Architect Gregory Uekman and his wife Ann Dorough were living in a tiny cottage in Kensington when they began looking for a larger home. “I wanted a house with a view, without seeing our neighbors’ backyards,” recalls Uekman.
The architect didn’t find that unencumbered vista, but instead convinced his wife to buy a modest 1950 rambler in Bethesda that he could transform into what he calls “an island” amid a sea of larger homes.
In expanding the one-story, 1,100-square-foot structure, Uekman added a master suite to one side of the house and replaced the garage with a freestanding studio on the other. The resulting U-shaped complex encloses a stone-paved rear courtyard that creates a feeling of seclusion.
“What drove the design was a sense of privacy, even when we’re outside,” says the architect, who nicknamed the residence “Maison Defensive” in honor of his strategy to shield it from its neighbors. “And having the courtyard gave us the opportunity to open the house to it and make the interior feel larger than it is.”
As a designer, Uekman says, “light and clarity are extremely important to me,” so he used glass and white stucco to make the house and garage appear crisply modern. Copper-clad additions housing the kitchen and bedroom bay window provide visual contrast to the pale exterior.
Dorough, who works as a manager at the American Institute of Architects, deferred to her husband’s aesthetic for most of the renovation. “I married a guy who picked out our wedding china and crystal, so I understand his design sense,” she says. “But I had my must-haves, like a well-designed kitchen, a reading nook and as much green space outside as possible.”
The new kitchen projects from the front corner of the house to offer a large space framed by rift-sawn oak cabinets and Caesarstone countertops. Standing at the sink, Dorough, who picked out the glass-tile backsplash, points to the master bedroom visible through a doorway in the opposite corner. “Even though this is a small house,” she says, “we get long views through the interior so it feels more open.”
In the heart of the home, the original kitchen and back wall was demolished to expand the living room. Now, a large, open space comprising a sitting area by the fireplace, a TV lounge and a dining area all face the courtyard through a new wall of glass.
This transparent barrier extends farther into the backyard than the original rear wall. In contrast to the red oak flooring in the rest of the living area, the space between the new and old walls is defined by the same stone flooring that paves the courtyard, visually connecting the indoors and outdoors. Overhead, a steel beam spans the opening where the back wall once stood and new, freestanding partitions next to the dining space provide storage and a place for the TV.
Accessible from the living space, the master-bedroom addition centers on a large bay window that provides Dorough’s desired reading nook, with a view of the courtyard. Other windows throughout the house and office are judiciously placed to provide light without glimpses of neighboring properties. A light well over the sitting area in the living room channels sunshine from skylights into the center of the home.
Behind the living room chimney, the former back bedroom is now the master bathroom and a laundry closet. Two of the original bedrooms at the front was kept intact to serve as a guest room and Dorough’s home office.
Uekman commutes to his job by walking a few steps to the freestanding studio at the back. “I wanted a sense of separation from the house and this makes a statement that you are going to the office,” says the architect, who previously worked in downtown Bethesda. The rear of the office structure provides a storage space and behind it is a small shed for garden tools.
Inside the house, furnishings are kept to a precious few. Authentic Pension chairs designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in the 1930s face the TV. Clean-lined armchairs and a sofa from Room & Board provide living room seating. Uekman designed the walnut coffee table next to the sofa.
The couple says their pared-down living style complements the design of the house as a modern oasis in a changing suburban neighborhood. “The benefit of minimalism is serenity,” says Dorough. “I can come into the house after a busy day and decompress easily.” v
Writer Deborah K. Dietsch is based in Washington, DC. Paul Burk is a photographer in Baltimore.
ARCHITECTURE: GREGORY UEKMAN, AIA; Uekman/Architects LLC, Bethesda, Maryland. CONTRACTOR: Bonaventure Builders, Clifton, Virginia.