MAY/JUNE 2009 | PHOTOGRAPHY BY SID TABAK
Living “green” is more than a design decision for Jeff and Alice Speck. It’s a commitment to the joys of the urban mix. From their striking triangular townhouse, which Jeff conceived and completed just before their baby Milo was born, the couple surveys rush hour on Florida Avenue, a short walk from the U Street corridor. The point of their house is architecture, a subject that engages both Specks. Plenty of sustainable features are embedded in the design—a solar-powered hot water heater, radiant heat in the bamboo floors and dual-flush toilets, to name a few. But the couple rests comfortably on their Marimekko cushions because they are not contributing to the carbon footprint of Washington traffic. They don’t own a car.
“The number-one green thing you can do is live in the city,” says Speck, a city planner with a passion for walkable communities. He believes his house “is twice as green” because of its location. “Even an earth berm with photovoltaic cells and a green roof on a biodegradable house at the end of a long road” would be less sustainable if the owners had to drive everywhere, he says.
The number-two green choice the Specks made was to build small. The footprint is ultra-compact, though window walls and select furnishings make the three-story structure feel more spacious than its 1,500 square feet. The residence measures 500 square feet per floor. Levels are linked by a sculptural steel staircase that descends with the metaphoric power of a mountain stream. The mass of black metal appears to rush from bedrooms past the kitchen to Speck’s office and on to the basement service level. There are dramatic vistas of the stairs from the kitchen and office.
Small is greener, because less material is consumed. But there is more courage than altruism in the design. The site restricted the home’s size, but the Specks had to have their tiny triangle.
A former design director of the National Endowment for the Arts, Jeff Speck ardently wished to live on a site that resonated with the history of Washington. Triangular “flatiron” lots date from Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for the capital.
Alice Speck, a student of art history, understood the power of L’Enfant and was game, even if it meant fitting rooms in spaces that narrow to the width of a brick. So, Jeff, who has a masters in architecture, worked out a design with a friend, architect Brie Husted. An architectural model shows how Speck hit on the idea of “dropping a rectangle onto the triangle”—cantilevering two floors over city space.
Authorities agreed, and today, delightful glass-walled balconies and window seats overhang the setback line, and a 12-by-12-foot living room engages in a sophisticated dialogue with the kitchen, where black cabinets and black-stained concrete counters coordinate with the stairs and black leather banquettes.
The top floor contains two bedrooms linked by a bathroom. A triangular glass balcony offers a view of the Washington Monument.
There are no pointed rooms. The tip of the triangle is occupied by a wood-burning fireplace on one floor and closet space on the others. “It’s better to look at than to be in,” Speck says.
On 10th Street, the Specks enjoy a patio garden, where Alice nurtures herbs and vegetables in season. Across Florida Avenue, the land rises where an escarpment marks the natural boundary of L’Enfant’s Washington. The view is made for a history-minded urban family.
Linda Hales, former design critic for The Washington Post, is a contributing editor to Architect magazine. Photographer Sid Tabak is based in Washington, DC.