After nearly 30 years in a traditional Northwest DC home, Barbara and Scott Blake Harris yearned for a more modern, open living experience. “We were very happy with the traditional look,” recalls Barbara Harris, a former lawyer, “and then one day we weren’t.”
The couple’s tastes evolved to the point where they had to make a major change. “We became interested in modern architecture, modern furniture, and in clean, bright, open spaces,” Scott, the chairman of a law firm, explains.
They considered buying a modern house or vacant lot, but didn’t find anything appealing enough to induce them to move; moreover, though they wanted a different type of house, they loved the established neighborhood off Massachusetts Avenue where they had raised their children and made close friends.
The idea of renovating their existing home began to take form when Scott bought a two-hour consultation with modernist architect Travis Price as an anniversary present for Barbara, who had discovered one of his projects while walking near their home. Collaborating with the Harrises, Price was able to transform their classic brick residence into a cutting-edge structure of glass and steel—open, environmentally sustainable and functional.
“Outside, the existing house was stately, inside it was a labyrinth. In a way, we reversed and harmonized it,” explains Price. “There’s a constant play of light, of indoor to outdoor, in the
About 70 percent of the house was demolished, stripped down to the exterior brick walls and foundation; building materials were recycled through Second Chance, Inc., in Baltimore. A new room was added to the basement and the attic was expanded into a third-floor suite.
The renovated house has about 10 percent more square footage than the original, with a setback and proportions that are in line with those of surrounding homes. The façades and interior spaces look and feel profoundly different from their neighbors, however. Price discarded traditional exterior columns, dormers and ornamentation, cladding the red-brick walls in perforated, stainless-steel panels; inserted more and wider window openings; and added multiple outdoor decks, accessed through large sliding-glass doors. A glass walkway juts out from a second-floor deck situated above the front porch, emphasizing the structure’s bold planes.
Price selected perforated exterior steel panels for sustainability and durability, as well as for their luminous quality. The renovation is fully passive solar. In an unexpected nod to the past, some of the original brick walls and traditional windows were preserved in parts of the house, including in the first-floor pantry. A section of brick wall in the basement was enclosed in glass, like a piece of art.
“The whole idea is that there is the future and there is the past and they are talking to each other,” Price observes.
Inside, the traditional layout featuring multiple rooms has been replaced by an open floor plan. A pivoting door of laminated maple with a distinctive perforated design greets visitors, opening into a living room with a two-story ceiling and sightlines that extend through to the dining area and the back of the house; a second-floor bedroom with clear glass walls is also visible. Translucent glass walkways, placed on a north-south axis through the center of the home, provide openness and light, which, says Price, allows the house “to act as a sundial” as the shadows move left to right during the day.
The light shines into the kitchen, with its large box bay window extending into the backyard. Wide white cabinets are topped with counters of honed granite. A spacious pantry is separated from the dining room by a row of glass cabinets. The pantry, along with other areas of the house, has a glass floor panel that brings light to the basement.
The first-floor bathroom, entered through a special door, is characterized by a standing sink and walls of steel and frosted glass. Other interior bathrooms are tiled in honed travertine.
Maple floors and birch plywood ceilings unify the spaces, adding warmth. To enable the couple to age in place, Price incorporated an elevator and a kitchenette in the basement for live-in help. The owners bought modern furniture but kept Oriental rugs and art they’d collected over the years.
The house incorporates a number of the Harrises’ design ideas. For example, near the end of the renovation they chanced to climb a ladder to the third-floor roof, now a flat, accessible surface due to the new construction. There, they discovered spectacular views of National Cathedral and other nearby landmarks. They asked Price to design a large roof deck, accessed via an exterior spiral staircase painted in bold teal.
The Harrises are comfortable in their now-modern abode. Abundant natural light and an open floor plan make the house feel larger than it is, while the integration of interior and exterior spaces makes it more functional.
“We find it easier and more enjoyable to entertain with the open floor plan, and we use more of the house more often,” Scott reflects. “We find that we use the outside more often too.”
Renovation Architecture: Travis Price, FAIA, Travis Price Architects, Washington, DC. Builder: Price-Brake Construction, Inc., Washington, DC.