The rear façade of the house reveals the addition topped with a roof terrace.
A pathway leading by the front entry overlooks the new kitchen through slanted windows.
The addition is an open plan, encompassing the living area and kitchen.
A side view of the house reveals the two-level addition.
A long island topped with granite yields plenty of work space in the kitchen.
The living room area is flanked by windows.
The wooded property provides the backdrop to the dining area.

Modern Sanctuary

Richard Williams artfully redesigns a contemporary home to harmonize with its wooded surroundings

In rural, picturesque Clifton, Virginia, a narrow road winds its way through woods punctuated here and there by houses, most of them traditional in style. But the road leads ultimately to something completely different. At first glance, it looks like two smallish, modern structures set atop a steep slope—but a closer look reveals that the two buildings are actually connected by a terrace. A walk around the back offers the big surprise: The two buildings are actually one, and the terrace is of the rooftop variety, topping the connective section of the house.

This ingenious design perfectly complements the home’s setting and style, and answers the wishes of owners Johan and Anna De Nysschen, who did not want their home to have a large footprint. The design is the brainchild of architect Richard Williams, who was tapped along with Lorna Gross of Savant Interior Design to renovate the quirky contemporary and make it functional and livable for the couple. 

“We were drawn to the place by the setting. It was like a sanctuary,” recalls Johan, an automotive executive. “The dwelling itself did not meet our needs but the bones were good. We could see it had great potential. We called in Richard and it was magnificent from day one. He totally changed the layout, designed it for our needs and made it a low-maintenance house.”

Built in 1999 by Virginia architect Donald Reed Chandler for his own use, the two structures—a three-story tower and a two-car garage—were in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, with overhanging eaves and shallow, sloping rooflines. “We liked the airiness and aspect of two pavilions with the extended eaves and soffits,” says Williams. “We didn’t want to change the look.” But the couple needed more space, so he devised a floor plan in which an addition would connect the two buildings.

Visitors enter the renovated house on the third level, home to a media room and office with a bar, kitchenette and bath. They then descend to the second level, where the addition encompasses an open-plan kitchen and living room, dining room and master suite. This level, where the couple spends most of their time, now spans the distance between the house and the garage; a back flight of stairs between the garage and kitchen makes bringing in groceries a breeze. The first floor includes two guest bedrooms and a rec room that could easily be converted to a fourth bedroom.

Williams bumped out the home’s top two floors about five feet on one side, cantilevering the extra space above the ground floor. The spacious terrace provides another link to the garage, which now abuts a cozy, cantilevered screened porch with a wood-burning stove, accessible from the terrace as well as the stairs. 

One of Williams’s main goals was to ensure that the house would take full advantage of the gorgeous views surrounding it. The second-level addition boasts a solid wall of windows overlooking the backyard, while a slanted wall of windows above the kitchen brings in even more light. A skylight illuminates the back stairs leading up to the garage. “We were always trying to maximize natural light,” the architect comments.

Within the context of the home’s spare, streamlined architecture, designer Lorna Gross says that her challenge was “personalizing and warming up the space without interfering with the view.” Her well-traveled clients, who are South African, offered a fresh perspective and were open to international cultural influences. Casting about for an accent color to anchor the living room, Gross chose red to reflect the De Nysschens’s affinity for things Asian, and to complement the green of the outdoors. She defined spaces through rugs; a contemporary Ikat made with wool fibers delineates the living area while in the adjoining dining area the rug is made out of hemp. Iconic modern pieces like a Barcelona chair anchor the living room, mixed with pieces picked up by the owners over the years.

To help with the kitchen design, Johan and his wife turned to Deborah Kalkstein of Contemporaria, who paired custom wenge cabinetry by the Italian company Modulnova with granite countertops. To allow for those slanted windows, walls of pantry cupboards flank the kitchen, furnishing plenty of storage.

While the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired outer shell of the house has been retained, pretty much everything else is new, including plumbing and electrical systems and heat and air. At the main entry, a marble floor now welcomes visitors and a floating wall houses the TV and acts as a room divider.  Outside, the generously sized terrace beckons with its built-in barbeque and breathtaking views all around. 

“Something drew us to it,” says Johan De Nysschen simply. “It’s a wonderful house to live in.” 

Photographer Maxwell MacKenzie is based in Washington, DC. 

RENOVATION ARCHITECTURE: RICHARD WILLIAMS, FAIA, principal; TIM ABRAMS, AIA, LEED AP, project architect, Richard Williams Architects, PLLC, Washington, DC. INTERIOR DESIGN: LORNA GROSS, ASID, Savant Interior Design, Bethesda, Maryland. KITCHEN DESIGN: DEBORAH KALKSTEIN, Contemporaria, Washington, DC. CONTRACTOR: Lofgren Construction Co., Laytonsville, Maryland.