For a taste of the nationwide debate over new houses in old neighborhoods, look to Chevy Chase, Md. The peaceful-looking Washington, D.C., suburb, filled with puppies and politicos, has witnessed a series of bitter disputes over the size and style of the new residences replacing some of its eclectic 1920s and '30s housing stock. Local architect George Myers proposes a commonsense solution: Make sure the new house is visually appealing. “I've always found that if the resulting design is attractive, that concern goes away,” he says. “Big and ugly is not OK; big and attractive is OK.”
He followed that principle when designing a large-scale renovation to an existing 2,000-square-foot house in Chevy Chase. The owners lived just a few doors down, and they needed more space for themselves and their four young children. They didn't want to leave their family-friendly street, which boasts plenty of other kids and good schools nearby. So they bought this house when it came on the market and opted to renovate instead of tearing it down. “It had the right scale for the street,” Myers says. “Also, there were advantages from a permitting point of view—you can get a renovation permit a little faster than a new house permit.”
Speed is of the essence when building infill. The sooner a client's neighbors can stop driving by a half-built house or waking up to the sound of hammering, the happier and less apt to take issue with the construction they'll be. That's why the home's contractor, Tony Paulos of Block Builders, likes to be involved in a project as early in the design stages as possible. “The homework … really has to be done at the front end,” he says. “We have to lay the whole thing out, as far as the planning goes, from start to finish. Working with the architects in the planning stages is necessary to pull it off successfully in a timely fashion … if not, you never get the real study period by the builder, and the process doesn't work as well.” This project took just eight months to build, despite delays caused by the worst blizzard to hit the East Coast in years.
Paulos gutted the home's interior, allowing Myers to reconfigure the rooms in a way that made sense for a large, active family. He pulled the dining and living rooms to the west side of the existing house, making wide openings between them and into the entry hall. The existing family room became a mudroom and a home office. To the back of the house Myers added a new kitchen, family room, and breakfast room, as well as a screened porch. Upstairs he designed a rear master suite and tinkered with the front bedrooms, giving them more windows for extra natural light. He also made over an existing attic to accommodate two bedrooms and a bath, plus a pair of storage spaces.
Myers and his clients placed a high priority on matching the proportions of the old house and its neighbors. A new pitched roof on the third floor hunkers low and tight to the second story, keeping the building's height in check. Just as important are the historically accurate details sprinkled throughout the project. “We made all the exterior windowsills and the trimpieces that fit underneath them extra thick,” says Paulos. “The door trim and casing are a full inch thick, rather than three-quarters of an inch.” Custom recessed medicine cabinets, corner china closets, built-in bedroom headboards, and wooden towel racks all combine to give the project that solid, old-house feeling. The gray cedar shingles cladding the upper stories provide a contextually appropriate contrast to the pebbledash stucco encasing the first floor.
A new front porch augments the home's timeless quality, helping align it with the character of the surrounding older homes. “This is a Norman Rockwell type of neighborhood,” says Paulos. Thanks to his, Myers', and the clients' hard work, that description still holds true.
Builder: Block Builders, Bethesda, Md.; Architect: GTM Architects, Bethesda; Landscape designer: DCA Landscape Architects, Washington, D.C.; Living space: 2,000 square feet (before renovation), 6,000 square feet (after renovation); Site: .2 acre; Construction cost: Withheld; Photographer: Kenneth M. Wyner.
Bathroom plumbing fittings/fixtures: Newport Brass, Sigma, Toto, and Waterworks; Dishwasher: Bosch; Entry doors; Morgan; Fireplace: Heat N Glo; Interior doors; Lemieux; Windows: Weathershield.