Nestled in the Spring Valley neigh-borhood of Washington, DC, a 1930s English Tudor-style home had much to offer owners Michel Rivest and Louise Courtemanche. Electrical engineers at Navigant Consulting and Fannie Mae, respectively, they recently became empty nesters and decided to look for a home closer to work. The location was ideal—just a few miles to the office for Rivest—and it had “venerable” bones. But the existing space was in need of a modern overhaul, and the small, compartmentalized floor plan was not conducive to entertaining, a priority for the couple.
So they teamed with Rob Morris, architect and president of Morris-Day Designers and Builders in McLean, Virginia. The result earned a COTY finalist award in the category of “Entire House Over $1,000,000,” and the process turned out to be an experience neither homeowners nor architect will soon forget.
“The joke is how long we will live here before we buy another house and start all over again,” laughs Rivest. Not because the couple isn’t absolutely thrilled with the finished product, but because they thoroughly enjoyed the journey. “The fun was in the process. The outcome is interesting but it’s the doing of it—the discovery, the research—that was the most fun,” he says.
Initially, Rivest wasn’t planning to play such an active role in the overall design process. According to Morris, the renovation was headed towards an ornate Edwardian look. That is, until Rivest took his wife with him on a research trip to Scotland. There the couple found true inspiration in the works of Arts and Crafts designer/architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh—and their vision for the house changed.
“It was the attention to detail and the integration of the design with every component in the house,” says Rivest, explaining the attraction. “I thought that was the genius of it. The furnishings, the architecture—everything fit together into a theme.”
Fortunately, the couple had established what they call “an organic, very creative” relationship with Morris, who is also a great fan of Mackintosh, and who had himself visited all of the same sites as the enthusiastic homeowners. So when Rivest and Courtemanche returned to the U.S. with a new design direction for the project, Morris could not have been more pleased.
True to the original style of Mackintosh, the renovation contrasts strong right angles with curvy floral motifs. For example, two leaded-glass French doors with Mackintosh-inspired rose designs now flank both sides of the maple-accented living room fireplace, leading out to the library. This same floral motif is incorporated into various picture windows throughout the home and will also serve as the main design element in two foyer fixtures that are currently in the works.
The most ambitious aspect of the project, however, was the addition in the rear of the home of a large gathering space where the couple could entertain family and friends. Morris designed a modern kitchen extension and sitting room, with a newly excavated basement below. Rather than eliminate the existing kitchen, he expanded the space in an L-shaped configuration with the result being two completely functioning kitchen spaces. The scullery is the everyday kitchen, while the addition, complete with an Aga stove, is used for entertaining.
The most dramatic feature of the room—and perhaps of the entire project—is the cathedral ceiling, which is supported by bespoke maple beam and collar ties reminiscent of the ones Mackintosh designed for the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. Large skylights emit ample natural light and serve to brighten the space. Morris cleverly reconfigured the basement access with an open staircase from the gathering room that funnels sunlight into the space below, which houses a media room, kitchenette and fireplace with seating area.
In fact, illuminating the home was a priority throughout the entire renovation. The project also eliminated an octagonally shaped den and added bay windows in the living room and the master suite directly above it—changes that also admitted more light into the home.
Rivest and Courtemanche have no regrets about the outcome of the project and credit this to the fact that issues were resolved along the way. For example, the ceiling in the new master bathroom addition above the existing library was originally designed to be flat. However, once the homeowners saw the massive height of the space, they requested something with a pitch. Morris and project architect Dwight McNeill saw this as an opportunity to create a focal point, so they designed a full cathedral ceiling with timber accents to mimic the design elements in the rest of the home.
“Sometimes homeowners are reluctant to be exacting, to say what they really want, when they are working with an architect,” says Morris. “But with Michel and Louise, it was liberating to have that kind of guidance, to know how to spend my time, to know I was going down the right path. To see that level of enthusiasm made the process that much more enjoyable for me.”
Kelli Michele is a writer based in Baltimore.
RENOVATION DESIGN & CONSTRUCTION: ROB MORRIS, principal; DWIGHT McNEILL, AIA, project architect, Morris-Day Designers and Builders, McLean, Virginia.