Home & Design

An Urban Oasis

A Chevy Chase couple creates a lush conservatory in their home.

An Urban Oasis

The design of the conservatory/pool house evolved with
homeowner Ruth Kassinger’s interests in botany and
swimming.Great ideas often have humble beginnings. For Ted and Ruth Kassinger of Chevy Chase, Maryland, this proved true recently when a simple renovation project blossomed into a full-blown addition.

The Kassingers have lived in their classic cedar-shingled house for 21 years. Its side deck had begun to deteriorate and was in desperate need of a makeover. They faced a tough decision: Rebuild it or create something entirely new? They chose the latter.

The result is a unique addition incorporating crucial design elements of the existing 81-year-old structure while introducing a new, modern area to serve the family’s dynamic needs. The decision to build the 600-square-foot addition also came in part because of Ruth Kassinger’s growing interests. For one, she had recently begun to collect and study tropical botany. After visiting the U.S. Botanical Garden, she was overcome by the way in which plants could drastically impact a room’s feel and appearance. “I first thought, ‘This is absolutely divine, spirit-lifting,’” she recalls. “It was very inspiring.”

From there, the plans for the new space were in motion. “We’d been thinking about what we wanted in that space for a year or two—a screened porch was our first idea—before I got interested in a conservatory and we started working with Ben Van Dusen on the design,” she explains.

Creating a conservatory was not the only design requirement in the plan. Ruth Kassinger also had a desire to “relearn how to swim,” a goal that ultimately drove the project to its fruition. “I just thought I’d really like to be a better swimmer,” she says. “And I just knew I could do it. I had been taught so long ago, and like most things, there are always improvements that are possible.”

Van Dusen, principal of Van Dusen Architects in Washington, DC, set to work creating a structure that combined all of these elements. Since the yard was not large enough for a separate pool house and conservatory, he faced a unique challenge: How to make the space into “just another room in the house” without allowing it to overwhelm the interior.

The Kassingers also employed the help of Dave Weaver, general manager of Greenwald Cassell Associates, to accomplish the tough task of building the addition onto the existing house. Weaver and his team had collaborated with the Kassingers on a previous remodeling project, which opened their home’s attic into a bedroom/office space. “Having worked with the Kassingers before, we had a really good relationship with them,” says Weaver.

Constructing the addition was no easy feat, explains Weaver, due to the narrow shape of the lot. Since the neighboring homes sit close by, there was also a question of access. To solve the problem, Weaver and his team partially removed the back wall in the original garage to bring in small equipment, then rebuilt it after construction.

With a bounty of luxurious amenities and a clean overall design, the combined conservatory/pool house is clearly a notable accomplishment. From the outside, the addition blends smoothly with the older structure. “We ‘toothed-in’ the shingles, which blended the old to the new so you couldn’t tell where the transition was,” says Weaver.

Inside, plants provide year-round color. In one corner, a creeping fig plant literally climbs the wall; in another, a Staghorn fern juts out from a hanging bark frame. But amidst this urban jungle, the serene pool takes precedence.

Opting to save space, the Kassingers chose an Endless Pool (often referred to as a swimmer’s treadmill) that measures only seven feet wide and 13 feet long. It features an adjustable current, which allows the swimmer to change the rate at which she swims with simple control knob.

To create this unique space, two outside-facing walls were removed and replaced with sliding glass doors imported from France. The doors stretch from floor to ceiling, and seamlessly divide the addition from the adjacent family room and kitchen while simultaneously addressing the moisture factor from the pool.

While many conservatories have all-glass roofs, the Kassingers instead opted for a solid roof punctuated by skylights. The skylights, which open and close electronically, are designed to let as much light into the north-facing room as possible. “If it gets too hot, the shades over the skylights also are automatic,” explains Weaver. A variety of light sources, including recessed fixtures, suspended cable and wall lights, present a number of ambient options in the space, which the family often uses as a casual dining room at night.

The sand-colored limestone floor and neutral-toned walls extend an airy feeling while creating the right atmosphere for Ruth’s conservatory. “I needed the light to reflect, so I definitely wanted the light-colored floor and light-colored walls,” Kassinger says. The floor also has radiant heat, which can be programmed to turn on at specified times and at adjustable temperatures. These conditions create the perfect environment for tending plants, says Kassinger, who is now writing a book that will document how to build and stock a conservatory.

To establish a seamless transition from the addition to the existing house, Van Dusen extended the addition into the adjoining rooms. He pulled back the roof from a previous family room addition (completed in 1990) and installed a tubular row of skylights, placed directly above the basement staircase. He also extended the limestone tile floor past the glass door dividers. “We put that long narrow skylight over the stairs so that it dramatizes the change in elevation in the house,” Van Dusen explains.

While everything about the addition was carefully planned, documented and executed, the space also afforded the Kassingers an unexpected twist. They finally found the ideal location for a small dog door for their pet, Scotia.
Says Van Dusen, “We think it wound up in the perfect spot. It was just one of those funny little things that came together.”

Writer Meredith Stanton is based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Kenneth M. Wyner is a Takoma Park, Maryland-based photographer.

Project Architecture: Benjamin Van Dusen, AIA, Van Dusen Architects, Washington, DC. Project Construction: Dave Weaver, Greenwald Cassell Associates, McLean, Virginia.

The addition, which replaced a deteriorated side deck,
blends in with the original house seamlessly. Skylights
that open and close electronically let as much light as
possible into the space.

To create a transition to the adjacent family room,
architect Van Dusen removed part of the existing
roof and installed a tubular row of skylights over
the stairway leading to the basement.

The space-saving Endless Pool features a current that
can be adjusted according to a swimmer’s speed. Plants
surround the pool with year-round color.

To create the addition, two outside-facing walls were
removed and replaced with sliding glass doors that
stretch from floor to ceiling. They seamlessly divide
the conservatory from the adjacent family room and kitchen.

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