also known as “weathering steel,” corten goes up silver but then quickly oxidizes, creating an outer layer of rust on the outside that protects the steel underneath. It’s gorgeous, boasting a warm copper patina, but it’s also virtually maintenance free—therefore, quite simple.
As we walk through the O’Briens’ home together, Jennifer explains that building on a narrow lot, even when you’re not having to adhere to Capitol Zoning restrictions, is not without its challenges. (The lot is 50 feet by 140 feet, with setbacks of 25 feet in both the front and the rear.) But she says that narrow can actually work to your advantage, especially when it’s natural light you’re after, as the O’Briens were. “A narrow form allows that natural light to filter all the way through the house,” Jennifer says. “That’s why in that front room, even though it’s a bedroom, we tried to get a good window and a side light. The laundry room has a light, the bathrooms—just to keep that light coming all the way through every space.
Using natural light is a cost-saving measure, too, provided that you’re able to install windows in a cost-effective way. “We try to work with stock window sizes, so maybe we’ll combine an awning window with a fixed window so you get the maximum amount of glass,” Jennifer says. “We’re always asking, How big can this window be? The maximum width is 5-foot-6? Ok, let’s make it 5-foot-6, and then how tall can we get it?”
Using stock windows and maximizing natural light weren’t the only corner-cutting strategies Jennifer and Jeff had up their architect sleeves when planning this project. Remember that material palette? All white, glass, polished concrete and light, glossy wood? That was intentional. Those concrete floors are the polished and waxed concrete slab foundation—no wood, no tile, no fuss. The cabinetry throughout the house is the same: simple, with minimal hardware. And Jennifer and Jeff also cut corners by literally cutting corners: the home’s rectangle form and single gable meant less foundation work, less exterior-wall material and fewer subcontractors on the job.
But here’s the truth: Being in this space, you’d never guess that anyone was cutting corners, literally or figuratively. Every room, every space, every surface feels intentional. It’s the kind of place that feels as though it has everything you need and nothing you don’t. It’s simple.
Just the way they wanted it to be.