One measure of a design award entry's impact is how much time the jury spends simply looking at it. And more than any other project in the 2004 Custom Home Design Awards program, this Northern Virginia house captured and held our judges' attention. They pored over the entry binder, scrutinizing photographs and flipping pages to cross-reference floor plans and photos, all in an admiring effort to understand an ingeniously constructed house that defies simple categorization. “It's refreshing,” remarked one. “It's not something we've seen a lot of before, not at all derivative of what we see in the press most of the time.”
It is even more to architect Mark McInturff's credit, then, to learn that his clients' preferences might have led to an explicitly derivative house. “The husband was very interested in the early Frank Lloyd Wright houses,” says McInturff, who shared that interest but had no desire to produce an early-Wright knockoff. The Bethesda, Md., architect did not reject the notion of Wrightian lineage out of hand, however. Instead, he broadened the project's family tree to include traditions that influenced Wright himself: the Craftsman style and, especially, Japanese folk architecture. Both figure prominently in the finished building, along with generous helpings of Modernist rationalism and McInturff's own structural inventiveness.
Contrasting exterior materials—gray stucco and dark-stained vertical cedar siding, slate and standing-seam copper roofing—differentiate exterior massing elements. Steep roof planes with deep overhangs ascend in overlapping layers. Exposed Douglas fir framing and custom fir windows and doors weave these elements into a unified composition, anchored by a stout stone chimney. Four stone walls pinwheel out from the center of the house, giving shape to outdoor spaces. Those stone walls organize the first-floor plan as well, in a scheme that carefully directs attention outward to make the most of a compact suburban hilltop site. “It's borrowing lots of landscape and views from the neighboring properties,” McInturff says.
The exposed fir framing and stone walls continue inside the house, where they join bluestone and maple floors and cherry casework in an abbreviated palette of materials that highlights McInturff's skillful manipulation of light and space. Wright's homes could be moodily dark inside, but this one is suffused with light. A gabled clerestory runs the full length of the building, capped for much of its length with a skylight that straddles the ridge. As the building rises to that level it seems almost to deconstruct, leaving solid walls behind in favor of open structural framing. Interior glass walls and sloping glass ceilings—McInturff calls them “lay lights”—open second-floor rooms to the light show above while providing sufficient sound isolation for privacy. A glass floor at the second-floor hall transmits daylight from the skylight further into the core of the house.
As is true of most noteworthy houses, limitations played a key role in sharpening this building's sense of purpose. The owners, McInturff says, “gave me a very clear written program. It was quite eloquent.” But he was forced to inform them that they wanted more house than their budget could cover. At this point, they made a critical decision. “Instead of compromising on materials and detailing, they compromised on square footage,” McInturff says. “That was a mature and insightful thing they were able to do.” And the house is better for it. Trimmed down in size but not in spirit, “It becomes more essential; there's just less fat to it.” And in the matter of style, the owners were able to suggest a direction without dictating to their architect the specific course he should take. The resulting success, McInturff says, “comes from the client having a pretty strong agenda about the feeling the house should have, but a strong non-agenda about how to get there.”
Entrant/Architect: McInturff Architects, Bethesda, Md.
Builder: LifeCraft, Washington, D.C.
Living space: 4,820 square feet
Site: .9 acre
Construction cost: $387 a square foot
Photographer: Julia Heine
Resources: Bathroom/kitchen plumbing fittings: Dornbracht; Bathroom/kitchen plumbing fixtures: Kohler and Porcher; Dishwasher: Miele; Hardware: FSB and Omnia; Lighting fixtures: Ginger, IE, Lightolier, and Progress; Oven: Wolfe; Paint: Benjamin Moore and Cabot; Refrigerator: Sub-Zero; Windows: Dynamic.