Shenandoah Retreat

Against an idyllic mountain backdrop, a pair of architects creates the perfect eco-friendly contemporary

Shenandoah Retreat

Shed roofs sloping up to a tower echo the shape of the mountain peaks on the horizon. The cedarclad wings house the master suite and main living space.

Virginia architects Page Carter and Jim Burton practice green design with a modern twist. Using energy-conserving building systems and locally made architectural elements, they create houses that respect the land, yet look as hip as any city loft building. This light-filled weekend retreat outside Middletown, Virginia, built for National Institutes of Health biomedical researchers Roxanne Fischer and Donald Orlic, exemplifies this paradigm.

Fischer and Orlic found both the 24-acre property and the Carter + Burton firm while browsing the Internet. “We were in sync with their architectural ideas, such as building into the site,” says Fischer. “This house is green where no one ever heard of green.”

Nestled into the hillside, the earth-friendly home’s sloping wings and central tower echo the peaks of the Massanutten Mountains in the distance. The cedar-clad sheds and big windows combine the casual, woodsy feeling of a California contemporary and the directness of a barn. “We were looking for design that was clean, modern and warm,” says Fischer.

From the entrance drive, the main horizontal structure appears to be one story with clerestory windows offering views straight through the house to the mountains. The west wing encloses an open space for living, dining and cooking areas, and the east end houses a master suite and a powder room.

At the back where the slope is lower, the house extends down another story with a guest suite occupying the bottom floor. “We broke the house into pieces to string along the contours of the hillside like a necklace,” says Burton.

Rising between the paired wings is a stair tower connecting the home’s two levels. It leads to a wide balcony overlooking the main living area that can be used as a work area, but more often serves as a getaway for reading and piecing puzzles together.
From the landing off this space, another staircase spirals up to an aerie where a panorama of the Shenandoah Valley is well worth the climb. “We knew we wanted a tower from the start so we could have views over the trees,” says Orlic. “People vie to sleep up there,” adds Fischer.

The concrete-framed tower doubles as a ventilation chimney, funneling warm air from the two wings upward and out through four windows at the top. It also houses ductwork, electrical wiring and chimney flues for fireplaces in the living room and guest suite. Around this core, the wings are built of structural insulated panels (SIPs)—sandwiches of polystyrene insulation between oriented strand boards (engineered wood)—which are more weathertight than conventional wood-frame construction.

The 3,700-square-foot house not only provides ample space for Fischer and Orlic, but for their grown children, grandchildren and friends. “We’ll have 12 to 15 people for summer barbeques and five or six couples for holiday celebrations,” says Orlic.

Warm-weather entertaining is typically an indoor-outdoor affair, moving between the open kitchen and adjacent deck; there’s also a built-in outdoor grill and a screened pavilion for bug-free meals or a favorite book. On colder days, dinner parties and everyday meals take place in the dining area next to the kitchen, where a table and wooden benches are built into a nook framed by views of Buzzard Rock and Signal Knob through south-facing windows.

Concrete floors and kitchen countertops and exposed steelwork spanning the tall great room create the feeling of an urban loft. Plywood-finished ceilings and sleek Italian furnishings positioned in front of the fireplace soften the industrial look.
Closets, shelves and a built-in bench line the perimeter on the entrance side of the space as a thermal buffer against northerly winds. “They show off the contours of the building,” notes Orlic. Instead of installing conventional closet doors, the owners hung two abstract paintings by Fischer’s son, New York-based artist Jonathan Feldschuh, that slide on tracks. A brighter work on paper by Feldschuh enlivens the stair tower and two of his pencil drawings hang in the master bedroom.

Windows above the storage wall emit sunlight to illuminate and heat the living space, and augment the light from the glass wall to the south. “We borrowed an old Frank Lloyd Wright trick of bringing daylight through clerestory windows to balance the quality of light on the inside,” notes Burton.

At the opposite end of the house past the stair tower, the master suite is simply furnished with a bed facing the landscape view. More closets along the northern wall extend the thermal buffer while providing ample storage.

On the lower level, the guest suite centers on a spacious living area furnished with sofas easily converted to beds. Sliding doors open to a terrace with an in-ground spa big enough for the couple and their friends to enjoy a soothing

Vertical track lighting illuminates artwork by Fischer’s son, New York artist Jonathan Feldschuh


Carter and Burton conserved resources not only through their choice of building systems but their patronage of local Virginia manufacturers. The steel was fabricated in nearby White Post, the structural panels were made in Winchester, and the windows came from Middletown just a few miles away.

With its “green” features, low-maintenance finishes and minimalist furnishings, their no-frills house leaves Fischer and Orlic free to enjoy kayaking in Cedar Creek below the property and hiking on nearby trails. The couple spends nearly every weekend and several weeks during the year at the Shenandoah retreat. They recently downsized from a house to a condo in Bethesda within walking distance of their jobs, but are not ready to retire to the Virginia countryside.“We can’t make that commitment yet,” says Orlic. “We like city life, too.”

Deborah K. Dietsch’s latest book is Live/Work: Working at Home, Living at Work. Photographer Daniel Afzal is based in Alexandria, Virginia.

Architecture: Jim Burton, AIA, and Page Carter, AIA, Carter + Burton Architecture, Berryville, Virginia. interior design:  Michelle Timberlake, Carter + Burton Architecture. construction: Thomas G. Clymer, Clymer Enterprises, Paw Paw, West Virginia.

As open as a city loft, the living space incoporates a kitchen at one end with a door leading to the deck. The custom dining table and benches are built into a nook in front of south-facing windows. Steelwork and conrete floors are softened by plywood ceiling panels, maple cabinets and furniture from B & B Italia.

The balcony above the fireplace and bookshelves provides a workspace with a built-in desktop.

The master bedroom offers views of the trees through large windows with operable panels near the floor for ventilation. The bed is by Poliform.

The deck off the kitchen incorporates stairs leding to the back terrace where a spa allows for a soothing soak.