A rambling brick ranch located in leafy Potomac, Md. with a beautiful pool and yard was not a bad house to begin with. But the times had changed and the house had not aged well.
Like a lot of homes built in 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the ceilings were low and the floor plan offered box after box of formal spaces that were underutilized as a result. A family of four that purchased the home hoped for something completely different when they embarked on a whole-house remodel of it.
Where once there were boxy and dark formal rooms, they sought a progression of open spaces with large and numerous windows to allow natural light to shine throughout. Where once there were low-ceiling rooms, plain and unadorned, they sought rooms with niches, shelves, and prominent crown moldings along with window casements to match. Upstairs, the family wanted more space. They wanted space for a family room, an office and a guest bedroom.
Lastly and certainly most significantly, they sought a remarkable transformation of styles. They wanted their brick ranch to come out looking like a rambling shingle-sided beach house, similar in style to homes found where they vacationed on Nantucket.
All of these ambitions rested on the shoulders of Paul Gaiser, a designer and builder of new and remodeled homes based in nearby Rockville, Md., who, looking back at the solution he offered, is very pleased with the finished product.
“We accomplished everything we set out to achieve,” says Gaiser. “It is the classic story of turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. When they bought this house, it was about as uninteresting and dated as you can imagine, but the lot had tremendous potential. Credit the owner for having the vision of what could be done with an alternative roof line, without tearing the house down.”
The dramatic changes to the house began by removing a brick addition and small greenhouse that was attached to rear of the home. Gaiser says he and the owners contemplated ways to reuse it, but ultimately decided to raze it to make way for the dramatic first floor rear porch with a deck above adjoining the master bedroom. (It is the same porch that is pictured on the cover of this magazine).
The next steps involved a lot of framing. An existing family room which was located down a few steps from the main level was a cramped and dark space. The cramped feeling was exacerbated by 8-ft. ceiling heights throughout the main level. Gaiser’s solution was to completely rip out the framing above this space, installing temporary bracing and reframing the second floor a full 4 ft. higher than it had been. The new family room resides in the space, and remains a few steps down from the new main level, but the ceiling height is 12 ft. and via two sets of French doors opens out onto the new porch where the brick addition once stood. The entire second floor was framed at the same level from one end of the house to the other. While this creates a 12-ft. ceiling height over the family room, the rest of the first floor also got a boost from 8 ft. to 9 ft.
This ultimately offered the canvas on which the old, formal first-floor spaces were ripped out and replaced with essentially one, large open space that became a large kitchen, a breakfast room, a den, a formal living room, a dining room, a breezeway/mudroom all overlooking the existing pool and yard.
“About the inside, I think this is a good example of the drama that an open plan can have,” says Gaiser. “And it is not like it is one big room. The spaces are defined and distinct. There are vistas throughout the house that add a lot of interest. You can stand in the kitchen and look over the breakfast room and over the little den area into the family room. So the family is connected, but not on top of one another. We solved that problem.”
More framing occurred on the second floor; namely, the entire existing roof was removed for several reasons. First, the old roof pitch was a “builders 3 on 12,” says Gaiser, indicating the slope was very flat and thus contributed to the plain-Jane look of the home from the street. The new roof was constructed with a steeper pitch to allow for a more prominent and traditional looking residential form from the street. Namely there were two new gables anchoring both sides of the house.
“There was not a whole lot of attention given to scale and size of the roofline as originally executed,” says Gaiser. “When you look at the house from the street, you can see that it is kind of in a gully. Before, you would barely notice the house; now you notice it.”
Additionally, the new roofing frame above the low slung, central portion of the house was widened to allow for a new covered area over the front of the house. This created a new front porch supported by classically styled columns.
Much of the new space on the second floor was created via this roof change; specifically, Gaiser added four classic dormers in front and a large shed dormer on the rear side. The four dormers facing the street — spaced equally between the more prominent gable on the existing section of the house and the brand-new, almost matching gable on the other end — were key to helping the home achieve an utterly new personality from the street.
“The house is now kind of anchored at both sides really,” says Gaiser referring to the new garage and second-story family room at the opposite end of the home. “So instead of having this large gable on the left and have it trailing off to the right, we put a little exclamation point on the right-hand side.”
The dot on the end of that exclamation point is a purely decorative cupola, which subtly adds to the classic American style of the home.
The garage portion of the project offered the one, major, unanticipated challenge. The design for the garage encroached about 18 in. over the allowable side-yard setback. With no variances in the offing, Gaiser found a way to keep the structure substantially intact by simply reducing the amount of covered space at the offending side of the garage. To make the building conform to the required setback for covered space, he created an 18-in. deep porch with columns. And, in the end, it looks as though it was meant to be there all along, says Gaiser. “It is a place where pots and other gardening accessories can be stored on shelves.”
An uncompromised interior
Gaiser’s wide open interior spaces, though airy and filled with light, are anchored by strong and uncompromised detail work. All of the windows and doors are high quality. And all of the moldings and casements were large, strong and well proportioned to suit the bigger expanses. “In the wrong hands you can cheapen a project just by skimping on the molding,” Gaiser explains. “We erred on the side of being more substantial just to give it a more uncompromised look.”
These details in fact were critically important aids in creating a number of spaces without actually constructing walls. A coffered ceiling above the open family room denotes it as a distinct space, set aside from the kitchen and den. A breezeway that runs from the front of the house to the back between the kitchen and the garage is denoted by a doorway at the front of the house and a large and distinctive oval window at the back of the house, directly opposite the breezeway door. With minimal use of walls, an axial space is thus created, drawing a person back to the mudroom between the garage and kitchen.
Relocating the formal entry from a “left-justified” position to the center of the house, directly beneath the new front dormers, gave Gaiser the opportunity to design an oval entry hall that leads through the center into the kitchen and less formal living spaces.
“If you look at the main living areas,” explains Gaiser, “we define the spaces partly by using decorative beams that define living areas and walkways down to the family room.”
In the end, the clients took a home with four small bedrooms, and created a house with five bedrooms, an office, and a main level that can easily entertain 150 people. But is it too big for a family of four? Gaiser says no. “They use every inch of it.”
Appliances: Wolf, Sub-Zero, GE
Exterior shakes: Shakertown
Flooring: Brazilian walnut
Insulation: Owens Corning
Plumbing fixtures: Toto
Windows: Jeld-Wen, SDL Corp.