Eric and Kristin Burka were enjoying a Friday evening at home when they noticed smoke billowing from the house next door, which was under construction. Within moments, “that house just exploded,” recalls Eric, a marketing consultant. “There were fire engines everywhere.” Located close together on a residential street in Chevy Chase, the surrounding homes were clearly in jeopardy—and sure enough, the Burkas’ roof soon caught fire. The couple quickly evacuated their three teenagers and pets, then salvaged what they could of their artwork with the help of neighbors. They stood on the street and watched the mayhem, relieved to be safe.
By the next day, relief had turned to shock. The traditional spec home the couple had bought in 2001 was in ruins; while extinguishing the flames that enveloped the roof, firemen had dumped thousands of gallons of water into the house. Smoke permeated the structure.
The Burkas moved to a rental nearby and embarked on the complicated process of rebuilding their home. Viewing the disaster as an opportunity to improve the builder-grade space, they selected builder Steve Kirstein of BOWA and designer Gerald Smith, who frequently collaborate, for the job. “We took what was a production house and turned it into a true custom home,” Kirstein says. “It was literally a shell when we started. We put in a new roof, floors, staircases, drywall, wiring, a lot of plumbing and new HVAC systems.”
The biggest challenge from Kirstein’s perspective was eradicating the smell of smoke. “The hardest part is tracking down those smells,” he observes. “In areas where you think you’ve replaced everything, the smoke smell is still there. There’s a fine line: You want to do everything necessary, but things that don’t need to be replaced shouldn’t be. It’s a balancing act.”
Meanwhile, Smith was creating new, more functional spaces within the original footprint. A second door in the family room was added for better access to the deck and storage was created to meet the family’s specific needs. A dog crate was even built into the mudroom cabinetry. “Everything is organized now,” marvels Eric. “Everything has a place.”
Smith followed the original layout but made significant changes to the look and feel of the home. “There was freedom to restyle it with a more transitional flavor,” he says. “We came up with a scheme: a chic family home that’s very easy to live in.”
Replacing traditional double-hung windows, minimalist, metal-clad window frames now convey an industrial vibe. Rooms were delineated by architectural features: Columns and a cross-barrel-vaulted ceiling now distinguish the foyer and rough-sawn oak beams embellish the living room ceiling. A mahogany wall in the family room frames a limestone fireplace that replaced one of fieldstone. A new stairway boasts a graceful, over-the-post handrail and strategically placed lighting illuminates pathways through the house at night.
The Burkas were able to save valuable art, including two paintings by Joan Miró and an etching by Goya. Olin Conservation in Great Falls restored the artwork while Middleburg-based antiques conservator Nick Greer restored family heirlooms. “He’s the only guy left who does a real French polish,” Kristin says. “The furniture looks better than before, even pieces that were nearly destroyed.” Unfortunately, she adds, “anything fabric we couldn’t keep—pillows, bedding, upholstery, mattresses, curtains.” Smith chose clean-lined transitional replacements for these items, creating a stylish, eclectic look.
An oval, rift-cut walnut island topped with Calacatta marble now anchors the kitchen, and peripheral rift-cut, white-oak cabinets are paired with Silestone counters. A rounded metal support column has replaced a mundane square version. The kitchen opens into the family room, where a beloved sectional was taken down to its frame and rebuilt.
To help their children move past the traumatic event, the Burkas allowed them to choose their own room décors, with Smith’s guidance. The designer also reconfigured the basement to include a media room, craft area, exercise room and additional guest suite. “We replaced all the games, trying to make things as normal as possible,” Eric says.
In fact, the healing process was key for builder and designer as well. “Really, you’re working with folks who’ve been through a horrible ordeal,” comments Kirstein. “The trick is to give them TLC, to lead them through everything. You want to help them avoid surprises because they’ve had enough of those.” v
Photographer John Magor is based in Stafford, Virginia.