When architect Mark Orling and his wife Martha purchased their Alexandria lot in 1986, they faced a challenge. The ground, made of marine clay which swells and shrinks with moisture and dryness, was considered unusable; the usual cement blocks wouldn’t hold the foundation in place. “Houses built on marine clay with cement blocks can actually slide off their foundations,” Mark Orling says. Nevertheless, he bought the property—a secluded end lot on a wooded cul-de-sac—and setabout designing a house with a poured concrete foundation that could hold up against moisture.
Twenty years later, the house has grown and changed with its owners. Originally built in the elaborate Victorian style of the surrounding neighborhood, it’s been simplified over time. “We didn’t always know how we’d want to use the space,” Orling explains. “As our needs have changed we’ve rearranged the use of the rooms.” Constructed on several levels, the home’s unusual interior layout has made this flexibility possible. The bedrooms and baths are below the entry level, while the public rooms are above it. There’s a loft above the living room that the Orlings use as their office.
While the interior of the house looks significantly different since it was first built, the footprint has stayed pretty much the same. Originally 2,100 square feet, it’s now 2,400. The point has never been to make it larger—for the architect and his wife, its two bedrooms and two baths have been perfectly adequate—but to improve it. They just needed the time and money to do the job.
In 2001, they embarked on the first step, expanding the small, enclosed balcony off the kitchen into a spacious deck with access to the backyard (the original structure offered no such access). “Mark used cable rails for the stairway,” Martha Orling says. “That allowed us an unobstructed view of the woods.”
For the deck project, the Orlings turned to Gaithersburg remodeling company P.A. Portner, Inc. In 2003, the couple updated the guest bath and added cherry shelving to the guest bedroom; in 2006, Orling teamed up again with P.A. Portner to tackle their big renovation: the kitchen and dining area, living room, TV room and loft. They also built an addition: a nine-and-a-half by-11-foot entry with an airy library above it, banked on one end by windows. It’s located at the landing level of the stairwell, where it sheds light on the open-plan kitchen/dining area below it.
P.A. Portner principal Phil Portner and on-site project manager Tom D’Amato admit now that they initially wondered whether the size of the library was worth the expense. Now, however, it’s clear how the new space enhances the old ones. Orling explains the genesis of the addition: “We had a difficult time figuring out how to add on in a way that was pleasing. We needed to put in enough new space
to make it work compositionally.” They removed the old front entry from the corner of the house, using the space where it had been for a mudroom. Orling wanted the addition to look substantial from the outside, so after replacing the old door with one of eye-catching Honduran mahogany, he repositioned it along the side of the house and added a porch in front of it. With the library above, the result is the harmonious, well-balanced composition the architect was after—as well as a little unanticipated extra space.
Though Victorian in style outside, on the inside the house has always veered more towards contemporary; for example, Orling originally designed the walls with small, square holes cut randomly between rooms to allow a sense of “openness and texture.” Since the renovation, Orling has emphasized the contemporary look. He had P.A. Portner move windows, add maple trim and shelving, and replace the loft’s balcony railings with simple, translucent acrylic panels. The kitchen is now a spare, modern space where the sleek maple cabinetry is complemented by honed Antique Black Masabi granite countertops and a stainless-steel backsplash.
“What makes this house so special is the details,” says Phil Portner. “The little things create a better overall result.” As an example, he points to the kitchen’s light maple cabinetry, where the wood grain on each set of doors is “book matched,” or symmetrical. Portner also comments on the home’s size, which remains small by the standards of today’s new construction. “It’s just enough space,” he says. “It’s just what they needed.”
The kitchen and dining area flow directly into the living room, which has a vaulted ceiling more than 18 feet high; the whole floor is 100-year-old reclaimed heart-of-pine, delineating the space as one big room. According to Martha Orling, they chose to remove the fireplace and chimney from the living room in order to get more living space. “We don’t miss it,” she says. “We hardly ever used it.” Up next will be a master bedroom suite, located off the living room. “We’re still at the napkin stage in the plans,” Martha says. “But whenever we do it we’ll be using Portner. They work miracles with space.”
Photographer Bob Narod is based in Sterling, Virginia.