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Architect Insights: Studio Khora Designs a Modern Waterfront Masterpiece

Denison Yachting | January 14, 2023



The I House, designed by Studio Khora for the estate section of Boca Raton – one of the oldest and most prestigious neighborhoods in South Florida – is a 10,000-square-foot showstopper.

This article was written by J. Michael Welton. Photography courtesy of Robin Hill.

Named for the Intracoastal Waterway it floats above, it’s a shining-white symbol of the firm’s new design direction—a studied shift from practicing architecture to creating contemporary artistic experiences.

Studio Khora’s been designing luxury homes in South Florida for 35 years now. It started out as Rex Nichols Architects, but recently transitioned to the new name. It’s one that signifies the firm’s desire to elevate its core business to an art movement.

“It’s a rebranding of what we want to do,” says Alex Penna, principal of the firm. “One of the things that pushes us is how to enhance architecture and make it unique.”

By the studio’s own definition, the architecture of the I House is neither modern nor tropical modern: it’s a sculptural interpretation of contemporary design. Like Mies Van der Rohe and others before him, Penna defines modernism as a matter of form’s following function.

Studio Khora designs a modern waterfront masterpiece in boca raton

But this is different.

“In modernism, there’s no ornament and no sculpture and a very simple shape—and its materials are glass and steel,” he says. “Tropical modernism adds wood—but they both use a design recipe.”

Instead, Penna’s definition of contemporary architecture is a matter of form’s following art. For him, that means exploring the sculptural opportunities that present themselves and punctuating them with the “Wow!” factor. “There’s no recipe, and you’re free to do anything,” he says.

“You actually feel like you’re in a boat, like you’re sitting on top of the water.”

Rex Nichols

At the I House, the assignment from Studio Khora’s clients was to create a part-time home to live in just a few months out of the year. And it was an ambitious undertaking from the get-go. The architects’ task was to design something exquisite, something that had never been built in Palm Beach County—an iconic house that sets new standards for luxury.

It was created at a time when the Boca coastal lifestyle is in huge demand, with people paying a premium to live on the Intracoastal and take in views of luxury yachts and the people aboard them. The I House delivers all that in spades. “You actually feel like you’re in a boat, like you’re sitting on top of the water,” says Rex Nicholas, president of Studio Khora.

Before construction began, Nichols and Penna developed a 3-D virtual reality program so that the clients could explore the scale and proportion of the residence—with unexpected results. “When the wife put on the oculars, she thought she was going to fall into the Intracoastal, it was so real,” Nichols says. “That was the last time we used the oculars.”

Studio Khora designs a modern waterfront masterpiece in boca raton

They built the home on a tight lot that’s 145 feet deep, with 125 feet fronting the Intracoastal. “Most are 100 feet on the waterway,” he says. “We lucked out on this site.”

He and Penna worked overtime to maximize the panoramic vistas. “We wanted to capture every single view,” Penna says. “There’s a crystal-clear view of what’s outside from the inside, like a camera trying to capture everything.”

The I House is a two-story residence, was built using post-tension concrete, which mean thinner slabs that reduce consumption of materials. During the construction process, the concrete is compressed, employing steel tendons to increase its tensile strength.

Studio Khora designs a modern waterfront masterpiece in boca raton

As a result, structural beams and columns can be eliminated, resulting in the open floor plan that’s all the rage today.

A taupe stone accent wall starts on the exterior of the building’s entrance, slides into the living area, then creates a backdrop for an all-stone fireplace. an utterly eye-catching device. “We like people to look at the architecture and think about it,” Penna says. “As soon as you walk in this house, you see the future. It’s like going to an art gallery and seeing an exhibition.”

Walk in the front door from the street side, and the “Wow!” factor immediately kicks in at the double-height ceiling in the great room—with an invitation to move through it to outdoor spaces. Still, the kitchen is cozy with a lower ceiling and a more intimate feel.

The material palette throughout the home strives to reach beyond high-end. The floors are laid in European white oak; counters are slabs of marble and granite with porcelain accents. Windows and doors hail from La Finestra, fabricated in Doral, Florida, with Italian extrusions.

Studio Khora designs a modern waterfront masterpiece in boca raton

Large lighting pendants suspended in the living area were selected by the home’s interior designer. But the real magic occurs behind the scenes, as envisioned by Stephen Gerhart of DayOne Lighting in West Palm Beach. A former interior designer, he now oversees a firm that can design a project, locate the right products, and install them. “I start with plans from the interior designer and architect and work with them and the owners and the budget,” Gerhart says, “and I do the procurement process, which most designers don’t do.”

Penna and Nichols gave him their brief and their objective, and told him: “You’re connecting with the future,” Penna says. “He took our lead and delivered.”

Gerhart set out to make the lighting as unobtrusive as possible. Instead of punching holes into ceilings, he used a series of track systems for the kitchen, hallway, and master suite. “The architects’ program was a minimalistic design—they wanted the architecture to speak for itself and for the fixtures to highlight the walls but keep them as concealed as possible,” he says. “We used a lot of linear and micro products, and everything was trimless.”

Studio Khora designs a modern waterfront masterpiece in boca raton

His LED lighting design, engineering, and installation may be hidden, but the results glow spectacularly at night—especially looking from the outside in. “Because of all the glass, the cantilevers and lines lent themselves to the linear aspects of the work,” he says. “Even the balconies have a flush-mounted linear product – and I don’t know that anyone has ever done anything like this.”

Surrounded by traditional, Spanish Mediterranean-style homes, the I House is far from subtle, standing out among the neighbors in a striking, dramatic way. “We love the contrast of old and new, traditional and contemporary, and the futuristic surrounded by the classical,” Penna says.

Nichols is more succinct. “It’s a shock,” he says. But it’s a good kind of shock—especially with its 105-foot-long dock, easily capable of mooring a 100-foot yacht out front.

Some might be concerned that a vessel that size would block the views, but Nichols disagrees.

“It probably would enhance the views,” the veteran architect quips. “It would be a big improvement over the dark brown water of the Intracoastal.”

In essence, a yacht tied up to the I House’s dock would be equivalent to a crown jewel gracing a work of art.

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