This established Vienna neighborhood of brick ramblers and Cape Cods is changing, as are many area suburbs. There are add-ons and teardowns, some beautifully executed and others a hodge-podge of styles incorporating every era for the past thousand years or so. In the case of architect Randall Mars’s clients, the brick rambler was demolished.
The challenge facing Mars: To create a 2,800 square-foot, contemporary home that would blend into its eclectic neighborhood and yet establish a presence of good modern design representing the early 21st century. His client’s father developed pre-cast concrete, so she grew up amid noted mid-20th-century architects, among them, Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph. Architecture flows through her blood, with concrete her material of preference.
Mars masterfully united multiple materials, incorporating PRAIRIE stone concrete blocks, clad steel, brick, glass and gray-stained, Cambara mahogany. A selected combination of each of these defines clusters of rooms or “pavilions” wrapping around a mature weeping oak tree.
The architect’s technique of separating and linking prevails throughout the house as each element is distinctively defined by form and fabric and then deftly bridged by a third form or material. Gabled roofs appear to float above the structure of the house. The block or siding stops, explains Mars, “Then we recess into the framing on the house. We wanted the roof to separate from the walls.”
An expanse of glass fills the gables of the main pavilion, bringing eastern, morning light deep into the house. Broad eaves temper the light, add definition and make gutters expendable. Strategically positioned scuppers guide the flow of water. Stones surrounding the house keep the soil from eroding.
Near the street, easily visible to passersby, a wall of brick sheaths the side of the garage in a nod to the tradition of the community. Extending slightly past the perpendicular façade of the garage, it becomes a defining and distinct architectural element partially shielding the broad, double doors from street traffic. This brick wall and the standing-seam roof never actually meet. It is the mahogany siding of the garage front and the gable that link the two together. “Our work is very clear,” says Mars. “We isolate layers in walls, make everything distinct objects.”
Originally, the clients selected eight-inch concrete block for exterior walls, preferring it to a thin veneer. After re-examining their choice, however, they decided the block would be too brutal, and began their search for a more refined product. They found concrete PRAIRIE stone, a product with more sophistication. So they ordered the six-inch blocks, larger and solid, but with less depth. Then a problem arose: Each block weighed around 200 pounds, requiring four men to set each block. The labor cost was prohibitive. By reducing the size of the block to four inches thick—with the exception of the larger end pieces—two men could lay these 120-pound blocks, keeping the project in line with the budget.
In lieu of a formulaic, high-ceiling, front-to-back foyer, Mars broadened the entry horizontally, visually expanding the space and drawing views of the weeping oak and front approach inside and extending the foyer outwards. Then he lowered the ceiling to a comfortable eight feet and six inches, compressing the space and emphasizing the linear aspect. Steps across the entire front of this pavilion further accentuate his concept.
The interior wall conceals a coat closet barely discernible from the adjacent walls; even the baseboard is continuous and there is no visible hardware, only art hanging on the wall. Along the interior concrete walls, a track was installed specifically for hanging the clients’ collection of art.
The kitchen is located beyond this wall, and then the living room. Partitions extend upward to 10 feet and seven inches as light is diffused throughout the three rooms. The maximum ceiling height in the kitchen and living room extends to 17 feet and six inches. Cables and collar ties—necessary structural elements—also make an architectural statement.
In this modern home of avid cooks and gardeners, the kitchen remains the heart of the house as warm maple cabinets contrast with a stainless-steel range and island, all visually joined by black, honed granite countertops.
Again Mars defines and separates architectural elements: Rather than directly connecting the kitchen-living room wall to the ceiling, He “pins” them together, joining this partition with the lower, eight-foot, six-inch hallway ceiling that flows in a consistent plane from the foyer.
There is also more concrete: The fireplace hearth extends across the entire wall, creating niches, one for a flat screen television and others for storing wood or displaying objects.
The hallway, adjacent to the living room, is the bridge between the living pavilion with the gabled roof and the dining and master bedroom pavilion with the flat roof—a defined separation of architectural elements. The hallway culminates in a glass wall. During heavy rains, the broad scupper attached to the roof creates a lyrical waterfall cascading down to the rocks below. An outdoor pool will be built on this same axis.
A nine-foot ceiling, lower than the living areas yet higher than the foyer and the hallway, defines the flat-roof pavilion, the master bedroom, and dining room, giving architectural presence to this grouping of rooms.
In the master bedroom, Mars highlights the placement of the bed by lowering the ceiling two inches. Outside, a brick wall partially clads the bedroom bay, again extending beyond the structure of the bay, this time shielding side windows and presenting a brick façade to the neighbors.
The double garage is connected to another pavilion consisting of two guest bedrooms-cum-studies, a bath, a laundry room, and mudroom, plus the large screened porch facing the backyard. Here, the linking element is a coffee bar, a secondary foyer outfitted with a maple cabinet, honed granite and a small trough-like sink. Again, the ceiling height is consistent with the foyer.
The separation, definition, and bridging brilliantly pervades throughout the design of this home. “I think of our work as being simple,” Mars says. “I can’t put two things together; I have to keep them separate.”
Contributing editor Barbara Karth resides in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Washington, DC-based photographer Anice Hoachlander is a partner in Hoachlander Davis Photography.