From the central living area, residents can watch the South River flow by through stacked floor-to-ceiling windows.
Behind the house, a simple path winds down to the water.
A jungle of bamboo flanks one side of the spare front foyer, clad in cypress-paneled walls.
A retaining wall encloses the pool and surrounding patio, accessible from the deck at living room level.
The homeowners can gather around a custom dining table in the open-plan kitchen area.
On the upper level, the hallway provides a bird's eye view of the living room, the deck and the pool below.
In Mohr's design plan, the living room leads to the master bedroom.
The master bedroom is on the main floor and offers stunning river views.
The sleek master bath is clad in porcelain tile with Poggenpohl cabinetry and frosted-glass shower doors.
The deck combines a covered dining area with an area for lounging and enjoying the view.

River’s Edge

Architect Cheryl Mohr builds an Annapolis retreat with an emphasis on spectacular views and sustainable methods

Perched atop a gently sloping hill, the property fairly embraces its panoramic view of the South River. To the right, the vista opens onto the Chesapeake Bay and on a clear day, the Eastern Shore takes shape in the far distance. Directly across the river, picturesque swatches of green lawn meet the water in a peaceful tableau.

This is the scene that a couple encountered when, after 15 years of looking, they first glimpsed the plot of land in Annapolis that would serve as their weekend retreat. Naturally, it was love at first sight—although the 1.7-acre site was then home to a decrepit brick rambler that revealed only a sliver of the views beyond its walls.

The initial plan was to renovate, and they hired Cheryl Mohr, a principal of Gardner Mohr Architects, for the job. Mohr describes two goals: to create water views from as many rooms as possible and to design the most sustainable house the owners’ budget would bear. When they started delving into the project, however, it quickly became clear that the house was in terrible shape. “All the exterior walls were unsound,” Mohr says. “It was like pulling a thread on a sweater and the whole thing comes unwound. It was in structural failure.”  

Add to which, the circa-1980s design of the house was terribly unappealing. Mohr was confounded by the lack of windows in the riverfront home. “It’s like they bought house plans and then built the house with no relation to the view,” she marvels.

Ultimately, she and her clients decided to take the house down to its foundation and then build back up from there, sustainably and with those remarkable vistas in mind. “They had their sights set on making the whole project green and on capturing the specialness of the site,” Mohr says. 

The first step was to obtain a variance that would allow construction to take place on the property even though it was less than 100 feet from the water’s edge. The variance was contingent on Mohr’s building within the existing home’s footprint, though it allowed her to add a partial second story. She and her team deconstructed the previous structure so painstakingly that the only parts of it that weren’t recycled or repurposed were the roof shingles and the carpet.

In the finished, 7,000-square-foot house—which recently became LEED Gold-certified—dramatic views abound from a spare, modern setting that invites the outside in. With help from interior designer Susan Anderson of Interior Concepts, Inc., the owners carefully furnished the open-plan interiors of the main floor, selecting low-slung pieces that would not impede the views. In the living room area, a sleek, cream-colored sectional from Anora Home shares space with two custom settees to create separate gathering areas. They are grouped around a propane-powered fireplace encased in Venetian plaster with a stainless-steel chimney.

The adjoining dining area flows into a kitchen lined with Poggenpohl cabinetry and Caesarstone countertops. A separate family room, walk-in pantry and foyer lead off from there. Floor-to-ceiling windows span the entire open area overlooking the water, with a deck big enough to house areas for both relaxation and dining. 

The master suite also occupies the main floorideal for one-level living when the homeowners eventually retire. Upstairs, four bedrooms—each with a water view—accommodate three grown daughters when they visit. On the basement level where the original structure remained with the foundation, an open rec room along with a second family room and separate caretakers’ apartment all enjoy their own views of the river.

To meet her clients’ sustainability goals, Mohr embraced myriad green design strategies for energy conservation, including geothermal heating and cooling via ground-source heat pumps; a solar photovoltaic system that feeds power back into the grid; a hydronic radiant floor heating system; an ultra-efficient building skin of formaldehyde-free plywood, solid polystyrene and foam-insulated walls and roof; and triple-coated low-E glass. 

Operable skylights and windows supply natural ventilation and deep overhangs block summer sun while admitting winter rays. Water for domestic use is heated on demand with a propane tank-less water heater, and low-flow plumbing fixtures have been installed throughout the house. A 2,500-gallon underground cistern catches rainwater as it runs off the butterfly roof that Mohr designed for that sole purpose; the water that’s collected is used to replenish the swimming pool and irrigate the property.

Exterior steel supports were hot-dipped and galvanized rather than coated with toxic paints. Silica-treated TimberSIL and fir used in construction are low in VOCs as are all other finishes, inside and out. Non-toxic, recyclable polyethylene pipes were used throughout in lieu of those made of resource-intensive copper or toxic PVC. Mohr installed smart thermostats in each room to conserve energy.

The architect also had to meet the demands of building in a storm-prone environment with the potential for high winds. “The most challenging aspect of the whole project was getting all the windows we wanted while meeting the county’s requirements,” Mohr says. All solid corners are constructed with plywood as well as drywall and anchored in concrete to provide stability for the walls of windows that the owners craved.

Outside, the existing swimming pool has been retiled and a new slate patio installed. A retaining wall keeps the pool and decking “from slipping into the South River,” says Mohr. The owners’ plan is to grow native sea grasses on the slope down to the water to prevent erosion. “This is a wonderful place to just be,” says the wife, sitting in her living room with what seems like an endless expanse of blue water before her. “It’s exactly what we wanted.” 

Photographer Kenneth M. Wyner is based in Takoma Park, Maryland.

ARCHITECTURE: CHERYL MOHR, AIA LEED AP, Mike Binder, project designer, Gardner Mohr Architects LLC, Silver Spring, Maryland. CONTRACTOR: CHARLIE BERLINER, Berliner Construction, Annapolis, Maryland. INTERIOR DESIGN: SUSAN KNIGHT ANDERSON, Interior Concepts, Inc., Annapolis, Maryland.