For more than a century, the Baltimore Harbor Light has served as a beacon for ships entering Maryland’s largest port. More recently, the historic lighthouse guided DC architect Cynthia Shoup Schiffrin in the design of a weekend getaway on the nearby shore. In 2011, Schiffrin and her husband discovered a waterfront property near Annapolis and fell in love with its views of the Magothy River at its confluence with the Chesapeake Bay. A fisherman’s cottage on the lot posed too many problems to be a candidate for renovation, so they decided to tear it down and build anew.
The modern home Schiffrin designed pays homage to the lighthouse—as well as its estuary habitat—in more ways than one. “My goal was to build something simple that didn’t put any more strain on the environment than was necessary,” she says.
Based on county regulations, the size of the new house was limited to 2,500 square feet. Despite its compact footprint, Schiffrin managed to create an open, airy structure, completed last year. A central, two-story volume houses a living, dining and kitchen space, while a lofted area above forms a raised section in the roof that echoes the lighthouse shape. “I love looking at the lighthouse,” Schiffrin explains. “The house is oriented to acknowledge it and capture the warmth of the winter sun. Meanwhile, the center section is a gesture towards our own lighthouse.”
Schiffrin and her husband, who have a teenage son, purchased the property jointly with her brother and sister-in-law, who have two kids in their 20s. So her design needed to accommodate all seven family members comfortably. She created two identical master suites with private baths for the couples—one on the ground floor and the other directly above. Two additional bedrooms include one shared by Schiffrin’s son and nephew and another for her niece. A TV room on the main level with a sleep sofa welcomes guests.
Getaways to the house revolve around the outdoors, especially in balmy weather. A screened porch off the kitchen with a sundeck above and an expansive rear deck overlooking the pool provide plenty of al fresco options. “We spend as much time outside as possible,” affirms the architect. “In the summer, we eat most meals on the screened porch. And we also like to sit down on the dock.”
Committed to designing a sustainable home, Schiffrin adhered to the principles of Passivhaus, a German building standard she discovered at a recent American Institute of Architects conference. “The concept is to build a house that is highly insulated, airtight and makes use of passive heating and cooling,” she explains. Before construction began, Schiffrin hired Baltimore-based salvage company Second Chance to dismantle the cottage and recycle as much material as possible. Wood was used instead of steel in every support beam and roof truss in the new home since steel can cause condensation that leads to mold. The house is oriented for passive solar heating, with large, operable windows taking advantage of natural ventilation. In addition to a highly insulated roof and walls, Schiffrin employed an exterior layer of mineral wool insulation. “Almost like a jacket,” she says, “it cuts down on heat gain and loss.” The white rubber roof reflects heat and triple-glazed Intus windows provide airtight seals.
Outdoors, Schiffrin converted the existing pool from chlorine to saltwater to minimize the use of chemicals and selected native plants in the landscape. A rain garden filters runoff before it flows into the bay.
The families now enjoy the house in all seasons. Whether she’s relaxing in the loft space or the hot tub, Schiffrin loves watching vessels passing on the water. “We get cruise ships, container ships and sailboats coming by,” she says. “We’ve all been captivated by the ever-changing moods of the water and the sun. The colors of the house were chosen to reflect those various moods.”
Schiffrin, whose architecture practice has focused primarily on non-residential work, had never designed a house before this one. Despite what she describes as a “learning curve” during the design phase, the outcome was familiar. “I really enjoyed coming out here during construction and our contractor, Rich Lang, was a terrific collaborator,” she recalls. “It was so exciting seeing the house come to life. That’s one of the things I enjoy most about being an architect—seeing something you’ve done on paper become reality.”
Judy Davis is a principal at Hoachlander Davis Photography in DC.
ARCHITECTURE: CYNTHIA SHOUP SCHIFFRIN, AIA, Washington, DC. STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Keast & Hood Co., Washington, DC. CONTRACTOR: RICH LANG, Lang, and Company, Arnold, Maryland.