Built in the 1930s, a modest A-frame house in Arlington was just the right size for Darren Robbins, a principal at a tech firm, who moved into the two-bedroom, one-bath residence in 2011 with two of his children and a dog. After he and wife Halee married in 2014, however, it quickly became clear that the 1,500-square-foot house couldn’t accommodate a larger family. There was so little storage space that Halee had to share a closet with the kids, and only a couple of people could fit into the cramped kitchen at once.
“The original house was tiny…you walked in the front door and were practically at the back door,” said Michael Winn of Winn Design+Build, whose firm was eventually hired to renovate and enlarge the abode. “For their growing family, it wasn’t going to get them there.”
The Robbinses had considered buying another house in their Arlington neighborhood but ultimately decided to embark on a major renovation that would more than double the size of their existing home and fulfill the key items on their wish list: a generous kitchen, four bedrooms, four-and-a-half baths, a walk-out basement and a new garage. The project took on more urgency when Halee discovered she was expecting their first child.
“Moving [the kids] into separate rooms was imperative,” observes Darren. “They get along much better now. And with an almost-teenage girl and a teenage boy, the new bathroom space has definitely helped to keep the peace.”
Winn’s team faced challenges in turning the small, dark house into an open, updated home. The large addition had to be carefully scaled so as not to overwhelm the existing house and neighboring homes. “There are some builders out there who will put up as large a home on the lot as they can. We try to be mindful of the neighborhood and the massing when we build,” Winn says. Furthermore, the lot was narrow and deep, with a significant change in grade from the front to the back.
The solution was to place the bulk of the three-story addition at the back of the house. Winn architect Amy Finch turned the sloped site to advantage by incorporating an above-ground basement into the design; this enabled her to enlarge the existing second floor while maintaining the home’s original roof profile. To further minimize its street presence, the two-story garage addition was set slightly back.
Finch freshened the exterior by covering its Tudor-style detailing with shingles and cladding the new construction in clapboard siding. Complementary shades of blue paint and crisp, white trim blend the original brick façade with the addition.
Inside, a reconfigured floor plan improved the flow between rooms. From the first-floor entry, a hallway leads to the back of the house through the former kitchen, providing sight lines and sense of place. The dining room now occupies the original living room, which has been relocated to the addition in the back, and a new powder room lies off the hallway. A spacious kitchen spills into the living-room addition, creating an open-plan space that easily accommodates family and friends. “We’re in the kitchen and living room most of the time,” Halee notes. “Even when we have guests, we tend to just stay here.”
Interior designer Jeanne Griffin made the inside spaces feel cohesive by painting the main rooms in shades of a dove, blue and gray, and staining the oak floors throughout a rich custom brown. “Part of the design direction came from the clients’ love of the beach, water, and references to calm,” Griffin explains.
Griffin was originally hired to consult on interior finishes, but the Robbinses were so happy with the results that they hired her to furnish the home too. The rooms, built around large, neutral furnishings, receive pops of color through accessories and artwork. “It’s casual enough for a family but sophisticated enough for entertaining,” Griffin says.
In the dining room, a contemporary chandelier hangs above a rustic wood table. The clean-lined, eat-in kitchen combines cherry cabinets, granite countertops, and stainless-steel appliances. The shiny glass kitchen backsplash tile complements the matte finish on the honed-ceramic-tile fireplace surround in the adjoining living room.
On the second floor, the existing layout was reconfigured to encompass a third bedroom and three baths. A large bath over the garage addition is distinguished by a cathedral ceiling. A hallway now leads to the master suite, housed in the addition; it encompasses a generous walk-in closet and a full bath embellished with an intricate mosaic-tile pattern in the shower enclosure.
Downstairs, a recreation room leads to a full bath, a gym and a kitchenette with a wet bar—where root beer was on tap for a recent kids’ party. The basement space opens to the backyard, where a swimming pool is next on the list of requirements for this growing family.
The Robbins are happy in their renovated abode, which won a Contractor of the Year award in 2016. Since the renovation, the family also welcomed one more addition to their home when Halee and Darren’s second baby was born.
DRAWING BOARD with Michael Winn
How do you modernize a traditional exterior so it still fits its neighborhood?
I retain the original character by paying attention to the existing form, scale, and exterior finishes.
How do you help clients prioritize their wish lists?
We ask them to compile wish lists and compare. We organize the agreed-on items into buckets: “must have,” “nice to have” and “if money grew on trees.” We also offer professional guidance (ROI considerations, feasibility, etc.) and personal opinions.
What tricks do you use to gain storage space during a remodel?
We identify underutilized spaces (e.g. under a stairway or in a knee-wall) and design things to perform more than one function, like hidden drawers in stair risers. In an addition, trusses can also provide space.
What is your material-selection process?
We ask clients to share images they like on Houzz or Pinterest, then complete a questionnaire. We interview them, then produce design boards based on their preferences and budget, or schedule shopping trips to local showrooms.
Renovation Architecture: Amy Finch, AIA; Kitchen & Bath Design: Jennifer Hall; Contracting: Michael Winn, Winn Design+Build, Falls Church, Virginia. Interior Design: Jeanne Griffin, Jeanne Griffin Interior Design Studio, Alexandria, Virginia.