First on the homeowner’s list of wants for his new house was plenty of open space with good flow. After months of looking in the Washington, D.C., area, all he could find were old houses with chopped-up layouts. “Perhaps that’s how they lived hundreds of years ago, but I could not find a contemporary house with large rooms and good flow,” the owner says.
Second on the wish list was separation of public and private spaces; Third was multiuse space that both young people and adults could enjoy. The fourth item was low maintenance. “I have absolutely no interest in maintaining a monument to someone else’s standards,” he says.
Ultimately, the decision was made to build new. The first architect created a plan he thought was terrific, but the owner thought was unlivable. A visit with a second architect resulted in a cement box no one knew how to build, the owner says. Six figures and multiple first-class airline tickets later, the owner was ready to put his lot up for sale. “The first two architects created plans that reflected the vision of the architect, not the homeowner. So a friend encouraged me to meet these two young guys out of Baltimore. These guys totally surprised me,” he remembers.
The owner, who wanted a home in which to host business-related social gatherings, desired the front of the house to look formal like a museum or embassy, says John Sage, co-owner of design firm Alter Urban in Baltimore. “We were very successful in the sense we created the formality with the stone wall that faces the neighborhood while giving the owner the flexibility and the type of floor plan he wanted inside.”
But it wasn’t easy. Construction of the front façade wall was a challenge (see photos, facing page). “It was new to us and to the builder, having to deal with that prairie stone block. It’s a double-sided stone wall where the stone veneer on the outside exists on the inside, too. Typically we have gypsum board on the inside, so this was atypical being on both sides. It gives you that feel of new traditional,” Sage adds.
Contemporary homes are always a challenge that allow little room for error, says Josh Rosenthal, director of marketing, Rosenthal Homes in Rockville, Md. Contemporary homes have cabinets that meet flush with walls, and always require creative ways to make things work, he says.
A contemporary home in that neighborhood is not a common sight, and neighbors didn’t accept it at first, says John Coplen, Alter Urban co-owner. “If you take a look around that neighborhood, you’ll see it’s an eclectic neighborhood in a way. You’ve got a lot of standard colonial and ranch homes from the 1970s, then great mid-century homes. And you have a slew of new homes that are very contemporary,” Coplen says.
“The immediate neighbors were not pleased,” as Rosenthal so gently puts it. “People in established neighborhoods like this are always scared with new construction. Let’s just say people were upset. In the end, they came to appreciate it, even if it’s not their style.”
Issues with the property
The neighbors’ preferred style might have been that of the old caretaker’s cottage on the property when the owner bought it, but that was not their decision to make. The cottage was demolished, Rosenthal says. “Some elevation adjustments had to be made to satisfy the owner’s desire to walk straight out onto the pool without taking a step up or down. But as far as it being an infill site, it was quite easy.”
The new home is on a lot sloped from the front to the rear, Rosenthal explains. The pool in the courtyard was to be the centerpiece of entertainment and lifestyle, which necessitated the construction of a retaining wall at the back end of the lot which was filled in, compacted and later excavated for the pool. “The creation of the pool was not as much complicated as it was expensive and required plenty of forethought going into it. The technology of creating that pool on that property has more to do with the rebar, the type of concrete, and the amount of it more than any unique engineering that went into it,” Rosenthal notes.