Out on a Limb On a whim, while visiting a client’s job site in 2001, architect Mark Kohler walked down to the end of the wooded street to see a lot for sale. Taken by the beautiful, park-like site that sloped down to the pristine Occoquan Reservoir, he went out on a limb and bought the five-acre Woodbridge, Virginia, parcel as an investment. “We had no plans, but it was a challenge for me as an architect to figure out how to build on this difficult lot,” says Kohler, principal of KohlMark Group, an architecture and construction firm.
Little did Kohler know, more than a decade later he would call the property home.
Over the years, he and his wife June would spot the site while kayaking in the reservoir. “I looked up at the houses,” June recalls, “and told Mark, ‘You could do a really spectacular house on that property.’” Idle talk eventually turned serious as the couple decided to trade their suburban Colonial in Springfield for a rustic retreat that would make them feel like they were on vacation all year round.
The dramatic drop-offs that attracted Kohler in the first place would prove to be his greatest obstacle since they left him with only a narrow ridge of buildable space. “We staked this thing out so many times,” recalls the architect. “It evolved, like a sculpture.”
His first priority was laying the foundation without disrupting the surrounding vegetation. “I’m a tree hugger,” explains Kohler, who hired an arborist to protect roots and fortify trees. “I didn’t want to do any grading. The idea was to save all the trees and make it look like we just dropped the house from a helicopter.”
To devote all buildable land to the home, the architect located a pair of pitch-roofed parking pavilions on either side of the driveway, which also proved instrumental as staging ground for material deliveries. “The pavilions are our ‘wow’ factor and provide a sense of entry,” says Kohler. “We wanted it to feel almost like you’re pulling into a national park.”
The Kohlers envisioned a rustic retreat crafted from natural wood, stone, and glass. When Mark’s drawings were near completion, he engaged Farmington, New York-based New Energy Works to supply Douglas fir timber framing and reclaimed antique heart-pine flooring for the house. “You associate timber framing with vacation homes in Colorado,” notes Mark. “It adds to the character and warmth.”
He carefully orchestrated the home’s layout to play up nature at every turn. As an architect and a builder, Kohler enjoyed the freedom to allow the design to unfold organically, unsaddled by the need to negotiate change orders. He even waited until walls were framed to place windows so that he could be sure to capture the best possible views. “Mark wanted to stand in the actual house and see the views to decide where the glass would be,” recalls project manager Eric Pohler.
Today, guests approach the finished home on a walkway reminiscent of a boat dock. A glassed-in front entry connects the music room on the left to the main living space on the right. The latter houses an open-plan great room, dining area, and kitchen. A secondary entry leads from the garage through a covered breezeway and into a mudroom/butler’s pantry off the kitchen. On the second floor is the Kohlers’ lofty master suite, as well as a bedroom for their daughter, Monica, a grad student at the University of Virginia. An open stair anchored by a wall of dry-stacked stone leads to the lower-level media room, guest suite, and home office, where June runs the Kohlers’ property management company at a desk with a mesmerizing view of the Occoquan.
The Kohlers turned to Mary Meade Sampson Interior Design to help them select finishes and furnishings. “There are so many choices out there that it’s overwhelming,” remarks June Kohler. “Mary and her team were really good about directing us.” Sampson gravitated toward simple furniture and neutral fabrics that would complement—not compete with—the home’s organic materials and views of nature.
More than 12 years after Mark Kohler first walked the property, he and his family finally moved in last year—the realization of a long-time dream. As Eric Pohler recalls, “When Mark hired me back in 2000, he told me I was going to build his house someday. He spent two years at the drawing table designing a house to fit on this challenging lot. Finally, his vision has become a reality.”
Though he’s been designing and building homes for more than 30 years, Kohler admits that his new home is unlike anything he’s ever done before. “It was all new to me and new to Eric,” he says, “but I loved every minute of the challenge.”
Photographer Greg Hadley is based in Fairfax, Virginia.
ARCHITECTURE: MARK KOHLER, AIA, KohlMark Group, Burke, Virginia. BUILDER: MARK KOHLER, principal; ERIC POHLER, project manager, KohlMark Group. INTERIOR DESIGN: FRANCIE MEADE and MARY MEADE SAMPSON, Mary Meade Sampson Interior Design, Ashburn, Virginia. LANDSCAPE DESIGN: PHILIP KLENE and CECILIA PALMER, West Winds Nursery, Sudely Springs, Virginia.