Perched on a crest overlooking the Potomac River in Glen Echo, Maryland, the steel, concrete and wooden house stands just as majestic as the parkland surrounding it. Washington architect Robert M. Gurney designed the boldly modern main house, the detached garage/home office and the open, airy spaces they contain to celebrate this enviable site with minimal impact on the sylvan landscape.
After purchasing the property and tearing down its outdated house, a Washington developer approached Gurney to design his residence. The owner’s wish list included a swimming pool, an unexpected material palette and an emphasis on the views. Preserving mature-growth trees was also a priority.
Gurney carefully considered the site and the challenges it posed. He located the house on the previous home’s foundation to minimize excavation. He wanted to integrate the pool on the home’s main living level—but the lot’s steep incline would make that next to impossible. Gurney solved the dilemma by literally suspending the pool off the rear living space. This dramatic feat of engineering (the pool is supported 20 feet off the ground with massive concrete buttresses) creates a visual drop-off from the living room to the shimmering water to the untamed woods beyond.
“Because we suspended the pool, we didn’t have to take down one mature tree, which is pretty amazing given that in essence this is a wooded lot,” Gurney explains. “Sixty percent of the house was built on the existing foundation; we only increased the footprint by 40 percent with the garage. We were able to design a decent-sized house without taking down many trees, which is one of the nice things about the site. You really feel as though you’re in a tree house.”
On approach from the street, visitors are greeted by an orderly pea gravel courtyard framed by stucco walls. The main house, clad in Red Balau wood and soft gray terne-coated stainless steel, sets a decidedly modern tone. A tranquil reflecting pool separates the residence from the detached garage, which also houses an office and a guest suite. After sunset, the garage appears to glow, thanks to panels of Kalwall, a translucent material resembling Shoji screens. “The idea,” says Gurney, “was to allow the garage to act as a lantern and light up the whole carport in front of the house.”
The reflecting pool serves as a threshold, ushering visitors from the everyday into another realm. Gurney laid out the floor plan in a linear fashion, oriented along the ridge so that every room on the first and second floors—with the exception of one bedroom—enjoys dramatic views.
Once inside, subtle detailing defines the living, dining and kitchen areas in what is essentially an open space surrounded by trees. A quarter-sawn white oak built-in concealing a TV and media system, and a wide panel of lava stone containing a fireplace, anchor the living room. Gurney juxtaposed the horizontal direction of the stone with a vertical slot that opens to the front hall. “The whole piece floats away from the wall at the far end of the living room,” he says.
White oak built-ins also rim one side of the dining area. In the kitchen, two islands—one housing ovens, a cooktop and down-draft exhaust fan and the other a sink and dishwasher—provide plenty of space for cooking. The refrigerator, freezer and small appliances are hidden away in aluminum-faced cabinetry.
With so much room for storage, the clutter-free living spaces are defined by carefully crafted organic elements, from the Pompeii Scarpaletto floors to the lava-stone fireplace surround. “I tried to break up the space with a series of elements—the fireplace element, the built-in element in the dining room,” explains Gurney. “I didn’t create spaces with walls but did it with millwork and finish materials.” Interior designer Therese Baron Gurney, who is married to the architect, selected pared-down furnishings with a low profile that are perfectly proportioned to the space.
The minimal palette allows the views to take center stage. Says Gurney, “It’s a site where you’re really close to downtown DC but you feel as though you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
The second floor features two guest bedrooms with en suite baths plus a large master suite encompassing a bedroom, a small office and a luxurious bath. The lower level, with a living area, game room and mechanical space, opens to the backyard at grade, since the pool is suspended above it.
Gurney and builder Lewis Bloom worked hard to design and build the project sustainably. They employed structural, precast concrete planks as a floor base, which minimized construction time and waste and also enabled them to easily install energy-efficient radiant heat flooring. Large overhangs reduce solar gain in the summer. “Basically, between the radiant-heat flooring and the overhangs on the south and west, the owner’s utility bills are minimal despite all the glass,” Gurney says.
With his office ensconced in the detached garage, the owner was also able to lighten his carbon footprint by eliminating a commute. “He wanted the office to feel like he was not in the house, but to be part of this complex so he didn’t have to drive to work,” says Gurney. “The office is a very nice space, but you have to leave the house to get to it.”
Photographer Maxwell MacKenzie is based in Washington, DC.
ARCHITECTURE: ROBERT M. GURNEY, FAIA, Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, Washington, DC. INTERIOR DESIGN: THERESE BARON GURNEY, ASID, Baron Gurney Interiors, Washington, DC. CONTRACTOR: LEWIS BLOOM, Bloom Builders, Washington, DC.