Design Excellence Unveiled: Vocon Judges Select Standout Winners for Best of Design 2024

This article is originally from Pittsburgh Magazine, published on March 8, 2024.

Each year for the last six years, Pittsburgh Magazine HOME has held a “Best of Design” contest. This year, they left the blind judging process to a panel of Cleveland-based professionals in the design and architecture industry and two Vocon Team members, Crystal DeCastro Knapik, Associate Senior Project Designer and Katie Savakis, Project Designer, were chosen to be judges! Crystal and Katie judged all categories of this contest including: Best New Home, Best Renovated Home and Best Outdoor Space, Best New Kitchen, Best Renovated Kitchen, Best New Bathroom, Best Renovated Bathroom, and Best Room. Here’s what they had to say about each winner:

Best New Home & Best New Kitchen: A New Home and Kitchen that Matches the Landscape Perfectly

Using the natural contours of the land as a guide, this year’s winner, designed by architect Robert Gaskill, is a modern masterpiece; a 4,000-square-foot modern sanctuary he built on a former cattle farm. Judges named Gaskill’s creation the winner of two categories: Best New Home and Best New Kitchen in this year’s Best of Design contest.

“I love how the house integrates so nicely with the landscape,” says judge Crystal DeCastro Knapik, Vocon Senior Project Designer. “Because it’s on a hillside, the front of the house looks like it’s only a single story, but the back of the house shows that it’s almost three stories.”

Despite the extended timeline, the owners of this year’s winning design (who have asked to remain anonymous) couldn’t be happier with the result. They hail from a rural town in upstate New York, where nature and tranquility prevail, and they longed to replicate that feeling in the Pittsburgh suburbs.

Gaskill’s design delivered everything they were asking for.

“When design is executed well, you can have these effects that are pretty powerful,” Gaskill says.

Even a cursory, drive-by glance at the home gives a hint of the serenity within. It’s set back from the road on a secluded, 06-acre stretch of rolling hills and trees and began its design life with an unusual piece of inspiration — a concrete retaining wall that runs the length of the property. It was both necessary to maintain the prevailing topography and the ideal foundation for a black-and-gray exterior motif.

Because it is built directly into a hillside, from the front, the house appears to be an angular, single-story structure, clad in concrete, black metal and shou sugi ban siding — wood treated and preserved through a traditional Japanese torching process — and topped with a black metal roof.

The view from the back proves the deceit of the front. Multiple banks of black-framed windows rise for two stories, from ground level to roof height, and stretch 50 feet across, allowing ample sunlight to stream in and offering sweeping views of the tree-scaped property to those looking out.

But inside is where Gaskill’s architectural prowess truly shines.

The clients’ previous home in Mt. Lebanon was a traditional Pittsburgh layout with small, compartmentalized rooms and low ceilings, so an airy interior — finished with a monochromatic, minimalist aesthetic and natural materials — was at the top of their wish list for their new home.

The main floor’s living space is completely open and flanked on two sides by floor-to-ceiling windows, strategically positioned to be eye-level with the tree canopy. Wide-plank white oak floors and tobacco-stained wood ceilings flow throughout the space with individual rooms delineated only by clever design, including lighting, furniture and steps.

“I like how they blended the interiors with the exteriors,” says Katie Savakis, Vocon Project Designer. “I feel like so many times you walk into a house and you would never expect the inside based on what the outside looks like. This is all really seamless and cohesive.”

According to the judges (and, also, to the homeowners), the kitchen is a masterpiece, anchored by a sculptural, statement-making concrete island. The island, along with a concrete backsplash, recalls the retaining wall and offers cohesion between the interior and exterior. Streamlined JennAir appliances and a metal stove hood — with a patina oil finish — maintain the modern aesthetic without overpowering the flat-front cabinetry.

Best Renovated Home: An Expert Renovation in Sewickley

The top-to-bottom renovation in Sewickley’s historical district returned a choppy duplex to its former glory while incorporating design elements necessary for today’s families. 

When Dr. Kelly Close bought her Sewickley home in 2020, she knew it would need a major renovation to work for their family. At the time, the house was a duplex, but it was once a single-family residence. Before everything was shuffled around to create two units, the building also had an expansive front porch.

“I wanted to bring it back to some of its historical character,” Close says. “My goal was to create a home for entertaining, also.”

Working with Sewickley’s Historic Review Commission, the design needed to serve two purposes; it needed to blend into the village’s classic neighborhood layout while also including Close’s desire for backyard entertainment.

Today, the home’s newly recentered front door and reconstructed front porch fit right into Sewickley’s traditional architecture, while the surprising oasis in the backyard is barely visible from Broad Street.

Calling it a “holistic renovation,” Best of Design judges appreciated that the renovation’s design respected the already-established architecture of the town. They also admired the home’s thoughtful details, such as the window surround and half-round gutters, which upgraded the home — and added up to big luxury.

“I like that even with the renovation, it still looks like a historical home. It’s not like they tore it down and put something completely modern in this charming area,” says judge Crystal DeCastro Knapik, Vocon Senior Project Designer.

The judges also complimented the home’s substantial new front porch, especially with the property being located on one of Sewickley’s main streets.

Best Renovated Kitchen: This Renovated Kitchen Renovation Brings Everyone Together

Pittsburgh’s historical homes are brimming with charm and detail — but they sometimes lack the features that work for today’s families. For one Shadyside couple, the choppy layout of their 1920s-era, Tudor-style home meant that whoever was cooking was cut off from the fun.

“Everyone would be in the den laughing and giggling, and I’d be prepping in the kitchen,” says the wife, who requested anonymity along with her husband. “The flow and function were not working. I felt left out.”

The couple began to envision what it would be like to move their kitchen from the rear of the house to a paneled addition (and former cigar room) they rarely used.

“There was just not a lot of room to expand or build out due to the driveway,” adds her husband. “There weren’t really many options besides moving the kitchen.”

Although homes of this age typically have darker cabinetry, the design team chose a painted finish for the perimeter cabinets to brighten up the space, which does not get much natural light. Tying it all together is a kitchen island and an integrated banquette that match the darker paneling.

The couple, who enjoy cooking, chose high-end appliances from Wolf and Subzero for their kitchen. They also incorporated small details for both joy and functionality, such as a striking pink magnolia ceiling sculpture by glass artist Elizabeth Lyons that reminds them of the years they lived in Rochester, New York, where Lyons is based. The banquette seating provides a cozy spot from which the family can watch morning cartoons on a pop-up television or tuck into for a big breakfast.

For the Best of Design judges, the seamless melding of history and function made this home a clear choice to win Best Kitchen in 2024.

“I think that most people who renovate their homes or their kitchens renovate so that it looks new, and then it no longer looks like an old home,” says judge Crystal DeCastro Knapik, Vocon Senior Project Designer. “What I like about this renovation is that you’re not hiding the fact that it’s an old home. They are allowing those elements of the old house to still resound in the space while making it new.”

Best New Bathroom: This New Bathroom Transports You to a Coastal Getaway

Serene blues mixed with creamy off-whites bring coastal California vibes to this Pittsburgh bathroom.

When you step into the airy bathroom of Infinity Custom Home’s Napa model in Mars, you can almost feel a soft ocean breeze drifting in from the window and hear gentle ocean waves in the distance.

The theme transports you away from Pittsburgh to a coastal getaway — and that’s exactly the point.

Infinity Custom Homes designer Jill Pearsall says she prioritized color and texture to capture the bathroom’s beachy vibes, selecting off-white floor tile to emulate sand and using a warmer wood tone to echo a relaxing day spent at the sea.

The staples used to create the space include “warm greige tones, creamy off-whites, and of course, beautiful blues, layered with jute, rattan and organic elements,” she says.

The combination was a hit with this year’s Best of Design judges, who named it their Best New Bathroom for 2024. Admiring the contrast between the natural wood tones of the vanity and the bright blue walls, judges say the inviting color palette provides a very welcome change to the gray interiors and exteriors they’ve grown accustomed to seeing in many homes.

“I think it’s really warm and inviting,” says judge Katie Savakis, Vocon Project Designer. “I hate going into a cold bathroom.”

Best Renovated Bathroom: A Renovated Bathroom in Mt. Lebanon That Blends Modernity and Comfort

A Mt. Lebanon bathroom with a ’90s vibe was transformed into a modern yet comfortable space.

To say the master bathroom in Emily and Christian Moore’s home in Mt. Lebanon wasn’t functional is an understatement.

“The garden tub didn’t even really work; it leaked,” Emily says. “We had a cat’s litter box in it.”

The flooring was an outdated tile, the shower was tiny and the bulky tub also gave off a very 1990s vibe.

Frampton Remodeling removed the tub and created an arched-entry double shower complemented by striking black tile; the former shower space also was converted into a closet. Adding a vintage touch is a creamy hutch piece with dentil crown detail that was salvaged from an old fireplace surround in Point Breeze.

Deciding on a metallic faucet, Emily also found a modern, European-style oak cabinet with pewter hardware for the vanity; and it was brought all together with pewter mirrors, picture lights and brass fixtures.

There’s also a custom cutout detail in the Carrara backsplash for brass push-button switches, which Emily requested after staying in a hotel in Madrid that had them.

Best of Design judges appreciated the combination of modernity and comfort, as well as the classic checkered tile flooring.

“I love how timeless it is,” says Katie Savakis, Vocon Project Designer. “It’s neutral colors, but the space has so much character and warmth to it. It’s not like walking into a stark white bathroom.”

Best Outdoor Space: A Serene Outdoor Space That Feels Like A Resort in Adams

Theresa and Dan Starta had a clear dream to blur the line between the indoors and outdoors when they discovered 10 acres of forest-filled land in Adams on which they could build their dream home.

After a decade of living in Dubai — plus five years spent in Shanghai on China’s central coast — the couple returned to Pittsburgh in 2020 with plenty of perspective to add from their travels. 

“Through various outdoor spaces, we wanted to evoke fond memories of places we had traveled to and countries we had lived in and to maintain those connections with our home in Pittsburgh,” the couple wrote in an email.

Their experiences also inspired their serene outdoor space, which they hoped would feel like a resort for family and friends. That goal was achieved, according to this year’s Best of Design judges, who named it their Best Outdoor Space for 2024.

Featuring three covered verandas, the lush outdoor space has various sitting and entertainment areas where guests can socialize or relax; the indoor living spaces open to outdoor entertaining, while large windows and attached verandas serve to integrate the areas. There’s also a spacious balcony off of the primary bedroom as well as a tennis court on the property.

While the couple says they can’t pick a favorite among the outdoor seating vignettes, Dan adds there are areas to accommodate large and small groups.

Arabic lanterns, a hanging chair and a hanging daybed add to the vacation-like vibes, as does the home’s natural wooded backdrop of mature trees that change with the seasons.

The outdoor space also includes a full kitchen and dining area with cabinetry and stone countertops that resemble a traditional indoor dining space.

“We wanted it to be where you could kind of just do everything outside,” Theresa says. “There’s the sink, there’s an ice maker, there’s refrigerators.”

Taking center stage is a pool with an integrated sundeck and hot tub. Fountains and a waterfall feature that is part of a sleek firepit add to the calming ambiance, as does a cozy fireplace. Porcelain tiles and natural stone textures surround the space for a smooth transition to the greenery.

“I like that they used one paver but in different sizes,” says judge Katie Savakis, Vocon Project Designer. “I think going with that light stone really allows nature and the pool to speak; it doesn’t take away from it.”

The walking paths are blended with family heirloom plants, as well as shrubs and potted plants. The couple also was careful to make sure the pool was oriented to be in the sun as much as possible during Pittsburgh’s warmer months.

“Dan had studied the sun charts and mapped out the movement of the sun at different times of the year,” Theresa says.

Best Space: A Cerulean Blue Lounge Inspired by a Gucci Bag

A blend of convenience and beauty make this bold blue bar and lounge the perfect place for gatherings or to unwind with a cocktail after a long day.

The stunning cerulean blue of a Poland, Ohio family’s recently added bar could best be described as the same hue as a cloudless day in Greece, or the clear waters of the Mediterranean Sea — or a certain Gucci bag.

It’s the latter that inspired the jewel-like area, which judges in this year’s Best of Design contest named their Best Space for 2024.

“I actually had a Gucci bag that was just this really beautiful greenish blue,” says homeowner Kate, who asked that the family’s last name be withheld.

Located off the home’s entry, the galley-style bar and lounge was part of an extensive two-year renovation project that included a two-story addition and revamping most of the home’s first-floor living space, including enlarging the kitchen.

The thoughtful design didn’t go unnoticed by judges, who praised the space’s blend of convenience and beauty.

“They thought of every detail. Everything is designed perfectly,” says judge Katie Savakis, Vocon Project Designer. “It’s gorgeous.”