A Maryland-based business consultant who had always wanted to live in a home with flowing, clean-lined spaces recently convinced his wife to go modern, too. “We’d never experienced an open plan and were excited about creating one,” he reflects. The couple considered ways to transform their center-hall colonial in Bethesda’s Sumner neighborhood before they moved on and purchased an old farmhouse on a hilltop in nearby Mohican Hills.
“After buying the property, we thought about doing a juxtaposition of a new design with the old house,” explains the wife, a stay-at-home mom and former museum curator. “But there were major structural issues with the existing house, so we decided to demolish it and start from scratch.”
The homeowners then embarked on a three-year journey to realize their dream of open-plan living with the help of DC architect Robert Gurney, who is known for his rigorous contemporary designs. “Bob is willing to be bold but not extravagant,” says the husband. “He eliminates visual noise in his houses and understands the value of minimalism and simple lines.”
Gurney sited the linear house on the ridge of the sloping, one-and-a-half-acre site and organized its intersecting volumes to accommodate the couple, their three teenage daughters and visiting parents. “The girls’ bedrooms and the guest suite are separated from the living spaces,” he says. “This division makes a lot of sense for the way the family lives.”
Contrasting materials distinguish the two wings and visually break up the length of the building on the site. The front living pavilion is mostly sheathed in heat-treated poplar siding, while the rear bedrooms are finished in charcoal-gray stucco. The two sides connect via a light-filled, two-story stair hall just inside the front door.
In winter when the trees are bare, the owners can see the Potomac River from the main living area and master bedroom. “I tried to orient these spaces to capture the water views and retain as much flat space on the site as possible,” says Gurney. To one side of the house, a generous, level lawn bordered by a retaining wall provides a grassy stage for outdoor dining, volleyball and, in the future, a possible swimming pool.
Within the block of living spaces, the kitchen, dining and sitting areas are open and interconnected. The main living area focuses on a fireplace within a two-story space offering views of the lawn and surrounding forest. “We call it the tree house,” says the wife, who points to the evergreens and colorful leaves visible through floor-to-ceiling glass.
“What’s so cool is that we are in a suburb close to DC, but it feels like we are in the country,” says the husband.
To reinforce that impression, Annapolis landscape architect Kevin Campion designed “concentric rings and a layering of plantings that make the house feel like it is nested in nature,” he says. Deer-resistant perennials interspersed with drifts of grasses create a transitional meadow between the clearing around the house and mature trees surrounding the property.
Montgomery County’s strict environmental regulations led Campion to plant trees, including beech, dogwood and river birch, to replace those felled to make way for the house. Two specially designed gardens established at the front and back of the property manage the flow of rainwater on site. “Rather than have storm water wash down the site and erode the hill, we worked with engineers to create gardens layered with sand, soil, stones and plantings that allow the land to absorb as much water as possible,” explains Campion.
To furnish the interiors, the homeowners worked with designer Therese Baron Gurney, choosing pieces in harmony with the style and proportions of the house. “I worked to respect the architecture but made sure to accommodate all the people using the house, from kids to grandparents,” says Baron Gurney, who is married to the architect but runs her own DC practice. “All the fabrics are washable and durable, and the height of the seating is comfortable. I designed the living-area coffee table so you can put your feet on it.”
She also ensured functional adaptability in some of the rooms. A Murphy bed allows the office to double as a guest room. With its swivel chairs and tables, the mezzanine—located above the dining area—can be used as a TV lounge or workplace. Behind the kitchen, a space fitted with built-in shelving and a gas fireplace serves as an intimate reading nook or a conversational sitting area and entertaining space.
On the second floor, each of the kids’ bedrooms is paired with a bathroom. The master suite incorporates a fireplace and opens to a porch in the treetops.
Every bit of the décor is judiciously placed and kept to a minimum to maintain an uncluttered look that allows the architecture to remain center stage. “The house is so beautiful,” says the husband. “We think of it as the art.”
Architecture: Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, principal; Sarah Mailhot, project architect, Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, Architect, Washington, DC. Interior Design: Therese Baron Gurney, ASID, Baron Gurney Interiors, Washington, DC. Builder: Steve McCaughan, Commonwealth Building and Design, Clifton, Virginia. Landscape Architect: Kevin Campion, ASLA, Campion Hruby Landscape Architects, Annapolis, Maryland.
EXTERIOR Windows: westernwindowsystems.com. Paneling: Fiber Cement Board (cembrit.us) over open rainscreen system. Wood Siding: Thermally modified poplar. Stucco & Chimney: Integrated-color cementitious stucco. Wood-Burning Fire Element: heatilator.com.
ENTRY Stairwell: Custom by builder. Bench: gordoninternational.com. Recessed Lights: Lightolier (lbclighting.com). Suspension Lights: bega-us.com, deltalight.com, zaneen.com, moooi.com. Pendant: steng.de. Round Rug: filzfelt.com.
KITCHEN Cabinetry: Custom ebony and maple. Countertops: White Zeus Extreme Silestone. Hood: thermador.com. Cooktop: mieleusa.com. Bar Stools: dauphin.de. Banquette: arco.nl. Benquette Fabric: deploeg.com. Table. prismatique.com. Chairs: kartell.com.