Potomac is known for its sprawling mansions, but in moving there from California, scientists Ronald Herbst and Bahija Jallal chose a more modest alternative. “We didn’t want a huge house, but one where we would use every room,” says Jallal, president of Gaithersburg-based MedImmune.
In 2006, the couple purchased a four-bedroom, circa-1985 house, big enough for themselves and their two daughters, on a large, forested lot abutting a creek. “The house was in bad shape. The roof was falling apart,” recalls Jallal. “But you had to look beyond that. We liked that the rooms had a lot of light and the backyard was huge.”
Herbst and Jallal made the necessary repairs, landscaping the yard to resemble previous properties they’d owned in the Bay Area. After living with these improvements for a decade, they embarked on a radical renovation to modernize the home.
“When we moved, it was new jobs for both of us. Our kids were in school and had activities, and they were our first priority,” explains the German-born Herbst, vice president of research and development at MedImmune. “We started looking at remodeling only after our older daughter was in college.”
Interviewing DC architects who specialize in modern design led the homeowners to choose Kube Architecture. “They listened to what we liked,” says Jallal, who grew up in Morocco and studied in France and Germany. “For us, it was all about simplicity, light and clean lines.”
Kube principal Richard Loosle-Ortega and associate Andrew Baldwin focused on opening the interiors to daylight and views. “The house was closed off to the outside,” recalls Loosle-Ortega. “The original ceiling in the family room was low and slanted, the windows were small and the main staircase blocked sight lines to the back of the house and yard.”
Staying within the home’s existing footprint, the architects reconfigured the rear of the main floor by raising the roof over the family room and opening the remodeled kitchen and study up to the two-story space. Daylight now floods the interiors through floor-to-ceiling windows flanking the fireplace and in the adjoining rooms. The staircase was rebuilt with open risers and glass balustrades to allow views back to the family room from the entrance hall.
At the front of the house, the living room was stripped of its moldings, trim and fireplace mantel in order to streamline the space. Wallpaper and trim were eliminated in the dining room and a traditional bay window was replaced with a large, flat glass pane.
Upstairs, the master suite now flows into an adjoining sitting area that overlooks the family room. The sleek master bathroom, reached through a vestibule with a custom-built console, incorporates windows above a freestanding tub to take advantage of vistas of the wooded lot.
The architects repeated materials throughout the house to achieve design continuity. “The idea was to create a visual dialog among the elements to connect the spaces,” explains Loosle-Ortega. For example, the stained ash used for the custom kitchen doors and paneling reappears on the desk and cabinetry in the study. The steel of the beam extending across the family room is reintroduced in the study shelving and living room fireplace surround.
On one side of the family room, a Macassar-ebony paneled storage wall counters the raw, industrial concrete look of the fiber-cement paneling around the fireplace. The exotic wood extends upward to form part of the second-floor balcony railing and shelving on the balcony wall. “We created a mini-library that allows you to get closer to the views on the upper level,” notes Loosle-Ortega.
Contrasts in color and texture enliven the spaces. Light-colored porcelain tile in the kitchen complements the original oak floorboards, now sanded and bleached to a pale hue throughout the main floor. Overhead, the first-floor ceilings are painted black, while those in the two-story family room are white.
Underscoring the planar design of the interior is lighting placed in coves and soffits that outlines various elements in a soft glow. “There is a hierarchy to the lighting design in terms of general, task and ambient lighting,” says Loosle-Ortega, who collaborated with New York-based Sense Lighting Design on the project. “Recessed lights act as general lighting, lights in the staircase wall serve as task lights and LED strips hidden over countertops and shelves add to the ambient effect.”
The home’s modern aesthetic extends to the exterior, where a dated brick façade was painted in unifying gray and white, and a sleek steel canopy was added to shelter the entrance. Fiber-cement panels and siding applied to the back façade complement the expansive new windows and glass doors.
The couple furnished the rooms with contemporary pieces that blend with the architecture. Jallal enjoys stretching out on the family-room sofa and experimenting with recipes in the uncluttered kitchen, while Herbst appreciates the study, where he can work on his laptop and display the antique books that he restores as a hobby. Both consider their minimalist surroundings restorative, providing relief from their stressful jobs. “With all the travel and meetings, it’s nice to come home to a sense of serenity,” Jallal observes.
Adds Herbst, “We find the tranquility is good for us.”
What’s the easiest way to make a traditional home feel contemporary?
Richard Loosle-Ortega: Eliminate cornices, baseboards and window trim, or paint them the same color as the walls to unify and simplify the spaces. Introduce large windows to bring in more natural light and make the spaces feel bigger and more open.
How do you convince a homeowner to use an edgy material like fiber-cement board?
RLO: We point out the cost-effectiveness of the material and how it will complement more conventional materials such as wood and brick.
How do you make a minimalist interior feel warm?
RLO: Minimal does not mean sterile. Using different textures and indirect lighting can add warmth, while the overall look remains modern.
How do you make a big design impact without renovating the entire home?
RLO: Identify strategic locations that will have the most impact. The entry, living and dining rooms and kitchen are the first spaces to start. Within those spaces, focal points such as a staircase, fireplace or cabinets can become
important design features.
Renovation Architecture & Interior Design: Richard Loosle-Ortega, RA, principal; Andrew Baldwin, associate, Kube Architecture, Washington, DC. Lighting Design: Sense Lighting Design, New York, New York. Renovation Contractor: ThinkMakeBuild, Washington, DC.