The house that Randy Brown built — the one that he eventually began to refer to as “the laboratory” — began as a modest, 1950s ranch.
“It was just this very normal house on 10 acres of land,” said Brown, who bought the secluded home at 5550 McKinley St. with his wife, Kim, in 1999. It was about 1,300 square feet, surrounded by trees and invisible from the road, north of Interstate 680, in the north hills. The home had solid bones and good views but was otherwise unremarkable.
And in that way, it was perfect, because Brown wanted a project — a big, ambitious project. And though the plans were still taking shape in his mind, he could tell that the half-century-old home was the right canvas.
That big project turned out to be an addition, and not just a bedroom or family room. It was an entire house.
A house with more than 5,000 square feet of living space (more than 6,000 square feet if you count the original house, too). A house made of concrete, glass, wood, metal and marble. A house with 13 uniquely designed staircases, entire walls of windows, a skywalk and a labyrinthine layout — go down a staircase, and there's the kitchen. Go up another, and you're in the master bathroom.
A house that's been featured on HGTV and CNN Money and has won numerous awards, including the American Institute of Architects Honor Award. A house that, in a less remote area, would have neighbors and passers-by buzzing.
And after it was finished, he put it up for sale and moved to Florida.
Just as this was no ordinary building project, Brown was no ordinary builder. He's the architect behind many widely known Omaha buildings, among them the corporate offices for the Greater Omaha Packing Co., the Kent Bellows Studios renovation and the oddly shaped, internationally known building at 120th and Blondo Streets he designed to house both his architecture firm, Randy Brown Architects, and his father's law firm.
The house was a chance for Brown to experiment with different building materials and techniques. It was a chance for him to offer his architecture students from the University of Nebraska campuses in Omaha and Lincoln the opportunity to test their skills and ideas and to get experience, too. And it was a chance for him to work with his hands.
He nicknamed the property the laboratory, and he likened the process of building it to “doing surgery on myself.”
He began by stripping away the home's ceilings, exposing the roof joists. He removed the carpet and flooring, exposing the floorboards. He took out walls and added big windows.
“I was kind of peeling back all the layers,” he said.
And then, after the layers were sufficiently peeled back in the summer of 2000, he began adding on.
He designed as he went, making sure his family could function in the space.
He added a climbing wall for his sons, now 11 and 14. He made the boys' bedrooms small — he called them “sleeping pods” — with a large, open rec room in between to encourage them to spend time together. He designed the new house so it was separate from the original structure, connected with the skywalk. This allowed his family to live outside of the work zone; it also allowed Brown to situate the new part of the house so it overlooked the most scenic part of the property.
And he designed it so he would feel constantly inspired.
Photos: Randy Brown's Omaha 'laboratory'
“For me, architecture is all about experience, and there are these unusually unique spaces that really inspire me,” said Brown, 47, who has a bachelor's degree from Kansas State University and a master's degree from the University of California at Los Angeles. “There's this feeling of awe and wonder and curiosity.”
Altogether, it took eight years for Brown to finish the house. In 2007, he and his family moved from the old portion of the house, which Brown transformed into an office, to the new.
Kim Brown loved the space — particularly the kitchen, with its enormous windows, double ovens and massive marble counter top that doubled as the family's table.
The boys did, too, she said. In addition to the climbing wall, their tiny bedrooms and shared rec room, they had a nook above the kitchen for video games and watching DVDs and a big treehouse out back — one of the first things their dad built on the property.
“It's like a big playhouse for them, basically,” Kim Brown said.
She didn't worry about them slipping down one of the many staircases or breaking one of the home's many floor-to-ceiling windows.
“Maybe it's because they've always been surrounded by Randy's design,” she said.
And then last summer, the family decided to spend some time in Boca Raton, Fla. The family members all play tennis, Randy Brown explained, and Boca Raton is a great spot for that. They loved it there, so they decided to make their stay permanent. In the fall, they put their house on the market, though he still frequently commutes to Omaha.
“I sort of hate to be selling it,” Randy Brown said. “But I also know it's time to move on and someone else will get to experience and appreciate the things we did there.”
Karen Jennings of CBS Home is selling the home, listed at $899,900. It's safe to say it's among the more unusual homes she's listed.
“This is definitely not a suburban house,” she said. “This is not a traditional house in Dundee.”
And there are all those stairs.
“You have to be fairly athletic to live in this home,” Jennings said.
It's attracted fans of its modern architecture, though some have been turned off by the 1950s kitchen cabinets and other retro elements of the original home. One potential buyer mentioned that it was not a house you would want to be drunk in, said Missy Turner, another CBS Home agent.
But it feels peaceful. Its recycled materials, metal roof and siding, extra-thick drywall (which has insulating properties) and other elements make it both eco-friendly and energy-efficient, Jennings said. Someone will want to live there.
“It's a playground,” she said. “But yet you can cook and sleep and do everything you need.”
Brown hopes that whoever buys the place continues to change the property — adding on, tearing down and generally amending the home's features to suit their own family's needs.
“It will evolve again,” he said. “I'm sure.”