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.
The lot was triangular in shape and the pool house was square, which created zoning and other concerns. In reality the pool house followed the angle that was parallel to the property line. The pool house is separate from the main house, but it also serves as the third side of the triangle that wraps around and frames the courtyard and pool. “The pool house is absolutely site-specific,” Sage says.
The home’s flow is also site-specific, and is centered around the separation of public and private spaces, Sage explains. “This home is designed in a way where visitors don’t leave the main gathering space. Visitors never have a reason to go near the guest room or master suite. That courtyard is a public area of the house, yet it’s private from the neighborhood and is contained within that courtyard space,” he adds.
Upon entering the front door, a sense of formality is experienced, from which one passes into a big open space for entertaining. “The large kitchen is designed after a Japanese steak house idea, where you can seat a lot of people around the cooking area,” Coplen says. “The wall of windows lets the sun in and creates the indoor/outdoor atmosphere leading to the pool area. The doors on either end of that window wall are the only ones that operate. We did this to control traffic flow and to eliminate wet footprints in the middle of the room.”
During construction, 10 ft. was chopped off the pool house plans, the owner explains. “This necessitated a lot of instant and close communications with everyone. As a homeowner, I wasn’t presented with an immediate solution to the shrinking pool house problem. The solution evolved, and most importantly the problem didn’t stop the train. I thought that was important. The more the team worked together, the faster decisions were made,” the owner says.
From day one, the landscape architect, lighting designer, interior designer, and many others were onboard, Rosenthal recalls. “The house would not have turned out as good as it did without taking that approach. It was smooth sailing, and the team worked together very well.”
John Sage agrees. “Any project where many people are involved from the beginning, where they can grasp the idea of the design, and can say their peace from beginning to end, you can’t ask for anything better. A lot of that had to do with Rosenthal being there. We were not pricing things exactly as they were drawn up, but with [Rosenthal’s] help there was a clear understanding of what things would cost. As plans were developing, we were always rooted in actual numbers based on Rosenthal’s input. There were no surprises to the owner,” Sage says.
The builder’s early involvement is dramatically valuable, Coplen says. “It resolves issues quickly. And when you can repeat those quick decisions over and over again over the life of the job, it has a dramatic effect. It helps the owner determine where to indulge and where to simplify.”
For the homeowner, building this house wasn’t an act of love; it was a necessity for someone committed to societal change after witnessing Hurricane Katrina and the events that unfolded as a result. “The purpose of the house is a space where people can get together to talk about change. And when design and construction problems arose, my gut reaction was to treat them as business problems — not to point fingers and assign blame. I wanted everyone to come together to form solutions. It was important we proceed efficiently and the solutions were allowed to evolve,” the owner says.
ROSENTHAL HOMES (builder)
Full-time employees: 13
Residential new construction: 50 percent
Residential remodeling: 50 percent
Design/Build projects: 90 percent
Average annual revenue: $7.5 million
ALTER URBAN (designer)
Full-time employees: 3
Residential work: 90 percent
Residential new construction: 50 percent
Residential remodeling: 50 percent
Design/Build projects: 80 percent
Paint/Stain: Benjamin Moore
Locksets/Hardware: Vali & Vali
Central vacuum: Nutone
Range, oven, microwave: Viking
Warming drawers: Kitchen Aid
Tubs: Maranello/Advent Design