Nearly 20 years after Larry Bruneel bought two wooded acres near Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, he was ready to build his dream vacation home. Then he recalled reading about a “wacky but cool house” designed by Washington architect Travis Price, a pioneering eco-modernist. At their first meeting to discuss the project, Price assigned Bruneel an essay, which he requests of all prospective clients: Describe how the house should “feel.”
Bruneel agonized before writing, “I want it to be simple, but complex technically and artistically. I want it to be comfortable and challenging at the same time. I want it to keep me safe from nature but make me feel part of nature.’’
Three weeks later, Price unveiled a model based on that vision. “I was blown away. They had taken my words and turned them into this 3,400-square-foot place,” says Bruneel, a retired alternative energy lobbyist. He quickly embraced the one-year project located two hours from DC.
At the base of a downhill driveway, the completed house rises like a monolith. From certain angles it appears to be a giant green oxidized copper box. Step sideways and, voila! One wall reveals itself as two, bracketing a vertical slice of landscape.
“All it takes is one little crick of your head to see the passage,” says Price. “The view explodes open to the sun and light and all of nature. It’s about getting back to the rhythm and light of the seasons. The house unfolds.” At night, lit from within, it glows like a 21st-century lantern.
No longer the color of a new penny, the standing-seam copper cladding was chemically treated to create an abstract patina. But inside, the commercial vibe mellows into sleek residential, like a splendid tree house for grown-ups. Spectacular views of two low peaks straddling a wildlife conservation area fill floor-to-ceiling windows in every south-facing room.
Bruneel adores the “upside down house,” with four levels from ground to roof connected by a yellow steel spiral staircase inside a rear tower. Two first-floor garages—one conventional, the other a combination man cave and “gallery” for his red Lotus Elite—are topped by sleeping quarters, topped by living space, topped by a roof deck.
Washington interior designer Christina Cole sought clean-lined, largely neutral furnishings “to complement, rather than compete with the scenery,” she explains, although there are exceptions: Andreu World’s red “Smile” chairs add a bold pop of color in the dining area, and the custom Tibetan-style living room rug she designed with Timothy Paul features a yellow pattern matching the staircase.
The master suite is anchored by a Room & Board aluminum canopy frame, and it’s easy to imagine snuggling under the covers to watch the moon rise or the snow fall. Metal is repeated in the ceiling fan and the brushed aluminum slatted outdoor sun shades over the master bedroom window—and over every other large expanse of glass in the house—to diffuse merciless summer sun and provide passive solar heat in winter. The “guest pod” consists of one standard bedroom plus a study with a concealed Murphy bed. It’s reached by an exterior glass bridge that forces visitors to commune with nature, however briefly, says Price.
All the ceilings are paneled in birch veneer plywood, and the floors are pickled oak, in homage to the surrounding woods.
The true heart of the home is the third floor. On one side, the long kitchen is set off from the dining area by an island, making group meal prep a snap. Amid the stainless-steel appliances and Ikea cabinets is an artfully hidden dumbwaiter for moving heavy provisions from the garage.
The living room—invitingly furnished with a taupe sectional and Paulistano chairs from Design Within Reach, and a Fritz Hansen “Space” coffee table from Contemporaria—boasts a see-through wood-burning fireplace on a slate hearth. For Bruneel, it’s the go-to space for conversation with family and friends. A few paces away, the stairway leads to the roof deck, which offers space for grilling, container gardening or simply lying on a chaise staring at the mountains.
Although architect and client were always on the same page, Bruneel’s wife, Kathleen Brown—a DC schoolteacher—had her doubts. On her first visit (when the two were still dating), she recalls finding the house “bizarre and intimidating-looking from the outside, inaccessible. My approach to a house is something that is welcoming,” adds Brown. She had been living in the 1910 Capitol Hill row house—with conventional layout and furnishings—that the couple now shares when in DC.
Designer Cole gives Brown props for making concessions on the décor. “Her aesthetic is much more traditional, but she really appreciated that the interiors had to speak to the architecture. Trying to put more traditional furniture into that house wouldn’t work. Even though it wasn’t her preference, she was able to identify how necessary it was to the context.”
On a recent Saturday, as Brown sat curled up on the sofa reading a book, she seemed to be at peace inside her husband’s Modernist retreat. “When you spend time inside,” she says, “it’s so great to look out.”
Native Washingtonian Annie Groer writes widely about design, politics and culture. Photographer Kenneth M. Wyner is based in Takoma Park, Maryland.
ARCHITECTURE: TRAVIS PRICE, FAIA, Travis Price Architects, Inc. Washington, DC. INTERIOR DESIGN: CHRISTINA COLE, LEED AP, Space Occupations, Washington, DC. CONTRACTOR: PRICE-BRAKE CONSTRUCTION, Charleston, West Virginia.