House & Home

Brooklyn transplants’ Olathe home is an architectural marvel of concrete and steel

Castellated steel beams support the ceiling of John and Cynthia Gillis’ Olathe home. John, an architect, designed the octagonal house, which is certified to withstand an F-5 tornado. Cynthia, a professional landscaper, designed the surrounding yard. They call the house Timshala.
Castellated steel beams support the ceiling of John and Cynthia Gillis’ Olathe home. John, an architect, designed the octagonal house, which is certified to withstand an F-5 tornado. Cynthia, a professional landscaper, designed the surrounding yard. They call the house Timshala. The Kansas City Star

For Brooklyn transplants John and Cynthia Gillis, their home is more than an architectural marvel of concrete and steel.

It’s a geometric ode that tells the tale of a partnership between an architect and a landscape designer that spans four decades and into the tall grasses of a Kansas meadow.

Just don’t ask them how long they’ve been together because they aren’t sure.

“We’ve been together 40-something years, and have been married 30 years, right?” Cynthia reaches for her husband’s hand as they stand by a large table in the dining area of an open-room house they call Timshala.

“We were married in 1984, so 30 years? Or was it 1983?” John tries to remember, and they both laugh, then shrug. It doesn’t matter, they agree, because here they are, happy and finally at home in, of all places, Olathe.

“When we first decided to move, everyone in Brooklyn asked us ‘Why Kansas?’” Cynthia laughs.

The short story? Several years ago, the pair had ideas about moving to a place with a slower pace than busy Brooklyn, where they worked together and separately on a variety of high-profile design projects, several of which were featured in the Wall Street Journal and Architectural Digest.

“We wanted to re-create our lifestyle,” Cynthia says. “I had lived on the same street, walking the same walk for 30 years. We were fixtures.”

A road trip west to see American architecture accidentally led them to Kansas City, where they found, of course, excellent barbecue and great beauty in a landscape some Midwestern natives take for granted: rolling hills and prairies, open skies.

Not long after, they purchased property just past the edge of a modest suburb. They found it perfect for their latest collaboration, a contemporary 4,300-square-foot residence designed by John that extends into six acres of thoughtful, ever-evolving landscape created by Cynthia.

Grand designs

When construction began in April 2013, neighbors thought the landowners were building a church. The main building’s concrete walls and complex design were inspired by legendary Kansas tornadoes.

“An octagon is the strongest form in existence,” John says. The house is certified to withstand an F-5 tornado. “A rectangle or square is inherently unstable and has to have braces built into the walls to keep it from twisting and turning. Because of this shape, the air has to go around the house.”

Light, too, moves around the primary living space of the home that is grand, yet intimate. The octagonal room is mostly open, with bedrooms separated on the south side by birchwood partial walls with glass panels extending to the ceiling. Sixteen castellated steel beams support a ceiling that folds like origami and rises to meet around a single centered skylight.

Wherever you stand, you are aware of the light coming in from one of nine doors and triangular windows that sit atop concrete walls, turning the house into a solar clock of sorts.

“The light is always changing, to the point you can tell what time it is based on where the light falls,” Cynthia says, pointing to triangles of light on the north wall.

Two additional rectangular rooms flank the main building, and house a large office where the pair work side by side as well as a two-story library to showcase an exciting and still growing collection of books, including several on the American history of architectural octagons.

“There were a lot of structural, technical and design reasons why this design made sense, so when I thought of it, it just clicked. The shape was the right answer,” says John, whose education at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s School of Architecture, has heavily influenced many of his designs. “And it provides a very interesting set of spaces, because of the eight walls and the way they face the landscape.”

The landscape is where Cynthia’s vision comes in. Once completed, the pergolas and patios will extend into pathways and perennial gardens featuring a meadow, a woodland and an orchard.

Her plans constantly change as she gets to know the land and encounters prairie pests. Soon she will begin working toward spring planting, ordering seeds and scrutinizing the patterns made by the 100 or so shrubs and trees she has already planted.

A slower pace

While there is still work to be done — John’s ping-pong room and Cynthia’s gardens — the joy they find in the slower pace of life drives the day.

“Many mornings I will take the dog for a walk and I will buzz John and say, ‘You have got to take a look at the sky.’ We have a growing collection of photographs of the sky here. I’ve never done that in my whole life,” Cynthia says.

While Cynthia has never publicly shared which of her husband’s designs are her favorite, and John won’t choose (“They are like children to me!”), the pair agree that this house is finally their home, a personal project of design that intertwines life and love and a growing appreciation for Kansas City barbecue.

Cynthia smiles at her husband across the room as he explains castellated ceilings to a Kansas City Star photographer.

“We are very lucky, and we’re very happy together. It’s not work. We’re just lucky.”

The many possibilities of concrete

While concrete may once have had the reputation as a lowly construction material, the John and Cynthia Gillis home proves how easily concrete can be transformed into an element that is at once architecturally pleasing and energy efficient.

“We expect maintenance to be very low. Because there are concrete surfaces inside and out, there is no repainting of wood exterior walls, or gypsum board walls inside,” Cynthia Gillis says. “Also, since there is no wood, there are no termite or related bug problems. And because the house is concrete built on bedrock, we will have no foundation cracks.”

John Gillis chose to use a rare method of construction for the walls of his home, referred to as a concrete sandwich: a concrete wall made with concrete inside and outside, surrounding a rigid layer of insulation. He specially designed concrete forms, which local contractor Geiger Ready Mix Co. then used to pour the walls.

This choice earned them an award of excellence from the American Concrete Institute in 2013.

Concrete is also a low-maintenance choice for homeowners of any budget, considered by homebuilders to be the most energy efficient and structurally superior form of construction possible.