While flipping through a newspaper, architect Theresa del Ninno noticed an enticing advertisement for a waterfront property offering sunset views. That led her to check out the for-sale lot facing the Potomac River in Valley Lee, a town in southern Maryland.
“I got out of the car and all I could focus on was the panoramic view of the water,” recalls del Ninno. “The house that was there wasn’t worthy of the property.”
Nevertheless, she and her husband Carlo, a World Bank economist, bought the cottage in 2004 as a getaway from their permanent home in Alexandria, Virginia. About six years later, they decided to replace the small, one-story dwelling with a contemporary, energy-efficient house big enough for themselves and their three adult children.
“We discussed a lot what we wanted to have,” recalls Carlo. “Then Theresa would draw it up and then we would discuss it again. One thing was sure, we wanted to have the living room and kitchen upstairs.”
In designing the home, del Ninno stayed within the footprint of the original house, reusing its foundation to anchor a taller structure. “The existing home was in the right place in terms of required setbacks from the water,” she says. “The idea was to go up and capture the views.”
Topped by arcing and slanted roofs, the 1,500-square-foot house has a sculptural profile meant to represent the place where the surf meets the shore.
“I wanted to try and capture the beauty of this little beach on the grand Potomac,” says del Ninno. “It is six miles across to Virginia and during storms, the waves reach six feet high. So the curved metal roofs covering the blue volumes are like cresting waves breaking over the vegetated roofs of the sand-colored volumes.”
Inside, the living/dining area and kitchen are positioned on the second floor under a barrel-vaulted ceiling punctuated by fir beams and bamboo paneling. “It’s like the inside of a boat,” notes the architect. Lined with windows, the open space feels connected to the outdoors and the family room on the lower level.
Above the kitchen, a loft reached by ladder houses sleeping quarters for guests. The railing extending across the mezzanine is made from a piece of driftwood found on the nearby beach.
On the ground level, three bedrooms and a bathroom are arranged around the two-story family room, which leads to a deck. Oak flooring from the existing cottage was recycled and installed on this level, while bamboo extends underfoot in the living/dining area.
Connecting the upper and lower floors is an open staircase made of layered bamboo plywood. Its treads are supported by a complementary bookcase built into a wall of the family room. “I tried to incorporate as many sustainable features as possible,” says del Ninno, noting the renewable materials.
Slanted roofs over the bedroom wing and carport are covered in planted trays of sedum to filter stormwater runoff. Multiple windows and glass doors, framed in durable fiberglass, are precisely set into the grid of fiber-cement panels wrapping the super-insulated exterior walls. Mature maple and oak trees preserved on the property shade the home during hot summer months.
To save money, the del Ninnos built the kitchen themselves with concrete countertops and Ikea cabinets, and recycled a ship’s porthole bought in Bangladesh as a window in the adjacent bathroom. At the front of the house, they sheathed the cedar-framed porch in translucent polycarbonate panels that turn the structure into a glowing lantern at night.
The del Ninnos completed the house in 2013 and spend most weekends there, sailing on the river, playing volleyball and entertaining friends. Below the deck off the family room, they installed a hot tub and an outdoor kitchen with a wood-fired pizza oven. “My son found the plans for the oven and we all built it together,” says Italian-born Carlo. Evenings with guests, he notes, typically end with a meal of fresh pizza as the sun sets.
During one such party, the economist recalls, “A friend was sitting on the deck and said, ‘What a place! You look toward the water and you have a beautiful view, then you turn around and you see an amazing house.’ We are so lucky to be able to spend time in such a great place.”
Frequent contributor Deborah K. Dietsch is based in Washington, DC. Judy Davis is a principal at Hoachlander Davis Photography in Washington.
Architecture & Interiors: Theresa del Ninno, AIA LEED BD + C, Maginniss + del Ninno Architects, Alexandria, Virginia. CONTRACTOR: Mike Adams, A & A Painting and Restoration Company, Inc., Leonardtown, Maryland.