Home & Design

Ahead of the Curve

Builder Soren Jensen's innovative renovation wins a CotY Award in the $500,000 to $1 million category

Ahead of the Curve

Architect Skip Maginniss tried to maintain as much transparency
as possible in designing the corner windows, which appear to
wrap around the house without a heavy mass obstructing the
view from within.

Walking through a neighborhood of unassuming houses in Bethesda, Maryland, most passersby can’t help but stop to look at builder Soren Jensen’s newly renovated home. Its undulating elevation, lead-coated copper roof and distinctive stucco façade are sure to catch the eye—and that’s only the outside of this innovative home. Inside, soaring loft-like spaces and a modern material palette defy tradition and present exciting new design possibilities.

Careful planning and three years of construction—much of it done by Jensen himself—went into the project. Jensen and his wife Charlotte worked closely with architect Skip Maginniss to devise a plan that would in many ways evoke the architecture of the couple’s native Denmark. The ambitious design would tear the roof off the original single-story structure, add a second floor to the house accessed by a floating staircase, reinforce the existing foundation and upgrade the electrical and heating and cooling systems. As if this weren’t complicated enough, the couple decided to live in the residence throughout the entire process.

The Jensens purchased the home in 2000 with a renovation in mind. The 1,200-square-foot residence housed a number of small, dark rooms. They longed for a bigger kitchen, wide open space, more natural light and a better circulation plan. In achieving these goals, they aimed for something far less conventional than the typical pop-up addition. “I wanted something that had not been done before,” says Jensen. “I didn’t want this big, massive home. I wanted this little petit four, this little cake that was very rich in chocolate.”

Though the renovation more than doubled the home’s size, it nestles into its hilly surroundings without dwarfing its neighbors. “Whenever we do a renovation,” says Skip Maginniss, “we like to get immersed in the context of the project—the neighborhood, the landscape, the whole matrix of the community. The physical context of the land, with its curving streets, mature landscaping and rolling terrain, had a great impact on the design. The curved roof was influenced by the site and the rolling landscape.”

Another objective was to infuse the home with a European sensibility that the Jensens found was lacking in their former home. Maginniss and his clients tried to integrate elements reminiscent of Denmark into the program, from the style and color of the exterior stucco to the open floor plan, the use of natural materials and the sense of transparency and openness between indoor and outdoor living spaces.

During the design phase, Soren Jensen recalls, he noticed a small sketch of a curvilinear roof in the margin of architect Skip Maginniss’s conceptual drawings. “I said, ‘Skip, what’s that?’ And he said, ‘It’s going to be too expensive.’ I said ‘What are you thinking?’”

The two friends and long-time colleagues discussed the concept and weighed the pros and cons. Jensen recalls saying, “‘You know what, let’s do it because I think it is going to be a lot easier to button this thing up.’ Skip got excited about it then.”

The beauty of the roof concept is that the curvilinear form not only makes a strong design statement, but it is also a feat of engineering that enabled them to create a completely open interior unobstructed by beams or other supports. Tasked with supporting the weight of the lead-coated copper roof, Jensen and Maginniss devised a system using 14 custom-laminated arched beams to buttress the new second-floor walls. Additional arches would be inverted over the first-floor living area, curving the roofline “back into the landscape,” says Maginniss. Two-by-six-inch tongue-and-groove ceiling planks were installed perpendicular to the arches, tying them together. The yellow pine beams and planks were pre-fabricated by Unistructure, a company in Arkansas, and shipped to the site. Layers of rubber, plywood and foam between the wooden shell and the copper exterior roof provide superior insulation and longevity, says Jensen.

Because the wood was pre-fabricated, Jensen thought that this method of building the roof might be easier than other options. “I don’t know if I was proven right or wrong,” he says. “But I think the end result is what we were looking for—it’s really different.”

The design and construction of the floating staircase was another challenge. “We wanted to have an element there that was as transparent and ethereal as possible,” says Maginniss. “The stair was pretty complicated because it’s entirely cantilevered. It’s a study in very detailed design.” The finished product is comprised of a self-supporting stainless-steel frame with open Brazilian cherry stair treads.

Jensen constructed the staircase himself with help from a metal fabricator. He also made plywood templates of the glass panels that line the sides of the stairs and the overlook above—then had them replicated by a glass fabricator. “I made all these treads in our shop. There was a lot of care put into it. It was something I did myself on the weekends,” he says. Jensen also laid most of the new flooring and was “very hands on” throughout the process, only calling in his crews when absolutely necessary.

Though most of the interior walls were removed to make way for the open living spaces, Jensen did not tear down the original structure. While the foundation needed to be reinforced, they retained most of the exterior walls as well as some of the interior walls enclosing the original bedrooms on the main level (now used as a guest room and a TV room). They also preserved the original brick fireplace in the living room and extended it up to the second level using bricks salvaged from the exterior.

The new plan slightly expanded the original footprint of the home. The living room was bumped out, creating a larger, open space. The main entry to the home, which once opened into the living room, was re-positioned to the street side of the house near the kitchen.

An open den on the upper level leads to a rooftop terrace and overlooks the living area below. There is a master-bedroom suite and a nursery, now occupied by the Jensens’  daughter, born last November.

Throughout the entire renovation, Jensen and his wife lived in one of the original bedrooms and relied on a makeshift kitchen. When the second floor was done but the staircase was not complete, they climbed up on a ladder to sleep in their new bedroom. “For quite some time, all we had was a ladder going upstairs,” Jensen recalls. After the existing roof came down, “There were some nights when we had water coming in.”

“They’re hardy souls with a good sense of humor,” says Maginniss, describing the situation his clients endured.

Charlotte Jensen documented the entire process with photographs and is putting the finishing touches on a scrapbook that they can share someday with their daughter. Looking at the photos, Soren Jensen recalls, “I don’t remember it being that bad.”

Greg Hadley is a photographer based in Fairfax, Virginia.

The new iteration of the home doubled the size of the home
with the addition of a second floor. The concave roof and
convex porch canopies reflect the undulating hills of the
surrounding landscape.

Most of the interior walls were demolished to make way for
the open area that incorporates the living room and kitchen.
The interior of the roof is framed with curved wood beams
over structural wood decking.

The Jensens replaced the tiny galley kitchen in the original
house with a modern space ideal for cooking and entertaining,
and featuring Poggenpohl cabinetry and limestone cabinets.

Brazilian cherry flooring and stair treads make a smooth transition
from the main level to the loft-like upper floor.

The second floor includes the den, that doubles as a home office
for Charlotte Jensen, a Washington-DC based chiropractor.

The master bedroom.

The master bath, where Jensen and his team built a steam
shower out of glass.

The Jensens are planning a small addition on the rear of their
home that will encompass a glass-walled sitting room with a
roof terrace above.

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